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Gibbs Leaves the Redskins in Petitbon's Hands

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 6, 1993

One day early last football season, Joe Gibbs, who resigned yesterday as coach of the Washington Redskins, picked up the telephone and made his regular nightly call to Palo Alto, Calif., where son Coy was beginning his sophomore year at Stanford University. That night, he detected a strange, depressed tone in his son's voice. Father pressed son and son said there was no problem. Father pressed again and son ducked the subject again.

Finally, after some more prodding, Coy Gibbs began to talk to his father. He told him his football career wasn't going well. He told him the knee he'd injured the previous spring was still hurting. He told him he was a little bit homesick and a little bit unhappy and that he wasn't sure he wanted to keep playing college football -- at least not for a while.

Gibbs and his wife, Pat, talked to their youngest son for an hour that night, listening to his problems, gently making suggestions and finally telling him to spend a night thinking about things before discussing it again the next day.

Gibbs hung up the telephone, turned to his wife and said: "I hate having my kids so far away. This is not right. We should be there with him."

And Joe Jackson Gibbs began to cry.

"In a game with a lot of liars and cheaters and crooks, he was different," defensive tackle Eric Williams said yesterday after learning that Gibbs had resigned and been replaced by his longtime assistant, Richie Petitbon {see story Page A1}. "He was a shining star. He was honest. He was tough, but honest. He was brilliant at what he did. You couldn't ask for more of a coach or a human being."

Gibbs leaves Petitbon a legacy that includes winning 140 games (the 10th-highest total in NFL history), three Super Bowls and making the playoffs eight times in 12 seasons. His .762 (16-5) postseason winning percentage is the third-best mark in league history among coaches with 100 or more career victories.

He was at times complex, as in those days when he would walk into the press room at Redskin Park and out of the blue say: "I think I ought to be doing more for people. I could be doing more with this job." In rough times, he almost always made jokes about the futility of coaching football. At other times, he talked endlessly about the joys of watching plans work, of trying to come up with another way to beat a Bill Parcells or a Buddy Ryan or block a Lawrence Taylor.

He could also be amazingly simple. When Oliver North visited Redskin Park at the height of the Iran-contra affair, he admitted he had no idea who the man was. When someone asked about celebrity biographer Kitty Kelly, he smiled and asked: "Is this one of those Oliver North questions?"

Yet it was family and not having more time for the crossword puzzles that kept tugging at him. Gibbs remembered that telephone conversation with Coy Gibbs yesterday as he described the variety of reasons that prompted him to give up a job that paid him about $1.3 million a year. He admitted he wasn't financially independent, that he would eventually have to find another job and that he was taking "an act of faith ... And it's kind of scary."

But in recent years, as he has told friends many such stories about the pain of separation of his family, some of them weren't surprised by his resignation. Before the 1991 season, he said it might be the most important of his life because it would be the first with both his sons out of the house. His oldest son, J.D., was a senior at William and Mary, and Coy was a freshman at Stanford.

Gibbs also was worried because with him working 100-hour weeks and spending three nights a week at Redskin Park, Pat Gibbs would be left home alone for long stretches.

But the Redskins sailed through a 17-2 season, Gibbs won his third Super Bowl and there were no problems. When that season ended, Gibbs and his family had their usual postseason retreat in which they unanimously agreed he should return for a 12th season.

He felt confident enough about his future to sign a three-year contract extension last summer, but even before the Redskins began to suffer a string of injuries, Gibbs had suffered a bad one. Son Coy had torn up a knee in the Stanford spring football practice and was on the mend far away from his family.

Gibbs began to talk more and more frequently about the pain of that separation last fall and in one emotional conversation, encouraged a reporter "to spend all the time you can with your family. Don't give that up because you can't ever get it back." He then described a night when he went into Coy's bedroom for a nighttime conversation. When he bent over to kiss his son, "I felt his beard for the first time," he said. "I looked down there and this was a grown man. He was 6 foot and 200 pounds. He wasn't my little boy anymore and I'd missed too much of that."

Friends said he'd been profoundly affected by the death of sportscaster Glenn Brenner last year. Gibbs had often spoken about getting away from the game for at least a while and said Brenner's death reminded him that his own time on earth was limited. He had often joked about leaving football, but could never bring himself to do it.

A decade ago, he found himself about $1 million in debt because of a string of bad investments and was several years getting out of that. And in recent years, he'd turned more and more of the offseason operation of the Redskins over to team president John Cooke and General Manager Charley Casserly as he needed more time to recharge his battery. Then a year ago, he fulfilled a boyhood dream by forming his own NASCAR auto racing team.

Still, until yesterday, he could not take the final step toward retirement. He said getting in shape to run a marathon, which he had been threatening to do for years, would now be one of his highest priorities and he and J.D. and Coy have vowed to run one in 1994. He knew coaching football wouldn't allow him enough time.

As recently as a few weeks ago, he told a friend: "I won't quit. This thing is like an addiction. You suffer through the highs and lows, but when you leave it, you find you can't do without it. I'm afraid I'd miss it so much. ... It's one of the few things you can do where at the end of every week you know what kind of job you've done. I like the competition and I like working with people. It is people. I love working with people, and I think that's what I'm good at."

He added: "I feel the Lord led me here and He'll tell me when it's time to move on."

Obviously, in the past few weeks, Gibbs turned in that direction. Gibbs underwent a battery of tests after feeling bad at the end of the season, but said that in that period, he had time to assess his life.

Gibbs said yesterday he thought of the next few years "as a window of opportunity with my family" and that Brenner and others had taught him not to pass up opportunities.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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