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Surprise, Sadness as Local Fans Long for More

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 6, 1993

The news came as a unique shock in the history of the Washington Redskins football team. What Joe Gibbs yesterday called "the toughest decision of my life," to resign suddenly from the most successful coaching tenure in team history, left an indomitable owner, Jack Kent Cooke, subdued by the end of what he called "a father-son relationship" and prompted players and thousands of Redskins fans to express surprise and sadness.

The 52-year-old Gibbs's decision to step down as Redskins coach came with a suddenness that caused Cooke to acknowledge at a packed news conference at the team's headquarters in Ashburn, Va., that he hadn't "the foggiest notion" one of the most dramatic developments in team history was about to occur. Defensive chief Richie Petitbon was named as Gibbs's successor. The surprise impact of the resignation also heightened feelings of astonishment and disappointment among fans such as Gary Diamond of McLean, who said yesterday on a street in Georgetown: "I'm dejected. I've been a fan for a long time and he's the best coach there is."

Over the decades, the team has been coached by respected football men and even legends -- George Allen, Vince Lombardi and, in the 1950s, Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau. But as renowned as those coaches were, they only dreamed of the success in Washington that Gibbs achieved in 12 seasons -- a team-record 124 regular season victories and three Super Bowl titles, enough to lull some Redskins rooters into thinking the team's finest era could go on indefinitely. Cancer took Lombardi and rifts with ownership ended the careers of Allen and Lambeau; none gave up willingly.

"I guess its time for a change like Bill Clinton says," said Arty Kefalas, who works for a vending machine business. "I feel {Petitbon's} going to do a good job but of course Joe Gibbs is a tough act to follow. Petitbon could be the man to keep it going. Maybe better, who knows?"

Because the resignation was as extraordinary as it was unexpected, it caused widespread, deeply felt emotions beginning at Redskin Park and spreading outward through a community that focuses sharply on this one team.

Gibbs's immediately appointed successor, Petitbon, formerly assistant head coach/defense, said he was "flabbergasted" by the development -- which Petitbon learned about Thursday. At Petitbon's American Grill and Bar in Falls Church, Mike Robinson, a 33-year-old car salesman, said: "I was shocked when I heard it on the radio. You had no warning, no idea. I was figuring he'd come back and shoot for another Super Bowl with the players that he had."

Mark Rypien, the Redskins' quarterback, spoke almost reverently to reporters at Redskin Park of "the Gibbs era," declaring that the departure created "a big void in all our lives." The opinion was shared by fans on the street. "Someone like Joe Gibbs," said Martin Hughes of Washington, "only comes around once in a while."

After watching the news conference on one of four television sets during lunch at Petitbon's restaurant, Doris Ann Rosenfield, of Potomac, said: "It's sad; he's been wonderful. We're thrilled about Petitbon; he's going to make a wonderful coach. I understand, I think, why Gibbs is doing it and I don't blame him at all. I have family and I understand that's important."

Nine-year-old Max Hankin, of Arlington, who was wearing his Redskins jacket in Pizzeria Uno in Georgetown, also was sad to hear of Gibbs's departure.

"I don't like it," he said. "I think he was a good coach. The Redskins won't do as good {without him}, but they'll still do good."

"I thought that eventually he was going to go but I didn't think it would come like this at all," said Larry Grandy of Falls Church. "My dad had season tickets when they were at Griffith Stadium. I've been going to Redskins games since I was old enough to walk. When I heard it, I called my mom and dad, living now in Georgia, and my dad couldn't believe it."

And while most people were surprised by the news, they were quick to offer reasons why Gibbs decided to leave.

"As a coach, he's done all the things that he's probably wanted to and he's just ready to kick back and enjoy life," said Martin Hughes of Washington.

"The Redskins need somebody that wants to win," said Fay Lewis of Washington. "I think he's just tired of coaching."

While Chang Park and Jimmy Hartgrove agreed that Coach Gibbs was probably tired of 12 years of high expectations and pressure, they also felt that Gibbs's interests were leaning elsewhere.

"I think he got into racing too much," said Park, noting that Gibbs liked the taste of winning in this year's Daytona 500.

Not everyone was so surprised at the announcement, however.

"Things like that don't surprise me," said Andrew Eldredge, a bartender at Uno's in Georgetown. "People are resigning all the time."

John Lorzing, selling flowers at 17th and H streets NW, was one of many who expressed a disappointment that Gibbs chose not to continue a pursuit of longevity and further success. "He could have gone a couple more stairs up the staircase as far as winning," Lorzing said. "I'm sorry to see something like that happen."

The airwaves were filled with talk of Gibbs. "He's always rundown after the season, a little more so this season," J.D. Gibbs, in Charlotte, told WTEM radio. George Starke, a former Redskin, told listeners that it would be "kind of hard to imagine" the Redskins without Gibbs.

Kristin Rohr, director of corporate communciations for Guest Services, which owns Petitbon's American Grill and Bar had a vested interest in the day's events. She had already survived the reports earlier this year that Petitbon would leave Washington to coach the Chicago Bears. "We thought {Petitbon} was going to leave. We thought he was going to Chicago. The logo had been developed. Menus had been ordered. Then all of a sudden we heard Richie's going to leave and we were all sweating bullets. ... This is as much new to us as it is to you. We had no prior knowledge."

But the tag line to a commercial for Petitbon's restaurant actually summarized the watershed day with its new, inadvertent meaning: "It's a whole new game in Washington."

Special correspondents Colleen Dumont and Marc Weiszer contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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