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Gibbs' Resignation: Several Years in the Making

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 7, 1993

Before he resigned Friday after 12 seasons as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs already had considered quitting. He had mentioned it publicly a few weeks after his father's death in 1989, and through the years had frequently talked to friends about someday getting away from the coaching cubicles at Redskin Park. He talked about it often on those dreary winter afternoons in the 90-minute break he usually took between the end of practice and the beginning of that night's coaching meeting.

It was in those moments -- when he had slept three hours the night before, when he already had worked a 10-hour day and faced another eight hours inside their small meeting room, "the submarine" -- that he could sometimes convince strangers he intended to walk away someday. He would ask reporters about the news of the world. He'd want to know about their families. And sometimes he'd seem melancholy that he believed so much of life was passing him by.

Even when Gibbs, 52, did get away during the season, he wasn't far away. He'd leave Redskin Park -- sometimes for the first time all week -- around 6 o'clock Thursday afternoon and head downtown to tape his weekly television show on WRC-TV. He and wife Pat would dine at the Palm, then he'd drive home and be asleep by 9. He'd be so tired that two hours before most games, he'd lie down on the locker room floor and sleep for 20 minutes.

So it was no great shock to followers of professional football and Joe Gibbs that he walked away from his job Friday, replaced by his longtime defensive head coach, Richie Petitbon. Gibbs said he wanted to "back up and try a different life for a while."

His reasons for resigning include the need to spend more time with his family and concern about his health.

By the end of most seasons, he'd be fighting off exhaustion, thanks to the long hours that included less exercise, more work and a diet heavy on pizza and candy bars.

He spoke in awe of Don Shula and Tom Landry and Chuck Noll, National Football League coaches who seemed to go on forever, aging gracefully and winning frequently. Gibbs always made it clear he would never last that long. He joked about never making it 10 years and when he did, said there was no chance for 20.

He recalled a training camp conversation with Noll in which he asked the legendary coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers about his offseason recreation.

"Well," Noll said, "I've got this boat."

"Hey," Gibbs replied, "that sounds like something great to do when you get away from this."

Noll stared at Gibbs as if the mere suggestion that he'd one day retire was idiotic. "I'll never quit this," he said.

(He was fired after the 1991 season.)

Gibbs retold that story again and again to emphasize how different coaches such as Noll and Shula were from him. Still there was no question he loved most parts of his job. He clearly liked the competition and the game days. He loved the gameplans and the thrill of beating Bill Parcells or Buddy Ryan. Once before a playoff game against Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles, he was asked if playing the Eagles had become something of a one-on-one grudge match against a coach whose personality and coaching style irritated him.

"I live to play a guy like that," he snapped.

He loved his relationships with players and with his assistant coaches, the ones who worked long hours together and developed a camaraderie not unlike that of soldiers who have gone to battle together.

"My brothers in arms," Gibbs called them on Friday.

He also needed the money. Bad investments left him $1 million in debt a decade ago and the climb out has been long and slow.

So tugged by a desire to coach and keep his estimated $1.3 million a year salary on one hand and a desire to have more normality in his life on the other, Gibbs continued to work.

For all the people who saw how much Gibbs loved coaching and how much he needed both the money and the competition, his resignation was a shock. Some of his closest friends have trouble believing he'll be happy away from the occupation that has taken up the last 27 years of his life, including 12 years with the Redskins in which he took the team to four Super Bowls and eight playoff appearances. Those people admit he was tired, that he probably needed a break, but virtually every one of them believe he'll be back. Still, until he began telling friends of his decision Thursday night, they never believed he would quit in the first place.

Several say the roots of this year's exhaustion probably can be traced to last year's offseason. A week after the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI, Gibbs began a grueling offseason when he took care of Redskins business during the week, watched his auto racing team on the weekend and squeezed in speaking engagements and family time.

His idea of fun was flying to Florida for a three-day vacation, then to Daytona for a race, then home for a speaking engagement. Once, after a brief visit with son Coy at Stanford, he and wife Pat decided to spend a couple of days in Hawaii. So they flew seven hours to Hawaii, spent two nights and flew 12 hours back to Washington.

He kept up that schedule almost the entire summer, and by the start of training camp when he should have been fully charged again, he might have been tired.

"I look at the schedule he keeps and don't know how he does it," a friend said. "People go to the beach for their vacations. He goes to the beach for 15 minutes and is ready to go some place else. I don't know if he was anymore tired than normal, but it wouldn't be surprising."

He apparently began to think about quitting about midseason when he became more and more distressed by having one son, Coy, attending Stanford and another, J.D., working in his Charlotte, N.C.-based NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) organization. For the first time in his life, he didn't have either of his sons around. He didn't have them for lake escapes, he didn't have them for the celebration dinners after Redskins games and he didn't have their lives to share.

Friends said Pat Gibbs struggled with the transition as well. A private person, she'd typically built her autumns around her sons. Now, with her sons away and her husband working 100-hour weeks, she found herself spending long hours alone at home.

Late in the season, Gibbs began to worry about his health when he was unable to sleep and suffered various symptoms that had him wondering if something serious were wrong. Nothing serious was found -- the diagnosis was migraine equivalence -- but Gibbs said not feeling well "caused me to step back and look at my life. I wanted more time with my sons. I wanted to do some things with Pat."

Coaches and scouts noticed a change in him during the last several weeks. They said he had no stomach for jumping into the myriad decisions facing the Redskins and that at times he seemed to be sitting in meetings without really listening.

Somewhere in there, he decided the time had arrived to step away.

"The easiest thing would have been to continue," he said. "We've got a great organization. We've got a great owner {Jack Kent Cooke}. We've got people who are great at going out and getting players, and we've got great players. It would have been easy to keep going. But I just didn't feel it would have been the right thing."

Last week, he took his family to Vail, Colo., for four days and Gibbs told them he was thinking of resigning. He said no one argued, and over the course of "having some good talks, lifting weights, getting some exercise," he became convinced the time was right. He flew back to town a week ago Thursday and informed Cooke the next day.

Cooke urged him to reconsider, which Gibbs did. Five days later, he told Cooke his decision was final. He informed his coaches this past Thursday and made a formal announcement on Friday.

"Until Wednesday, I honestly didn't think he would quit," Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly said. "I knew he wasn't 100 percent at the end of the season, but he said he was coming back. I noticed he didn't have the same energy level and was aware he was undergoing some tests. But I'd followed the medical tests and knew he was fine. Maybe looking back on it, this whole thing was weighing on him the whole time. I never expected this. I expected him to keep coaching quite a while longer."

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post

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