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Petitbon: Timing Is Everything

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
March 6, 1993

Suppose Richie Petitbon had been hired to coach the Chicago Bears eight weeks ago, to take the job for which he seemed so perfectly suited, a job he dearly wanted? Suppose he had reported to work Thursday morning at Halas Hall in suburban Chicago and heard the news that his old boss, Joe Gibbs, was abdicating the throne? It crossed Petitbon's mind at least once on his first full day as head coach of the Redskins, and reminded him that a man should be careful about what he asks for. "Somebody must have been looking after me on that Chicago deal," he said, "because right now, you'd have a suicide on your hands."

Because the Bears hired Dave Wannstedt, a man who isn't yet half as accomplished as Petitbon, the Redskins found themselves on a rather dramatic day simply reaching out to probably the most deserving assistant coach in the NFL. It was a day that seemed to move farther and farther from Petitbon's reach each season. In April, he'll be 55. Asked yesterday if he thought being passed over for the Bears job hurt most because it might have been his last shot, Petitbon said: "Let's face it, time was running out for me."

So you can imagine Petitbon felt pretty special yesterday, to be named head coach after 33 years in the NFL as a player or coach, these last 15 as a Redskins assistant. You can imagine how good he felt about the window of opportunity not closing shut on his fingers before he got a chance. "I feel very, very lucky, very fortunate right now," he said.

Petitbon has every reason to feel that way, taking over a perennial playoff team for a club better suited to do business in these new free agent times than perhaps any in the league, save the San Francisco 49ers. But you know what? The Redskins ought to feel lucky themselves. If some of these owners and general managers were half as enlightened as they think they are, Richie Petitbon would have been gobbled up a long time ago. Instead, he'd go off to an interview every blue moon, the Redskins would hold their breath and Petitbon would come back to his old job.

The Redskins may look back on this day, 10 years from now, and feel that it was pretty important to have depth at a position not listed on the two-deep chart. Just as General Manager Charley Casserly succeeded Bobby Beathard, Petitbon will do all right following the legend -- you watch. Different driver, same steady hand negotiating the same course. Like the 49ers' George Seifert following Bill Walsh. Petitbon undoubtedly will implement his own ideas as he goes, but he's not some egomaniac rubbing his hands together, going through his Rolodex to find run-and-shoot coaches to run the offense.

"We've been very successful, I see no reason to change. Personally, I'm going to stay with the defense because that's what I know best, that's what I'm comfortable with," he said. When Mark Rypien calls time and comes to the sideline for help on a critical play, he'll be going to talk to the offensive coaches, Petitbon said. He'll do just fine because the men on the sideline and in the booth will be the same ones he's worked with for years under Gibbs. He'll do just fine because he probably will have the same effect on offensive players and special teamers that he's had on the defense. Even those veterans who don't get excited easily love playing for Petitbon, a hard-nosed guy who's got this red-hot flame, always burning low and under control.

"He should have been a coach long time ago. Thank God 'Bone' didn't get the Chicago job," Eric Williams, the Redskins defensive tackle said. "Bone still has those competitive juices, I know he wants to get out there and hit somebody even now. I love playing for him. He's old-school, but with modern-day twists. I know this: For people trying to make up their minds if they want to play here, if you're borderline, having Bone here is like a $100,000 difference."

Petitbon will do just fine because all the support systems that were in place for Gibbs presumably will be in operation for him too. "There are so many teams in this league that have absolutely no chance to win because of their ownership," he said.

That was just one of the times during his first day on the job that Petitbon flashed the bluntness, the brutal honesty that is so characteristic of him. It's that sometimes startling frankness that some people, including owners and general managers, have found a little discomforting. Put it this way: It's not the best interview technique ever devised. "He certainly doesn't beat around the bush," Williams said. "It takes people some getting used to, but it's one of the characteristics I really like about him."

Though the nuts and bolts of football may be the same, Petitbon and Gibbs are dissimilar. When somebody asked during yesterday's news conference whether he might consider Sonny Jurgensen as a coaching candidate -- a question Gibbs would have deftly danced around -- Petitbon called it "very unrealistic." Asked about Rypien's season, Petitbon said: "Rip did not have a good year ... lots of problems. If Rip comes back, no problem. Guys can have bad years."

Petitbon is now what he's always been. "Blunt and honest," he said. "Through it all, I had to be myself. I never wanted to prostitute myself or be someone else to get a job, if that's what it took."

Petitbon said yesterday he's been interested in only three jobs. "New Orleans {in 1985} because I was born there. Chicago, because I played there and I love Chicago. And here. I love this town. That's it."

New Orleans hired Jim Mora; the Bears, Wannstedt. Petitbon returned to work each time saying he had a great job, working for the best organization in football. But any man who's as competitive as Petitbon, any man who's good enough to intercept a pass in the end zone as he did to win the '63 championship for the Bears, any man who's designed the defense for three Super Bowl champions, any man who's quietly waited his turn even when it looked as if his turn wasn't coming, wants the chance to stand or fall on his own. Richie Petitbon earned that chance long time ago. He's just now getting it.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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