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  Decade Gone, Gibbs Marches On

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 28, 1990

Joe Gibbs begins his 10th season as coach of the Washington Redskins seemingly relaxed and recharged. Far from last season's talk of being fired or quitting, Gibbs, at 49, seems finally able to accept his success and says one of his rules for 1990 is that he'll entertain no more questions about his coaching future.

He said statements on the subject were "misinterpreted" last year, and that it never comes out the way he means it anyway.

And why shouldn't he stay? He moved into Redskin Park a few days before Ronald Reagan entered the White House, and nearly a decade later, only Chuck Noll and Don Shula have been with their teams longer than Joe Jackson Gibbs.

He has taken three teams to the Super Bowl, won 68 percent of his games, run up a 28-8 December record and reached 100 victories faster than all but six coaches in history.

No more talk of burnout from this Redskin who now says, "I think I'll coach as long as Mr. {Jack Kent} Cooke wants me around."

He and his family sit down at the end of every season to reassess the future and certainly there are times during November and December, when he's spending two or three nights a week at Redskin Park, that he must wonder how much longer he can continue.

But he gets away for a few days, goes skiing with Pat and the boys, and his internal batteries become recharged. He can even return to work and joke about those 3 a.m. coaching staff arguments over third-down strategy.

In fact, shortly before training camp, he spoke, not of surviving, but of lasting, of being able to one day measure his accomplishments against those of the Landrys, Shulas and Nolls. He had once said 10 years on the job would be incomprehensible. Now, he speaks that way of 20.

"Come on," he said, smiling, "if I last here that long I probably won't be able to count to 20."

Some players, both present and past, say he has mellowed a bit since those early days of 1981. They say he's more inclined to ask about the family, to talk something other than football.

That may be the case, but there are still days when he strides angrily off the practice field, days when his gaze is steely and words seemingly have to be pulled from between clinched teeth.

He may have mellowed, but film sessions and practices can still last several hours and his work days seem as grueling as ever. He once took up racquetball and since he only knew one way to approach it, he was up for so many 5 a.m. practices that he looked up one day and was one of the best 35-and-over players in the country.

He may have mellowed, but he still hasn't forgotten the sportswriter who said his play calling "slipped into buffoonery" during Super Bowl XVII six years ago.

His assistants say he zeros in on a goal — whether it be losing 25 pounds, as he did last summer, or unlocking the key to beating the New York Giants — and focuses all his efforts on it. A lot of people thought it funny that when Oliver North came out to deliver a pep talk before Super Bowl XXII, Gibbs was forced to admit he'd never heard of the guy. After all, who has time for the news when you're spending 70 hours getting ready for Eagles and Giants?

Press him on it and he'll admit, yes, it's a strange life, a wonderful life, but one of insane highs and lows, paranoia and hours that would crumble a lot of others.

"Maybe if I were just doing it for myself," he said. "But there are so many people depending on you and you feel the weight of it on your shoulders."

Yet, there are other days when he can kick back, tell a few stories and laugh at this weird life. What a lot of people have never known about him — what the sideline television cameras never reveal — is that he's a terrific story teller. He has the timing of a stand-up comedian and the inclination to use it.

Recently, in a rare unguarded moment, someone asked about Buddy Ryan and Jerry Glanville. Gibbs, who is not like either of those talkative men, smiled.

"This business is really changing, isn't it?" he said. "I can see in two years, I'm going to be making television commercials that — "

At this point, he assumes a Hulk Hogan stance, snarls and begins to scream.

"COME SEE THE REDSKINS KICK SOME BUTT ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON! IT'S GOING TO BE A SHOW!"

He stops abruptly, shakes his head and retreats to his locker room.Rebellious

Before he became a born-again Christian in 1972, he apparently saw some late nights, some sunrises and a few fistfights. He tells now about the time he punched a Marine, about how he'd stay up 48 straight hours before a weekend of National Guard duty and how he had more than a little rebel inside.

Those are strange tales for a guy who counts milk and cookies and gospel or country music as a big night out these days.

Pull up a chair and he'll tell you about his days in the National Guard, how he was dropped on a street corner in Watts in that blazing summer of 1965.

"Four days," he said. "For four days, you're standing around waiting to get shot at."

He pauses to let the thought sink in, then comes the punch line.

"I was underneath a '49 Mercury the entire time," he said.

He'll tell you how as a hustling young University of Arkansas assistant coach he was assigned the Houston area to recruit.

"Houston?" he says, now. "I'm in inner-city Houston and trying to convince kids to go to school in Fayetteville, Arkansas."

Another Arkansas assistant in those days was Raymond Berry, the former Colts wide receiver who was just getting into coaching. Gibbs said he grew to love Berry in their two years together, that he was astounded that Berry simply believed one person would not lie to another.

That hurt him in recruiting because if a kid told him he was going to be a Razorback, he believed him. He was recruiting 10 athletes in the Dallas area, and Coach Frank Broyles once asked how many of them would be playing for the Razorbacks.

"I'd say seven for sure," Gibbs recalled Berry as saying.

None signed.

