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Season finale could mark end of the line for Bugel

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010; D01

Only when Joe Bugel walks alone, as he does so often after Washington Redskins practice, do his players see any sign of his 69 years in his face, in his body. They don't think of his age when he is doing pushups as they head back to the locker room. They don't think about it when he is spewing invective in their faces, downgrading their masculinity, reminding them he has spent 32 years in the NFL. And they don't consider it when he is talking about how much he loves them, when he is preaching, as veteran guard Randy Thomas said, "passion, loyalty and friends."

"He's got 10 more years in this game, man," Thomas said.

That is not likely the case. Last month, the Redskins began what could be a monumental transition by hiring Bruce Allen to be their general manager. It's all but certain that Coach Jim Zorn will be replaced sometime after Sunday's season finale at San Diego. And the shakeup will trickle down to the coaching staff, to Bugel, who serves as the Redskins' offensive line coach but has done just about everything during his tenure in the league.

On Friday morning, Bugel was there with the Redskins, wearing a burgundy ski hat and puffy jacket as the team went through its final practice of the season. Will it be Bugel's final practice -- period?

"Buges is tough to wear out," former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said.

Earlier in the week, Bugel declined to talk about his career or his future, saying he didn't think it was the right time. But whether he decides to coach another season or not -- and most people at Redskins Park believe he will retire -- he has left a mammoth impression on the men he coached, most of whom he has cussed at incessantly, then hugged around the neck.

"He's so passionate -- and loyal, man," veteran guard Derrick Dockery said. "He cares a lot about his guys. He'll do anything for his guys."

Becoming one of Bugel's guys, though, can be a difficult process. When the Redskins were considering whether to bring in guard-center Edwin Williams, a Washington native who played at the University of Maryland, as a college free agent, Bugel worked out Williams and talked to him on the phone a few times.

"He's like, 'Hey, stud,' " Williams said. "And I've known about Buges, because I've always been a [Redskins] fan. And I'm like, 'Oh, my God, man, he's calling me stud and horse. He must love me.' I felt so comfortable coming here.

"Then I got here, and I found out he calls everyone 'stud' and 'horse.' And I'm like, okay, maybe I'm not special."

Williams, just like basically every other Bugel pupil, would later be called other names.

"I could tell you," center Casey Rabach said, "but it'd be all bleeps. I mean, he loves to use the F-word a lot."

There's more, of course, but cover your eyes and plug your ears.

"He's never politically correct," Rabach said. "Never."

Bugel grew up in Pittsburgh, played guard and linebacker at Western Kentucky, began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1964 -- seven years before the oldest current Redskin, long snapper Ethan Albright, was born -- and continued in college coaching with stops at Navy (1969-72), Iowa State (1973) and Ohio State (1974). In 1975, he joined the staff of new Detroit Lions coach Rick Forzano. His glory days were with the Redskins from 1981 to '89, during which time he won two Super Bowls, and that helped him become the head coach of the then-Phoenix Cardinals. That four-year stint didn't yield a winning season, but he got another chance with the Raiders in 1997 (4-12), and he stayed in the NFL until 2001, his last year coaching the offensive line for the San Diego Chargers. Then he seemingly retired.

But when Gibbs got the band back together and returned to the Redskins in 2004, he brought Bugel with him. And when Zorn took over for the 2008 season, Bugel stayed. This season, he began with a line that was supposed to be solid -- Chris Samuels at left tackle, Dockery at left guard, Rabach at center, Thomas at right guard and Stephon Heyer at right tackle. He ends the season, and perhaps his career, having used five starters at right guard, 11 offensive linemen at one point or another, juggling 300-pound men like small rubber balls.

"He inspires all of us to look at the situation to see what it is, and then do his best to get those guys ready," Zorn said. "He is all over the situation -- in aggressive coaching, in patting those guys on the back when they need it, and being in their face. He's trying to prepare them for the violence of this game, and I think he does a good job with it. He's using all of his experience, all of his talent to get them ready."

That approach can be tough for some to adjust to.

"It's a little challenging at first," reserve tackle William Robinson said. "He's demanding."

And that means not everyone embraces him immediately.

"We had some guys that you think they'd be amazing the way they look, the body type and all that type of stuff," Rabach said. "You think they'd be an amazing athlete, but they're just not a tough guy. And that's definitely not what Buges wants. He'll ride 'em and ride 'em until he either becomes that tough guy -- or he quits."

If there were ever a time before this when Bugel might have been excused for quitting, it would have been during the 2008 training camp, when one of his three daughters, 36-year-old Holly, died after a battle with bone cancer. In the weeks after Holly's death, Bugel's players said, the coach's passion for fostering loyalty in his group came out.

"We obviously had some heart-to-hearts," Rabach said. "Tears were shared between us all. But he kept persevering. He was a lot stronger than I think I would be in that situation. He coached right through it."

On Sunday, Bugel will coach through one more game with the Redskins. Next week, after Zorn's future is sorted out, Bugel's might be, too.

"I'll just remember his love for the game, the emotion he showed, and his love for his guys," Thomas said. "It hasn't changed at all. He's so intense. He's only getting younger, because he never loses a step. . . . Is he 70? I thought he was 50-something."

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