For Joe Gibbs, the Job Is Work to Make it Work
By Richard Justice
Joe Gibbs likes apple pie, cheeseburgers and M&Ms; His idea of a big night on the town is a steak dinner with friends and a rented movie at home. He has been married to only one woman and can get misty-eyed talking about their two decades together. Likewise, he suffered more than a little when his sons J.D. and Coy left home for college and jobs, and plans his summers in part around weekends when the three of them can water ski at the family lake home.
At 52, he occasionally wonders if he's doing enough with his life. He wonders if coaching a football team is serious enough work and will commit himself to another project, such as expanding his youth home. Last summer, he acted on those impulses by secretly meeting with a number of prominent Washingtonians, including Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, to discuss forming a blue-ribbon panel to raise money for existing youth charity programs.
He's also driven, compulsive and a legendary workaholic. This week, after the Redskins learned they would play the Minnesota Vikings in Saturday's first round of the NFL playoffs, Gibbs pulled his black Blazer into the parking lot at Redskin Park late Sunday afternoon and, with the exception of a couple of brief naps, pretty much worked the next 96 hours on a gameplan.
He seldom sleeps more than five hours a night, even when he's on vacation, and his body clock runs at such a high speed that others have trouble keeping up. When he saw an assistant coach eyeing the clock during a 1991 meeting, he ordered clocks removed from the room. He still talks in amazement about the coach who left a gameplanning session because he had a bad cold.
After one particularly tough loss in this particularly tough season, Gibbs approached several of the Redskins' scouts and apologized for the way he'd coached the team in 1992. He told them they'd done a good job bringing in talent and that he hadn't done enough with it on the field.
"It was amazing," a Redskins official said. "Here's one of the greatest coaches in history telling us he's sorry."
Yet as the Redskins prepare for their eighth playoff appearance in 11 seasons, their biggest advantage remains Gibbs, who will take one of the best postseason records in history, 15-4, into the Metrodome Saturday afternoon.
"He commands respect by the way he carries himself," defensive tackle Jason Buck said. "He's not a tyrant. He doesn't scream and berate the players. He treats players with respect and gets it in return. No head games. You're talking to players who've been doing this since they were little boys. Those head games don't work on professional athletes. If Joe has a problem, he pulls you aside and talks to you. He doesn't embarrass guys, and it comes back because guys want to play for someone like that. When Joe talks to you, you know it's coming from his heart. I think it contributes to the consistency of the team."
Ask Gibbs about all of this and he shrugs, says he has been lucky to work for team owner Jack Kent Cooke and that this season has shown that success one season doesn't build much equity for the next.
"I don't know if there's a key or anything," he said. "We've had some good players here and Mr. Cooke is commited to winning. But I've never felt I had the corner turned or anything like that. What we do up here is hard to accomplish and you've got to work as hard as you can and celebrate when something good happens."
His success is hard to define because it appears to be a combination of so many things. Some of it certainly rests in the gameplans hammered out each week, and the ability to adjust them during games. Some of it is working for an owner willing to spend the money for players and facilities. Some of it is working with a pair of general managers, first Bobby Beathard and now Charley Casserly, who have kept finding talent. Some of it is having had 12 years to build his own system, and to assemble a core of veterans such as Art Monk and Joe Jacoby.
And some of it clearly is Gibbs himself.
"There was a point when I first got here I didn't play that well for a couple of games," free safety Brad Edwards said. "He didn't come up to me and tell me I was about to get cut if I didn't get it in gear. Nothing like that. He came up to me in private and said, 'I know you can play better and you need to pick it up.' He said, 'I know you can do it.' That's all I needed to hear. I feel it totally changed my whole career. I want to do well and get better, and he realized that. I don't need to be screamed at. It was great and I see it happening with other players."
The Redskins have won so often that it's hard to appreciate their week-to-week excellence. But they're making their third straight playoff appearance and, since a 1990 Thanksgiving Day loss in Dallas, they're 31-11.
If last season, his 11th, was perhaps his most enjoyable year in football from an 11-0 start to a lopsided Super Bowl victory his 12th has been a hard fall back to earth. He'll remember it as one that began with a disjointed training camp when the highlights were seemingly endless holdouts and mind-numbing travel.
The Redskins have been roasted by some for their 9-7 regular season, but when it ended with a loss to the Los Angeles Raiders last Saturday, Gibbs simply thanked his players for their effort. He told them he couldn't have asked for much more, and that given the circumstances of playing a tough schedule combined with all the broken bones and torn ligaments, it hadn't been such a bad year.
When they made the playoffs, instead of putting the hammer down, he tried to take the pressure off. On a short work week, he gave his players an extra day off. He canceled a film review of the Raiders loss. He told his players the work week would be fun and that their approach to the Vikings would be the same.
Yesterday afternoon, he was clearly frustrated about the work week, by not knowing who would be able to play and who wouldn't. The Redskins know that at full strength they should beat the Vikings, but they're not only at less than full strength, they won't know who will and won't play until Saturday.
But no one questions that the Redskins will be prepared.
"His work ethic amazes everyone," guard Mark Schlereth said. "When we come in here to start practice, we see the coaches haven't slept in three days. You know they've put the time in studying the films and preparing to put us in the best possible situation. That's his strongest attribute and the thing that sets him apart."