Sipping an unsweetened iced tea and tripping down memory lane,
Joe Gibbs speaks in the sanguine tones of a man who is back
where he belongs. Eleven years after he quit the NFL and two
months after the Washington Redskins made the stunning
announcement that they had talked him into returning as their
coach, Gibbs is sitting at a small table at Morton's steak
house in Reston, Va., regaling an audience, including longtime
coaching cronies Don Breaux and Joe Bugel, with colorful tales
of his football past. Already on this brisk March night Gibbs
has masterfully evoked images of John Madden's staged tantrums
at San Diego State, Bill Peterson's daunting forays onto the
Florida State practice field in a white Cadillac and John
McKay's sarcasm during his choppy times with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers. Breaux and Bugel have heard these anecdotes many
times, yet they are rapt listeners. That's largely because
Gibbs is a natural storyteller--he accentuates dramatic turns
with hand gestures, pauses for effect and sprinkles in spot-on
impersonations of his protagonists--and also because they are
thrilled to be back in his company.
This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue
"What about the time with McKay on the airplane?" Bugel asks.
"Tell us about that one, Joe."
Gibbs lets out one of those giddy giggles that belies his stature
as one of the greatest football coaches of his era, then gladly
obliges. "It's 1978, and I'm with the Buccaneers as McKay's
offensive coordinator," he says. "On the first row of the team
plane there was a placard with my name on it on the seat right
next to his so we could go over the play calls. So we're in New
York playing the Giants, and we're up by 11 in the fourth quarter
and driving. On a third down I call a hitch pass to our tight
end, [Jim] Obradovich, and he's wide open. But Doug Williams, for
some reason, winds up and throws that sucker as hard as he
can"--Gibbs cocks his arm and thrusts it forward
emphatically--"and the ball bounces off Obradovich, and
[linebacker Harry] Carson intercepts it and runs it down to the
25, and the Giants come back to win the game.
"Well, McKay doesn't say a word to me afterward, and when I board
the plane to go home, I see another assistant, Phil Krueger,
sitting in my seat. He shrugs, and I look down and spot my name
tag lying on the floor. McKay had ripped it off the seat and
thrown it in disgust! So now I have to go sit with the players.
It was the most embarrassing moment of my coaching career."
Ever willing to provide a punch line at his own expense, Gibbs, a
Hall of Famer who during his first stint with the Redskins, from
1981 through '92, won three Super Bowls and nearly 70% of his NFL
games, lets out another high-pitched giggle. "You know," he says,
"I could be in for a few more of those moments this fall."
Go ahead, call him crazy. The 63-year-old Gibbs won't disagree.
"When my wife and I finally decided to do this," he says of
returning to Washington, "she goes, 'Oh, my gosh! There's no way
it can work out right again!' Big risk, man. Big risk. We're
trying to do something that is almost impossible, and I guess
that's part of the fun."
Gibbs is attempting an unprecedented feat in U.S. major
professional sports: returning after a prolonged absence to a
franchise with which he is closely identified and restoring its
championship luster. It's not such a wacky notion when you
consider that, since he left Washington, Gibbs's aura of
invincibility has grown with the success he had as a NASCAR team
owner, his drivers winning two of the past four series
championships. In the meantime the Redskins have made only one
playoff appearance while compiling a 75-102-1 record, culminating
with the wreckage of a 5-11 season in 2003 that was followed by
coach Steve Spurrier's resignation. With his stock declining as
fast as Howard Dean's soon would, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder
put up a Hail Mary, offering Gibbs a reported five-year, $28.5
Among the added enticements for Gibbs was the chance to get his
band back together, assembling a staff that includes old friends
and former assistants Breaux (offensive coordinator), Bugel
(offensive line), Rennie Simmons (tight ends) and Ernie Zampese
(offensive consultant). Referring to the Clint Eastwood film from
a few years ago, the oldest of Gibbs's two sons, J.D., who now
runs Joe Gibbs Racing, says, "I was up there to visit recently,
and it's just funny to see the Space Cowboys back at it."
More than a quarter century removed from his ignominious
banishment from first class on the Bucs' plane, Gibbs (140-65 in
12 years with the Skins, including 16-5 in the postseason and 3-1
in the Super Bowl) has earned the right to travel in style. On
Jan. 6, after accepting Snyder's offer but before word of his
return had gotten out, Gibbs boarded Snyder's private
jet--Redskins One--and flew to a small airport outside Buffalo.
