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For Gibbs, a Last Testament to Greatness

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 27, 1996

CANTON, Ohio, July 26—This week as he polished his speech for Saturday’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Joe Gibbs recalled that the Bible is "filled with stories of ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things with the help of the Lord."

"That," Gibbs said, "is kind of how I see myself. The Lord put me in circumstances that allowed me to succeed."

So as dozens of his family and friends gather to celebrate his remarkable career as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Gibbs will use the moment to thank the people who assisted him and stood beside him during 12 seasons when his teams went to the playoffs eight times and won three Super Bowls.

"I think all of us now appreciate what we had there," he said. "A player gets into the Hall of Fame because he makes a bunch of individual plays. He’s great at individual things. A coach reflects everything that happened during your time there."

Gibbs said he hasn’t forgotten that former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard gave him a chance to be a head coach or that team owner Jack Kent Cooke provided virtually endless resources as well as support through good times and bad. And there’s a long list of assistant coaches and players.

"The most fun in coaching was the personalities of the assistant coach and players, all of us almost living together for six months and trying to build something," Gibbs said. "Those are the things you remember as great."

The Redskins may never have another era like it. In Beathard, they had perhaps the NFL’s greatest personnel man in history feeding players for eight seasons to one of the best coaches. Gibbs and Beathard got the Redskins to the Super Bowl in their second season together and had them in contention virtually every year until their relationship came apart in 1989.

Beathard resigned that spring, took a year off and then became general manager of the San Diego Chargers. He’ll be in Tokyo with the Chargers on Saturday, but said part of his heart will be with Gibbs.

"I love the guy," Beathard said. "I have so much respect for him. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a relationship with a head coach. There were times we had differences near the end, but those two positions are always going to have disagreements. You look back at the differences, and the team turned out the better for it. When we talk on the phone now, we start telling stories and laughing."

Beathard convinced Cooke to hire Gibbs, a relatively unknown assistant coach in San Diego, when Cooke’s first inclination had been to hire a bigger name. After Cooke met Gibbs, he agreed with Beathard’s assessment and now calls him "the best bloody coach in the history of the National Football League." Likewise, Redskins President John Cooke said Gibbs "stands for everything we want the Redskins to stand for."

"I can’t imagine him not being successful," Beathard said. "He could go into any area and have the same results. He’s a driven guy. I also think his sense of humor really saved us at times. Had we not had those fun moments. . . . I don’t know how you could have gotten through it otherwise.

"He has a great way with players. He knows what players want. He’s a guy I call a player’s coach. There’s a good kind of player’s coach and the bad kind. A bad one is loved by players because he lets them get away with everything. They don’t last long. Joe is very demanding and organized. He wouldn’t put up with mistakes. At the same time, he has a real sense of when players need a pat on the back or a kick in the butt. Once we started winning, the players bought into the system and that pretty much carried through the entire time we were together."

Gibbs had wanted to be introduced by sons J.D. and Coy, but when the Hall of Fame insisted he pick just one person, he asked Don Coryell, who coached him at San Diego State and taught him a lot of what he knows about the game.

Still, the day will be about Joe Gibbs and the four other inductees—defensive back Mel Renfro, offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, wide receiver Charlie Joiner and two-way lineman Lou Creekmur.

For fans who thought head coaches had to look like Bear Bryant or scream like Vince Lombardi, Gibbs was different. He was a stocky former San Diego State tight end who didn’t drink, smoke or curse. His only reading outside of the newspaper sports sections was the Bible. When he attempted to scream, his voice had a touch of squeak to it.

And he dealt with players differently. He once began the review of a defeat by telling his team: "Now, the coaches totally screwed this up." He replayed a play that went sour once by telling players: "That was a bad design on our part."

He also could be tough. He once summoned his players off the field, accused them of being gutless and threatened to cut them all during a slump in 1990. He punched out a projector at the 1983 Super Bowl and trashed a tray of oranges during a 1989 halftime tirade in Philadelphia.

He praised players in public and criticized them in private. After each victory, the Redskins held small awards ceremonies, in which players could win anything from a makeshift trophy to a premium parking place.

"Those things were important because players want to be recognized in front of their peers," Gibbs said. "There are a lot of different ways of doing this. There’s no one formula that goes into being a good coach. Tom Landry didn’t get close to players. He was a technical guy with a lot of creative offensive things, creative defense. His approach was more, ‘If you do this, we’re going to win. Do your job.’ You see other guys who were more emotional in dealing with players on one-to-one basis. There was Bill Parcells playing little con games getting them up. He’d tell Lawrence Taylor, ‘Hey, these guys are making fun of you.’ There are all kinds of games. Chuck Noll was very standoffish—‘Hey, do your job or I’m firing you.’‚"

Gibbs defended his players publicly, but he also fought for them on things such as higher salaries.

"Some of the things seem subtle but they were very well thought out," said Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly, who replaced Beathard in 1989 and helped put together the Super Bowl champions of 1991. "He was an innovative coach and he never stopped trying to improve on what he was doing. His work habits were legendary. He probably hit his second gear about 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock at night."

With Gibbs in charge, the Redskins were 124-60 in the regular season and 16-5 in the playoffs. His .683 winning percentage is the third best in history and he had just one losing season. He’s the only coach to win three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks.

He lives in Charlotte, where he oversees an auto racing empire, gives motivational speeches and is an NFL color analyst for NBC. And, yes, he’s happy and does not see himself coaching again.

"I was telling [his wife] Pat not long ago that this was the happiest I’ve ever been," he said. "That’s probably not fair because I’m sure there have been a lot of times in my life when I’ve been really happy doing a lot of other things. Right now is great because I’ve got my kids with me, I’m trying to build something that’s competitive. I’m also getting to do more things than I’ve ever done."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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