In Touch With His Priorities

Looking back at Joe Gibbs's two stints as coach of the Washington Redskins, from 1981 to 1992 and 2004 to 2007.
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

For Joe Gibbs, unlike so many others in pro sports, life is about moral choices and obligations, not personal preferences and pleasures. Where he's needed most, he goes. So, as stunning and unexpected as his return to the Redskins was four years ago, that's just how shocking his second retirement from the team was yesterday. But the reasons for both were the same.

Gibbs loves the Redskins and his family. Four years ago, the team he took to four Super Bowls was sick and in shambles. He was needed. So he risked his dignity, his Hall of Fame reputation and, as a 63-year-old diabetic, perhaps even his health. But he pulled it off. Barely. Now, after two playoff appearances in three years, Gibbs has restored the dignity and direction of the franchise, if not its former eminence.

If the coach had his choice, now that the hardest Redskins rebuilding work may be done, he'd stick around to see if he could be part of yet another Super Bowl run. That's what he'd love. What a kick. But Gibbs doesn't really have a choice -- not in his own heart and mind, at least -- because he is ruled by conscience. He calls himself "an average man, a phys-ed major -- you know, ballroom dancing and handball -- who has had this incredible life." But it is his example that is an incredible gift to the public and which makes him perhaps the most esteemed figure in Washington sports in the last 50 years.

In leaving, as in returning four years ago, Gibbs showed the best of himself. His family needs him now just as much as the Redskins did four years ago. "My family situation has changed completely," he said yesterday, referring to the leukemia that 3-year-old grandson Taylor is trying to recover from. But, in a more general sense, which Gibbs kept vague, he made it clear that, after meeting with his family in North Carolina after Saturday's playoff loss to Seattle he realized that: "It was like a windstorm of everything that happened [in Charlotte]. . . . I felt like they needed me."

So, that was that.

On Jan. 7, 2004, owner Daniel Snyder signed Gibbs to a contract and returned him to Washington as Redskins coach. The franchise was disoriented and leaderless. With one more spiral downward, despite all the wealth in the world, the Redskins might be a joke. The team needed him desperately. Though his Joe Gibbs Racing team in NASCAR had left him with no financial needs, although he had a wife, two sons, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren who all coveted his time, he knew where he belonged. So Gibbs came back to one of his two homes -- Washington.

Now the symmetry is complete, if bitter to Redskins fans and, for that matter, players who feel an enormous loss. On Jan. 7, 2008 -- Monday evening -- Gibbs broke the stunning and unexpected news to Snyder that, in the span of less than 24 hours in Charlotte, he had decided, unequivocally, to retire.

To a man, the Redskins, from Snyder to the suicide team wedge buster, were stunned by the news. As recently as Saturday, Gibbs had been, as he put it, "utterly focused" on reaching the Super Bowl, a task that he actually considered plausible, though obviously difficult.

Until 2:30 a.m. yesterday, Snyder tried to persuade Gibbs to accept a two-year contract extension, telling the 67-year-old coach "you're young" and, at one point, to Gibbs's amusement, concocting a scenario in which "he had me still working here up to 93."

"I was going hard," Snyder said sheepishly of his desperate selling style.

But, with hindsight, perhaps no one (including me) should have been caught so completely by surprise by Gibbs going where something or someone that he loved was sick and needed him. Even if, as has been the case on both January 7ths, some close to him thought he was nuts. Four years ago, when Gibbs first told his wife, Pat, that he was returning to the Redskins, "She said, 'You'll ruin your good name,' " Gibbs recalled. "After we went 5-11 last season, she said, 'You're halfway there.' "

Yet Gibbs's good name now remains intact in the NFL after his team's remarkable December run to the playoffs following the death of Sean Taylor. Gibbs may have done more than heal a team. In four years, he has probably coached up an owner as well.

"I give Joe all the credit, not only for putting us back in the playoffs but for stabilizing a situation that became unstable before, quite frankly," Snyder said. "He's taught me patience -- incredible patience."

At that, Snyder paused. Could just one quality be enough? Did that do Gibbs justice? So Snyder quickly added, "And passion and drive." At this, Gibbs burst out laughing. "You already had those," he said.

Just keep working on the patience. That's where most of the trouble started before Gibbs returned.

How much better off are the Redskins now than they were four years ago? The answer goes far deeper than the improvement from 5-11 under Steve Spurrier in 2003 to two brief playoff appearances. After Snyder's sequence of petulant coaching purges, Gibbs inherited an organization with almost zero cohesion, collective self-esteem or internal trust. Spurrier, the most casual and disengaged of NFL coaches, barely seemed to know all his players' first names, let alone worry about their character or ability to interact and lead. Gibbs rebuilt the team from the inside out, stressing personal qualities almost as much, at times, as raw athletic ability.

Now the Redskins face an enormous test. Will they hold fast to the lessons Gibbs taught them? Will they play as an unselfish group, as they did increasingly under his guidance, or will they splinter, withdraw from each other and revert to the easy cynicism and selfishness that tempts every pro athlete?

"I have mixed feelings," said Gibbs of his decision. "When I came back, the team was struggling some. Now, I feel much better about where it is. The players' attitude and character now -- it bodes well for the future. I don't want to lay anything on the next coach. [But] brighter days are ahead.

"A lot of the pieces are in place on this team. I want to see it finished. I want to be part of seeing that [Super Bowl] come to fruition. If things go our way, we have a real chance."

Gibbs even admitted that he felt he had left his players in the lurch by not fulfilling the fifth year of his contract. "This is one of the few times in my life when I haven't finished what I started. But I know why I'm going, where I'm going and who I'm doing it for."

That might normally be the final note of a historic day. But the other man on the stage with Gibbs throughout a long news conference was also fascinating -- Snyder, who at times almost seemed stricken by the loss. Yet his responses to every question rang so much truer than at past coach-hire, coach-fire news conferences that the influence of Gibbs was palpable.

"This is something none of us wanted to see happen but it's something all of us respect and understand," Snyder said. "[Joe and I] have a lifelong friendship now. What better person for me to turn to for advice and counsel?

"He'll always be our coach, my coach. . . . Joe will always be the best of Washington."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company