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Good Owner, Good Coach, Good Team

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
March 7, 1993

Five years ago, at a time when the mere thought of signing a free agent was an almost unspeakable taboo in the NFL, Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs saw one they liked. They coveted him. They thought they could build a defense around a young, multi-talented linebacker named Wilber Marshall. But it would be costly under the prohibitive rules of the day. The Washington Redskins would have to give the Chicago Bears two first-round draft choices. The general manager and coach called Jack Kent Cooke, who said forget it.

Gibbs and Beathard went about their other business, but they couldn't shake thoughts of Marshall. They asked Cooke again. He said no again. But there had been so much history, seven years' worth. If Gibbs and/or Beathard wanted, really desperately wanted something or somebody, they knew Cooke would come through, even if it took some prodding, going back hat in hand. Cooke was on the West Coast, and Gibbs/Beathard decided to give it one more try. Cooke said something to the effect of, "I think giving up two first-round draft picks is ludicrous, my dear boys, but if that's what you want to do, if you really think this will help us, go right ahead."

Such was the relationship between Cooke and Gibbs. When Cooke said, "this is not a very happy day for me, it's a day I thought I would never see come in my lifetime," you knew he wasn't searching for kind words for an outgoing employee. Relationships such as theirs are rare in football, in all of sports, really. "Never a cross word between us, not even at contract time," Cooke said. "Not a murmur, not a whisper of discontent ... "

To Cooke, Gibbs was "like a son ... My dear Joe." To Gibbs, Cooke was "Mr. Cooke." You wonder if Gibbs, even in the most private moment ever used the word, "Jack." Probably not. Cooke said he knew about 30 minutes into his first conversation with Gibbs, 12 years ago during their initial meeting in New York, that Gibbs was the man to run his club. Gibbs didn't, probably couldn't, stop trying to earn the respect he'd already won over the next decade. While Cooke admired Beathard's brilliance at all matters of football, and wisely so, Gibbs grew close to his heart, an organ some would say they'd never previously thought evident.

When people around football figured Cooke would never pay two quarterbacks $1 million each, Cooke told Gibbs it was okay to keep Doug Williams and Jay Schroeder, which probably no other owner would have done. When Gibbs said he needed a feature running back four years ago, Cooke gave the okay and Beathard brought in Gerald Riggs (for a first- and second-round draft pick) and traded for Earnest Byner. If Gibbs wanted to keep Kelvin Bryant on the roster for another year at $700,000, then "By all means, My Dear Joe, if you think it will help the team."

This is why Richie Petitbon is better off here than with Chicago, and he knows it. The Bears ran Jay Hilgenberg, a perennial all-pro center, out of town over what amounted to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Petitbon won't have the relationship with Cooke that Gibbs did -- even Cooke said such a relationship never previously existed in his long ownership life -- but the residue from Cooke-Gibbs is likely to produce a healthier environment for a coach than whatever he'd have gotten in Chicago under Mike McCaskey.

It's an environment Joe Bugel would know absolutely nothing about in Phoenix, where his owner Bill Bidwill, has turned two cities against him through utter incompetence. "Buges", a really good assistant, jumped at the first head coaching opportunity, and look what happened.

It's no coincidence that the San Francisco 49ers and Redskins led the way in the 80s. The only relationship on par with Cooke-Gibbs in the NFL during that period was Eddie DeBartolo-Bill Walsh. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Gibbs and Walsh offspring in the coming years. Dennis Green and Mike Holmgren have had quick, almost overwhelming success in Minneapolis and Green Bay, but what happens when each tries to ascend to the next step and goes to the owner for something big, really big?

Gibbs was very candid during Friday's resignation speech when asked about the possibility he might come back to coach one day. He said if he found in a couple of years, after spending time with his family and letting his mind/body recuperate, that he missed coaching, he would consider coming back. That's beyond candid, it's forthcoming. Of course, Gibbs will miss coaching. His demeanor is such that we don't think of him as being obsessively competitive, but that's exactly what he is. He's 52, two years younger than Petitbon. Of course he'll want to come back.

Having said all that, it will be extremely difficult, maybe impossible, unless some young Mr. Deep Pockets comes along to own a team and needs a coach on a mission. Cooke, DeBartolo, Jerry Jones, in no certain order, is the short list of men who have the right stuff for Gibbs to return. Can you see Gibbs working for Bob Irsay, the Bidwills, for a guy in Chicago who'd rather let the all-pro center go to Cleveland than up a few more bucks?

Joe Gibbs is lucky and spoiled, and he knows it. When he said he had the best head coaching job in football, it was pretty much on the mark. Beyond George Seifert and Jimmy Johnson, who else can make that claim? Look what Pat Bowlen did to Dan Reeves in Denver, and what McCaskey did to Mike Ditka in Chicago. In the era of free agency, no matter how limiting, owners are giving less control to their coaches, not more. They want a say in who the assistants are. Cooke, by contrast, told Gibbs back in 1981 to name all seven assistants he wanted to hire and there'd be no obstacle to getting them. Gibbs got all seven, which he acknowledges now is virtually impossible to do.

There will be expansion teams, probably in Baltimore and St. Louis, and they will need coaches. Coaches will be fired here and there, and Gibbs's phone will ring. The guess here is, there're only so many Saturdays he'll be able to sit in the stands being a pop. He'll want to scratch the itch. But he'll wonder about the man on the other side of the phone. Will he want a say in who the assistants are? Will he allow Gibbs to go after the Wilber Marshall of the day? Will he call with words of encouragement at 0-5? Gibbs will long for a relationship he once had, one that in all probability he will not be able to recreate.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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