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Gibbs Is Capital Improvement

Coaching legend won three Super Bowls in 12 years. Now he faces great expectations in his return to the Washington Redskins.

August 22, 2004|From Associated Press

ASHBURN, Va. — When Joe Gibbs was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, his wife brought along an unusual keepsake.

It was a 15-year-old videotape, featuring highlights of searing TV punditry from her husband's 0-5 start when he was a rookie head coach with the Washington Redskins.

"She never forgets anything," Joe Gibbs said. "When they played it at the Hall of Fame, the night of the party, guys are going, 'I can't believe they're saying that.'

"I said, 'I can. We were 0-5. I was an idiot."'

No one dares call Gibbs an idiot anymore.

The coach who won three Super Bowls in 12 years is revered in the nation's capital, the leader of a golden era that glowed even brighter in the dozen years of mediocrity that followed his departure in 1992. It was always a wistful pipe dream that he would return, and his stunning decision to do just that has evoked a new level of passion from the team and its fans heading toward this NFL season.

Five thousand people attended the first training camp practice on July 31. Demand for game tickets has spiked incredibly. Even the boxes of media guides delivered by the UPS truck at Redskins Park are adorned with stickers that read "Joe's Back."

"The man's got the Midas touch," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "I don't think you really worry. Even if we start off slow."

No one saw it coming. Gibbs was happy running his successful NASCAR team -- both of his drivers, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, won championships -- and the stock car schedule allowed him more family time than the around-the-clock schedule that burned him out as an NFL coach. He had ruled out a return to coaching so many times nearly everyone stopped asking.

But Dan Snyder asked. In desperate need to halt five years of steady decline, including two laughable years with Steve Spurrier as coach, the owner called on Gibbs at just the right time.

Gibbs' son, Coy, wasn't enjoying the racing circuit and wanted to coach football, which would mean moving away from the family's North Carolina base. Gibbs didn't relish the notion of not seeing his grandchildren regularly, so the thought of returning as a head coach with one of his sons as an assistant helped revitalize those old competitive juices.

Gibbs also recently had been exposed to the game anew with his purchase of a minority stake in the Atlanta Falcons in 2002. His family could see a comeback in his eyes.

"He started taking a real interest in some of those games," said J.D. Gibbs, Joe's oldest son, who remains in North Carolina as head of Joe Gibbs Racing while Coy works with the Redskins. "Normally, he'd watch and just comment here and there. Now he was really studying it, getting into it."

A five-year, $27.5 million contract from Snyder cemented the deal, although Gibbs was getting so excited he just might have worked for free. He explained his decision in a secret meeting with his NASCAR team in January, just before his return became public.

"Everybody should have seen the expression on Joe's face and the way he explained it," Stewart said. "He was like a 6-year-old boy coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to open presents. It was the neatest expression; it was the neatest look."

Since then, Gibbs has immersed himself into relearning the NFL, studying tapes of the league's top offenses and defenses and plotting schemes to counter modern-day blitzes and zones. He had to take a crash course in free agency and the salary cap, which didn't exist during his first stint from 1981-92, but he seemed at ease with both during an offseason haul that included quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Clinton Portis and cornerback Shawn Springs.

Gibbs hired many of his old assistants, including AARP eligibles Joe Bugel, Don Breaux and Jack Burns, and they agree he is the same old Gibbs: a meticulous, demanding perfectionist.

"It's an old shoe," Gibbs said of the familiar names on his staff. "We kind of fell into the thing again. We started arguing right off in the meeting rooms."

Gibbs did promise his wife he would no longer sleep at Redskins Park, as he sometimes did for three or four consecutive nights in the old days. Gibbs is now a 63-year-old diabetic and needs to watch his health. Also, Bugel has often said Gibbs' meetings always went late only because the coaches would spend time telling old stories before finally getting to work.

The promise, however, may not hold. Gibbs has installed a shower and a pullout cot adjacent to his office.

"You have best intentions when you start out," Gibbs said. "The first time we lose a game, that will probably go out the window and go back to the thing we did before. I've never understood how some of those guys can do it. (Former Dallas coach) Tom Landry, it's still a mystery to me. He went home, they told me, at 8 o'clock. He looked refreshed and could have coached for 50 years. I looked like a blocked punt."

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