Gibbs will tell you about his days as a Tampa Bay assistant for crusty John McKay, how before a certain game McKay looked at his coaches, puffed on a cigar and said, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd like to win this one."

Gibbs smiles and remembers fighting back the urge to snap back: "Count me in, Coach. And I'd like to win next week too."

And there are stories about the intensity of Don Coryell, who has since gone off to live on his own island, and the cockiness of Joe Theismann — "We never lost a game Joe quarterbacked," Gibbs said. "Maybe the clock ran out and we were behind, but he didn't count that as a loss. He could have had his senses knocked out and he'd be back at practice the next morning chattering to anyone who would listen." Loyal

Has he changed in 10 years? Perhaps not. But he has at least been able to change with the times. He has called team meetings for the purpose of discussing something other than football.

He throws pizza parties for his players on Wednesday night during training camp. He gives his players Tuesday and Thursday mornings off so they won't miss their weightlifting sessions (he may have been the first NFL coach to give up practice time to allow for weightlifting).

He has been accused of being too loyal to older players, and he probably is. Club sources say Gibbs is against any trade that involves getting rid of a veteran and Gibbs defends his philosophy, saying, "You're talking about getting rid of a good player and I don't want to lose someone who has been a good Redskin."

But Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm and Mark May have helped him get to three Super Bowls, so why wouldn't he be loyal? As Tom Landry once said, "People criticized Chuck Noll for staying with those old Steelers for too long. But my gosh, look what they did for him — four Super Bowls. When you've gone into the trenches with guys so many times, you're naturally going to believe in them."

Gibbs clearly has some of those same emotions, but look around Redskin Park. Neal Olkewicz is gone. Doug Williams is gone. And Dave Butz, Clint Didier, Theismann, R.C. Thielemann and a lot of others who helped make the Redskins special in the '80s.

And yet he has talked about how the Redskins won their final five games last season after he went back to some old ways. Gibbs says last season was an important reminder that, while he may occasionally call meetings to ask about families and to eat doughnuts and drink Diet Cokes, that there is, after all, a way to do things right. In his mind, a Redskin Way.

"Our goal had been to get back to the Super Bowl," he said, "and we were so caught up in that that he got away from the things the way we'd done them in the past. The way we'd done it was pounding it and getting after it in practice, to try to improve a little bit more each week. It was like when you're just beginning."

After a 4-5 start, "we just told the players: 'Hey, look we're going to go back to solid football. We're turning the ball over too much, making a lot of mistakes. Our practices are going to be tougher and longer.' . . . All I know is that every time I've backed off a quarter of an inch, the team has backed off. I only know one way to do things."

That may be why the talk of retirement or being fired comes up seemingly every season now. For all his puppy-like happiness in August, he goes at the job 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and by December, his emotions are a little closer to the surface.

When the Redskins suffer, he suffers more than anyone else, and by December is unable to hide his feelings. He attempts to churn out the stress by slogging out a couple of miles every afternoon at Redskin Park, but friends would be surprised if the yellow headsets — turned to some FM oldies station — keep his mind off whatever opponent is giving him ulcers that week.

His remarks may have been misinterpreted last year, but reporters remember it differently. They realized that what he was saying sounded like something close to an I'm-out-of-here speech and asked him several times to take it back.

He wouldn't, but when the headlines hit the streets the next day, he was furious.

Likewise, it wasn't just reporters. Some of his old friends with the networks and some old friends period seemed convinced that he finally had had enough.

After all, how long can he do this? How long can he start that "fire in his belly" that makes it worthwhile? How long can he remain up until 3 or 4 in the morning arguing with assistants over this or that game plan?

"I only know one way to do things," he said.

The odd thing about him, one of the odd things, really, is that for all the tough practices and long summers and constant demands, his players like and respect him.

That's not the case everywhere. The Steelers may have feared and respected Noll, but they never particularly liked him. The Cowboys thought Landry standoffish and unapproachable. The Bears are scared out of their wits of Mike Ditka. Likewise, the Dolphins of Shula.

"He's not a good man, he's a great man," said tight end Don Warren, who arrived two years before Gibbs. "He's a players' coach. He's not a Frank Kush-type who believes there's only one way to do things. He believes in having some fun, but we also know who's in charge. If things aren't going well, we find out about it."

Warren and others say Gibbs tells them that, if they have a problem, come see him.

"He says he wants to know," Warren said. "I don't know how many players have taken him up on it, but he tells us his door is always open." Secure

He was born in Mocksville, N.C., the son of a cop. He grew up around "country boys, country sheriffs who chased bootleggers at night." His family moved to California when he was young and young Joe Jackson loved to race cars and play football.

He played for Coryell at San Diego State, then began a coaching odyssey that included stops at USC, Arkansas, Florida State, the St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers.

Where he was once obsessed by his work, he says he now has more perspective, that his Christian faith has changed him in several ways.

He says he's secure in who he is and why he is doing this work. He clearly wants to coach the Redskins awhile longer, but if Cooke fired him, he surely would survive.

"I'd just know there was something else out there for me," he said. "I'm comfortable enough that the Lord would have something else for me."

© Copyright 1990 The Washington Post Company

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