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Luckily, Coming Up Short

By Tom Callahan
Special to The Washington Post
March 7, 1993

Vince Lombardi always said he loved Frank Gifford like a son, but Lombardi never mentioned love around his real son, who had to be coaxed to Vince's deathbed for a fitful reconciliation, a desperate last attempt with time running out, a "Hail Mary" in the vernacular of football coaches. The pass was completed, at least in a way. But it wasn't exactly complete.

"Football must be some game," muttered one of Sid Gillman's adult daughters, "if he needs it so much he can leave four children and seven grandchildren." Gillman had to admit: "Football is a profound infatuation to some men. It means so much your wife is jealous."

Your wife is hurt. Your wife is angry. Your wife is gone. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Jimmy Johnson and his mate of a quarter-century put each other on the waiver wire just before the Dallas Cowboys really took off, leaving him free to bounce up and down on the sidelines in unfettered glee. This is the industry's current idea of a successful man.

"How does an 11-year-old qualify for a driver's license?" John Madden inquired of his wife one day.

"John," she replied tenderly, "he's 16."

"When the league was out on strike," Carol Vermeil looked back in wonder, "the changing trees, the colors in the fields, amazed Dick {the Philadelphia Eagles coach}. You know, I think he thought all fields were green with white stripes on them."

The Lord did not issue these men whistles so they could lie down in green pastures. "I was totally drained," Bill Walsh said. "Physically, mentally and emotionally, it had taken everything I had. There was nothing left of me. I knelt down for the team prayer, and as I went to get up from one knee, I couldn't. When I made it back to the coaches' room, I broke down, sobbing."

Joe Gibbs came up short of all that, but just short. A football coach with perspective must be among the unlikeliest sights in creation, an oxymoronic concept right up there with jumbo shrimp, military intelligence and television journalist. But there he was Friday for all to see: a football coach not on his deathbed who just wanted to be a dad. Amazing.

Putting Gibbs in perspective isn't easy. Contrary to the exaggerations of the moment in a town that overamplifies its football team, Gibbs will never spring to mind when the world thinks "Coach." Historically, he isn't a pimple on Knute Rockne or Walter Camp or Alonzo Stagg or Red Blaik or Clark Shaughnessy or Bud Wilkinson or Bear Bryant or Eddie Robinson or Woody Hayes.

When George Halas was mentioned Friday to Gibbs's successor, the old Bear Richie Petitbon, Petitbon called Halas "the toughest man I've ever been around in my life" and apologized for nearly breaking into a reverie of Halas stories. There will be no reveries for Gibbs.

He wasn't Halas. He wasn't Lombardi. He wasn't Paul Brown or Don Shula. Maybe he fits in there between Tom Landry and Bud Grant, somewhere around Chuck Noll, possibly next to Walsh. (Bill Parcells is hardly worth mentioning.) Much lesser coaches have been far greater legends. Mike Ditka comes to mind. Gibbs was practically anti-legend. He was a baseball cap on the sidelines, screwed all the way down to the eyebrows. He was a pair of spectacles with an earmuff on the side.

Across the country, Gibbs has been held in polite esteem, popularly referred to without purpose or passion as the best teacher in the National Football League. Winning three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks is pretty strong.

At the top of his game, Gibbs was as twisted as most coaches, staying up all night redrawing draw plays, burning the office oil mostly because he knew the lights would be on in Dallas and Philadelphia too, missing the essential wisdom of former U.S. senator and Redskins degenerate Eugene McCarthy, who declared for all time, "You have to be smart enough to understand football, and dumb enough to think it's important."

Gibbs was what is known in the business as "a God guy," who somehow avoided the classic pitfall of the athletically devout. (When God guys lose, they have a debilitating tendency to think it's God's will.) Gibbs's fellow Christian, Art Monk, was here when Joe arrived 12 years ago, and in a manner of speaking is still here. However, by the nub of last season, Monk's catch-a-game streak had deteriorated into a cliffhanger. Monk was the regal figure of the Gibbs era, the gyroscope of the team. His coming departure may rival the coach's for significance.

Redskin Park throbbed with temporal concerns Friday. Saying he didn't expect this day to come "in my lifetime," owner Jack Kent Cooke acknowledged his finite nature at last. A 52-year-old coach who is invisibly rundown was replaced with a 54-year-old coach with a boiler on him like a pregnant sportswriter. Petitbon's hair, what there is of it, is already as white as cotton. If Richie ages on the job, even Stephen King will have to look away.

"I got to live a dream," Gibbs said, leaving the nightmares behind. People may not think of him when they think of coach, but they'll think of decency when they think of him. He ended up in the noble way you might have expected once you learned to expect it.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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