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Carolina Sheriff's Son on Football Odyssey

By Dave Kindred
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1981

Fresh off the plowed fields out back of his house in the hills of North Carolina, the county sheriff’s oldest boy did not know what to do with all the fancy football equipment they issued him at the big California high school.

"The only football I’d ever played was pickup games with the guys around home," Joe Gibbs said. "When we moved to Santa Fe Springs, just outside Los Angeles, the first day I went to school for the ninth grade, saw a sign, ‘Sign Up for Football’.

"All the gear they gave me, I was putting everything on wrong."

Eight years later, good enough at this new game to have been a first-stringer at quarterback, tight end and linebacker in high school and at San Diego State, Joe Gibbs asked Don Coryell if he could join the coach's staff as a graduate assistant.

Gibbs ditched mathematics and science his sophomore year. "I asked myself, ‘why am I doing this when I want to be a coach?’" So after getting his master’s in physical education, Gibbs popped the question to Coryell, then in the fourth year of his dozen at San Diego State.

"John Madden was on the staff working for Don then," Gibbs said. "It was a great staff. Sid Hall off that staff is still in pro ball.

"I was the guy who went out and got hamburgers for everybody. And they reamed me out good if I forgot the sauce."

The days of plowed fields and hamburgers are over for Joe Gibbs, the new Redskins coach. Yesterday the former San Diego Charger offensive coordinator met with Jack Kent Cooke and got the job.

Here's where Gibbs came from...

J.C. Gibbs was the county sheriff in Asheville, N.C. His main job was cracking down on moonshiners. That’s how J.C. came to be shot at so often. "He was a rough, tough guy leading a wild life," Joe Gibbs said.

"He'd be on the phone at home all the time saying, ‘Ya think so, huh? Well, I’ll meet ya at the corner.’" And he’d come home beat up from a fistfight. He had two bad car wrecks from chasing bootleggers. He hit a tree and was in a body cast for a year."

When the wrong side won the courthouse in 1954, J.C Gibbs was out of work and so he moved to California, where two brothers lived. "Basically, we moved because we were starving to death in Asheville," the sheriff’s oldest boy says today.

Here's where Joe Gibbs learned to coach..

When San Diego State won the national small-college championship in 1966 with an undefeated team, Gibbs figured he had used up his time there. Bill Peterson, the Florida State coach, called Gibbs on the recommendation of a San Diego Charger assistant.

"My wife Pat and I took everything we owned -- two lawn chairs and a portable TV -- and drove to Tallahassee," Gibbs said. "When we got there, a booster named Si Deeb, who took tremendous care of the assistant coaches, told me to go out to this housing tract and pick out a house I liked. I paid him $400 down. It was a pretty big place. We moved right in with all our furniture--two lawn chairs and a TV."

Under Peterson, Florida State was a national power. "It was real down South football," Gibbs said. "I was fascinated by it."

John McKay, winning national championships at Southern Cal, was looking for an offensive line coach two years later. He asked Don Coryell to give him some names.

"Pat was nine months pregnant, so she flew back to California, and I drove," Gibbs said. Even today 10 years after he finished a two-year stint with USC, Gibbs wears a Rose Bowl ring.

Because he desperately wanted to be a head coach somewhere, Gibbs left Southern Cal for Arkansas. "For some reason, SC coaches never get head jobs," Gibbs said, "and Arkansas had turned out something like eight head coaches in the previous nine years."

Two years working with Frank Broyles’ offensive line produced only one nibble at a head-coaching job, a fruitless interview by Arizona.

By then, Coryell’s success at San Diego--where his wide open passing game foreshadowed the offensive revolution now under way in the NFL--had earned him the head job with the St. Louis Cardinals. Gibbs rejoined the man who taught him, who sent him out for hamburgers, who has been his patron for nearly 20 years now.

When Coryell was fired because of a public spat with St. Louis owner Bill Bidwill, Gibbs had his choice of three jobs. Detroit and Kansas City couldn’t promise the sweep of authority given Gibbs by John McKay, by then at Tampa Bay.

"I wanted to be the offensive coordinator somewhere," Gibbs said. "So I could grow."

Coryell landed on his feet, hired by the Chargers early in the ’78 season, and Gibbs left Tampa Bay after what he calls "one trying season" (McKay seemed reluctant to give Gibbs the promised authority) to be Coryell’s offensive coordinator.

Here’s what he believes...

"To be a good football coach, you have to be good teacher," Gibbs said. "You have to have the knowledge, but you also have to be able to get it across. You give it to the players visually, on film, written, on the board, and on the field."

"Secondly, you must be able to work with people and motivate people. Many coaches motivate out of fear. The players are afraid of the head coach. Others, like Coryell, do it with intensity. Don has very few rules for his players, he is very lenient -- but the way he comes across with intensity motivates people to care as much as he cares.

"You have to be able to get every body moving in the same direction."

Gibbs knows what kind of football team he wants to create.

"Offensively, I want to dictate to the defense. I don't want to slow down offensively and adjust to what the defense is doing. I want an offense that is fast-paced, that is aggressive, that makes the defense keep up with us. We will run the same play from maybe 30 different formation,-- because I believe repetition is the key to success, and because I am convinced that defense is based on recognition of the formation."

All of Gibbs' bosses -- Coryell, Peterson, McKay, Broyles -- are thought of as offensive minds. All of Gibbs' coaching has been on offense. He admits he needs help on defense.

"I'll lean heavily on my defensive staff," he said. "As an offensive coach, I know what to expect from defenses. So I’ll have an input into defense. But it will be very important for me to have somebody I can lean on heavily, somebody who has proven he can do the job as defensive coordinator."

Under Coryell, staff meetings were unfettered debates. Gibbs likes that open sort of atmosphere, saying, "What you learn when you put your thoughts up for argument -- when you take them apart in a group -- are the things you never forget."

Like most coaches, Gibbs believes in working forever. A normal day at San Diego began at 7:30 a.m. and ended around midnight. "If you're going to attack this job, there is no shortcut for hours," he said. "You have to be there. Hard workers win out in the end."

Gibbs demands that his players keep meticulous notes on all meetings. He checks the players’ playbooks at random, to examine the notes taken as a sign of how much the player is learning. During offensive meetings, he often stops in mid-thought to pop a question to a player.

"That keeps everybody alert and involved," he said.

Most of all, said the man whose mind helped make San Diego the most exciting team in pro football, "This game is supposed to be fun for the players. I try to make it fun for them all the time."

Here are a few personal things...

A jogger (but no marathoner) a racquetball player, the national champion in 1976..a two-times-a-year golfer...father of two boys, J.D., 11, and Coy, 8. 40 years old last Nov. 25.

Then there was the time when Pat Gibbs, riding like a brave soldier next to her husband the goal-seeking coach, looked out the car window and saw this little teeny-tiny budding in downtown Fayetteville, Ark.

"It’s littler than our house," the coach's wife said. "And that's Sears and Roebuck’s."

Tears came from her eyes.

But that was a long, long time ago.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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