What does it mean that a coach, and not a player, was named as the greatest sports figure in D.C. history in a recent Post poll? The results certainly weren’t overwhelming: Joe Gibbs was chosen by a whopping 9 percent of those responding; “no opinion” got an impressive 31 percent.
The question came at the end of a telephone survey and those being interviewed weren’t given a laundry list of candidates, so you’d expect the answers to be all over the map, and I’m sure more than a few slapped their foreheads an hour later and said, “Why didn’t I say [fill in the blank]?”
Does it say something about Washington that the person who garnered the most responses was a coach, not an athlete? Perhaps. I hate to make broad generalizations based on one poll. I know that when I moved here in 1993, Gibbs was gone but “Coach Joe” was still the name on everyone’s lips. Everyone I met had a Coach Joe story (Richard Justice had thousands), everyone could do a Coach Joe impression, everyone longed for Coach Joe to return. When he did in 2004, I went to Redskins Park just to see the spectacle. It was clear he was beloved in this town, based on the way a room full of grizzled reporters wept and rent their garments.
(His second tenure didn’t go nearly as well as his first, yet it didn’t seem to make a dent in his popularity. That’s an impressive feat.)
To put it another way: Would Chuck Noll come out atop such a poll in Pittsburgh? Probably not, and he won one more Super Bowl than Gibbs.
When The Post’s poll results were first presented, I wrote that I didn’t buy the accepted belief about this area: that it was full of transients and therefore had no shared history. There are native Washingtonians, I said. Maybe the survey failed to find them.
Or maybe I’m wrong. I am not sure how else to explain how Sammy Baugh and Walter Johnson fared so poorly in this poll (or how Dan Steinberg and I are in agreement about something).
There is a famous photo of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth – and Johnson. It is impossible to have a greater honor in the game than that one. He is one of the five immortals, yet he is lightly regarded in Washington, where he spent his entire big league career and won a world title.
And Baugh? All he did was play three positions – quarterback, defensive back and punter – and revolutionized the game of football. Do you enjoy the forward pass? Say a little thank you to Sammy Baugh, who integrated it into the offense – hence the nickname “Slingin’ Sammy.” He, too, spent his entire playing career with the Redskins, and he also was a charter member of his sport’s Hall of Fame.
These were giants of their sports. Sure, the game was different, the balls were different, the equipment was different, the fields were different, the rules were different. Doesn’t matter. Baugh and Johnson are legends. I’ve only lived here 18 years, and even I know that.
Gibbs is a legend, too. I’m not saying he is neither worthy nor deserving of any honor he receives, including this one. I just wonder what it says about Washington as a sports town that it is more impressed by X’s and O’s than the guys who execute them.