Waiting for him on the tarmac was Gregg Williams, the recently
fired coach of the Bills. An accomplished defensive coordinator
earlier in his career, the 45-year-old Williams was being wooed
by six NFL teams for that role, but the chance to work for Gibbs
"It was eight below zero," Williams recalls, "and I'm standing
there with my hood pulled over my head, trying not to be noticed
because Joe's return was still a secret. Then here comes this
Redskins' jet, and Joe gets out wearing only a suit jacket and
starts waving and screaming, 'Hey, Gregg!'" It was 11 p.m. when
the two men arrived at Williams's home, and Gibbs spent the next
4 1/2 hours selling Williams on the coordinator job. Then Gibbs
asked, "What's it going to take to get you?" Williams outlined
his terms, including an annual salary (reportedly $1.8 million)
that would make him one of the NFL's highest-paid assistants.
"Is that all?" Gibbs asked. Williams nodded. "Congratulations,"
Gibbs said, reaching out to shake hands. "You're a Redskin."
Despite his reputation as an enfant terrible, Snyder has
apparently given Gibbs full reign with no intention of
interfering. "I've set it up where I've not only got complete
trust in him, but he's also got all the authority," Snyder
insists. As for suggestions from some that he won't be able to
resist meddling, Snyder retorts, "That's silly. My job is to get
this coach what he asks for and what he needs. I'm just lucky to
In the wake of Spurrier's resignation on Dec. 30, Snyder was
prepared to hire one of three former NFL coaches: Dennis Green,
Ray Rhodes or Jim Fassel, each of whom he would interview over
the following week. Before doing so, however, Snyder flew to
Charlotte to meet with Gibbs, who, to the owner's surprise,
didn't tell him to get the heck out of town. Nor did the real
power broker in the Gibbs household, Joe's wife of 38 years, Pat.
Mindful of her husband's maniacal approach to coaching in the NFL
the first time, she had strongly opposed each of the many
overtures that teams--including the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina
Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars--had made to Joe since he
left the game. Thus, despite having become a minority owner of
the Falcons in 2002, Gibbs figured he was through with meaningful
involvement in football--until last November. That's when his
younger son, Coy, 31, confided that he planned to end his bumpy
ride as a Busch Series driver and pursue a career as a football
"Pops said, 'What, are you crazy?'" Coy recalls. "He spent the
next two hours trying to talk me out of it." Jolted by the
reality that some of his grandchildren would likely be
relocating--Coy and his wife, Heather, have a 19-month-old son
and a month-old daughter, while J.D. and his wife, Melissa, have
three boys and are expecting a fourth child--Gibbs began
experiencing his own coaching pangs. A deeply religious man who
once confirmed he had made the right career decision (jumping
from McKay's Bucs after the '79 season to work for San Diego
Chargers coach Don Coryell) after reading a passage in a Bible
that he found near an airport gate, Gibbs believes his return to
the Redskins was meant to be.
"I kept waiting for the Lord to shut the door on the idea, but
doors kept opening," he says. "I started to get a strong feeling
that I couldn't coach anywhere but Washington, and when Steve
[Spurrier] walked away, that was one more door. I think Pat
understood that if I was going to take a shot, this would
probably be the last chance."
"That my mom agreed to this," says J.D., "was the most amazing
thing of all."
After all, during Joe's first foray into coaching, Pat had taken
the term "football widow" to a new level. Imagine her dismay in
1980 when, after spending a month in the hospital recuperating
from surgery to remove a benign tumor (the left half of her face
was partially paralyzed), Pat returned home to find a miniature
Washington Monument of soiled clothes. "Instead of figuring out
how to do the laundry," Coy recalls, "my dad took my brother and
me to Kmart and bought us new clothes." With a propensity for
spending all night in his office preparing for Sunday's game and
a general obliviousness to the world outside football, Gibbs had
no idea who Ollie North was during the Iran-Contra scandal, nor
had he heard of Madonna in the early '90s.
When he stepped down as Redskins coach in March 1993, just 14
months after his third Super Bowl victory, Gibbs had devolved
into something of a medical mess, and no wonder. "We'd be
watching film late at night," Breaux says, "and without ever
taking his eyes off the projector, he'd grab one of those
half-pound chocolate bars with almonds, rip it open and devour
the thing." Among other things, Gibbs had been diagnosed with
diabetes in 1992. (On a trip to St. Augustine, Fla., in February
to meet with Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell about a possible
trade to Washington, Gibbs walked off his plane and asked Brunell
to drive him to a hospital. He had begun to feel faint after
taking the wrong dosage of his diabetes medication.)
Now the NFL's second-oldest coach, behind the Kansas City Chiefs'
Dick Vermeil--who walked away from the Philadelphia Eagles but
returned to the NFL 15 years later to lead the St. Louis Rams to
a Super Bowl title--Gibbs says he intends to cut back on his
workload. He plans to turn over the defense to Williams and
delegate some of the game-planning to Breaux and Zampese, but
when pressed, he concedes, "I figure it's going to be kind of
like what I did before. There's only one way I know how to do
Sure enough, Gibbs had a shower installed in his office at
Redskin Park and reconfigured the room to accommodate a pullout
sofa. Already, amid a flurry of trades and free-agent signings,
there have been numerous late nights, even all-nighters. To help
complete the trade that sent All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey and
a second-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos for Pro Bowl
running back Clinton Portis, Gibbs, Snyder and vice president of
player personnel Vinny Cerrato had a series of meetings at the
scouting combine with Portis's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, that
stretched past 4 a.m. "He and his coaches are all getting their
cots delivered to their offices," Cerrato says of Gibbs. "Those
guys don't get tired as the night goes on; they get energized."
In truth, the marathon sessions with his assistants, held in a
meeting room that they call the Submarine, may be what Gibbs
missed most about coaching. Though he allows that working on game
plans in separate quarters might increase his staff's efficiency,
he says the communal approach is "more fun." Stories and
strategic wrinkles--and, occasionally, hard objects--are tossed
around with abandon. "We've thrown a few oranges," Gibbs says,
laughing. "We get in a few knock-down-drag-outs."
Adds Bugel, "We like to wear tearaway jerseys. At least, that's
what we said after Joe tore the shirt off Rennie Simmons one
night in the '80s."
Chances are Gibbs won't have to be quite as heavy-handed with his
players. Though he is another generation removed from the last
team he coached, there is no reason to think that Gibbs's candor,
self-deprecating humor and demand for fundamentally sound
football won't be well-received by these Redskins. "We want to be
disciplined," guard Randy Thomas says. "Last year we weren't, and
it showed. Stuff would go on that made you say, 'Man, I cannot
believe that just happened. Is this the NFL?'"
"Guys on this team are going to walk through fire for him," says
safety Matt Bowen. "Before, those three [Super Bowl] trophies in
the lobby were just something for us to look at; now we
understand they are there because of him. We expect to win
because that's all Coach Gibbs knows--he won in football, and he
won in racing, too."
In NASCAR, Gibbs learned to manage a team from an owner's
perspective, which should make him more tolerant of the
marketing-related distractions that provoked his ire during his
first NFL stint. Gibbs's approach to building a racing team
(hiring two drivers to compete under separate sponsorship
umbrellas with technology and money winnings shared throughout
the organization) helped provide a level of success (40 race wins
in 12 seasons) that exceeded everyone's expectations but his own.
"The thing that amazed me the most about NASCAR was how close it
was to football," he says. "Even the numbers are roughly the
same--a core of about 180--and it mostly comes down to how you
Some have questioned whether Gibbs can thrive in today's NFL,
what with the advent of the salary cap and unfettered free
agency. No longer will he be able to stockpile veterans,
seamlessly cut ties with high-priced disappointments or stash
extra bodies on injured reserve. Certainly, Gibbs has some
catching up to do, but football strategy should be the least of
his worries. Remember, this was a coach who rivaled Bill Walsh in
offensive innovation, bringing the H-back into vogue and
popularizing the bunch formation, in which three wideouts line up
in a cluster within a yard of one another.
"He was so far ahead of people in terms of putting stress on
defenses that you can still see teams like the Rams and the
Chiefs having success with variations of his principles,"
Williams says. "His offense was full of motion and varied
formations, and the things he was doing with maximum protection
and two-man routes in the passing game confounded people. The way
he runs his offense, with the power ground game and avoidance of
turnovers, it's a dream scenario being his defensive
Predictably, there are stories to support Williams's assertion.
"From listening to him talk about the old days," Williams says,
"the only thing he's going to suggest on defense is to come
walking down the sideline during the game screaming, 'Stop 'em!
Until then, for Gibbs and his fellow Space Cowboys, it's all
systems are go.
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"I've set it up where I've not only got complete trust in him,"
says Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, "but he's also got all the
"Before, those trophies were just something for us to look at,"
says Bowen. "Now we understand they are there because of him."