Joe Gibbs is a private man in the public eye. Such a strange combination breeds complexities in the life of the Washington Redskins' head coach.

If he had his druthers, Gibbs would probably take a slingshot, like the little rascal he once was, and fire at the public eye, so he could quietly go about his life without fanfare. But that's not Joe Gibbs' way. He's too kind and easy-going to do that stuff now; he understands that people are interested in him. So he talks, easily, though perhaps slightly begrudgingly, about his colorful past, and he lives a life of complexities.

On one Sunday in January, the nation watched on television as Gibbs stood in front of the Super Bowl XVII trophy in Pasadena, Calif., flanked by Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Then on another Sunday in July, about 100 people sat in the heat of summer as fans rattled overhead in the First United Church of Christ in Carlisle, Pa. Gibbs stood in the pulpit flanked by two ministers and told of how he became a born-again Christian in 1972. He told the story, he says, only because he was invited to speak at the Sunday service, not because he wanted to preach about what he knows to be right.

Above all else, understand one thing about Joe Gibbs, age 42: he doesn't preach.

"I want to live the example," Gibbs says, "not talk about it."

Certainly, Gibbs' human spirit has been tested. The most traumatic time in Gibbs' life, he says, came four years ago when his wife Pat underwent surgery in a Los Angeles hospital to remove a brain tumor. After a seven-hour operation, complications developed and another four hours of surgery were required. Joe Gibbs stayed outside the operating door the whole time to make sure nobody walked through who wasn't supposed to. When his wife was asleep, Gibbs, then the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator, would put on his sweatsuit and jog in nearby MacArthur Park. Pat Gibbs survived the surgery, though one side of her face was left paralyzed.

"I think after Pat's surgery, I felt like I was one of the luckiest guys in the world," Gibbs says. "I've always felt like I had strong support from her; Pat was always there to take care of the kids when I was gone. The surgery was a traumatic thing for the whole family. That was one of the lower points of my life.

"It seems like a pro football coach's wife is like in another world. She's so much a part of me, yet football is a man's physical world . . . That's my one regret about the Super Bowl: Pat really couldn't experience the joy with me."

The Joe Gibbs of today is an offensive innovator, who eats chocolates to calm his nerves late at night, when he says his mind works best and when thoughts of so many men-in-motion dance out of his head and on to a note pad. In one play in the Redskins' 27-17 victory over Miami in Super Bowl XVII, for example, all five of the Redskins' eligible receivers were in motion at one time or another. The play ended with a touchdown pass.

"I feel like Buck Rogers," Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann says of his role in Gibbs' offense. "In every game it seems like we're off on another journey."

Don't, however, call Joe Gibbs an "offensive genius," because Gibbs will wiggle his index finger, quietly saying "No, no, no. Don't do that." He will do so, likely because other NFL head coaches, like Dick Vermeil (now retired) and Bill Walsh, were called offensive geniuses once, before their teams fell from grace and the play- offs and into punt formation.

Gibbs is a man of perception and a coach of deception. Stripping his offensive philosophy to its simplest, Gibbs says, "I make up my game plan to try to confuse the (opponents') defense. If you can take away what their defense has worked on, what they learned about you from studying (Redskins) game films from the previous few weeks, you can confuse them. It's kind of like a chess match."

Like his father, Joe Gibbs has two sons. Like his father, Joe Gibbs is a storyteller. But the similarity between Jackson C. Gibbs, the former North Carolina tough-guy deputy sheriff known as "J. C.," and Joe Jackson Gibbs, the football coach, ends here.

"My dad was always hurt. I remember him getting into fist fights all the time," says Joe Gibbs. "I remember him being in a cast a lot or getting shot in the foot. He was in a small sheriff's department with a bunch of wild guys he grew up with. They used to love to laugh."

"I remember I was running this bootlegger one time," says J. C. Gibbs, now retired, living in Southern California and still speaking like a true North Carolinian. "I thought I knew who he was. Anyway, I was driving a used car during the war. I had gotten used to the Fords, but the state had bought Plymouths with knee-action drive where ever time the front end bumped up, the wheels come up, too. Anyway, I'm chasing this bootlegger and I'm doing pretty close to 80. I end up taking a six-foot section out of a telephone pole. I was unconscious for about a week. My right leg had a compound fracture above the knee. When they picked me up out of the car, my right knee was laying across my chest. I was in a cast from the waist down for about a year."

Joe Gibbs was much different than younger brother Jim, now a land developer in the Southwest, who played the organ at the Baptist church growing up and played football only once, to satisfy J. C. Gibbs, and still has a scar underneath his mouth as a souvenir of the day. Joe Gibbs grew up playing sports in small North Carolina towns like Mocksville and Asheville and Sand Hill, towns with rayon factories and good people.

"The woods were only about 100 yards from our house," says Joe Gibbs. "I used to go hunting, mostly after small things like squirrels. I remember playing football in plowed fields, playing basketball in our front yard. I was fortunate. I grew up chasing up and down dirt roads with kids."

Looking back, though, Joe Gibbs says he really didn't spend much time with his father. J. C. Gibbs was always working. Perhaps that is the reason why, after a long summer day's work that included a scrimmage against the Baltimore Colts, Joe Gibbs was recently seen in a Carlisle movie theater with his 10- year-old son Coy, watching a James Bond movie.

"The most important thing I will leave on this earth are my children," Joe Gibbs says.

A change from one Gibbs generation to the next--from J. C. to Joe--can be also be seen in the questions the sons asked their fathers. "We would bring in narcotics addicts and drunks and Joe would ask questions like 'Daddy, why'd you bring him in?'" says J. C. Gibbs.

Joe Gibbs tells the story of how, several years after he became a born-again Christian, he was telling his oldest son J. D. (now 14) about a man named Moses. Says Joe Gibbs, "Then J. D. asked me, 'Dad, what team does Moses play for?'"

Joe Gibbs and his family moved to Southern California in 1955 when he was 14; for him the late '50s and the early '60s were a time, he says, for hamburger stands and acting tough and for beat-up old Chevys that he rebuilt, then painted orange and wrecked, and a time for drag-racing at 140 miles per hour in Southern California towns like Irwindale and San Fernando with his buddy Warren Simmons. It was a period for letting the good times roll like the Pacific surf.

"Joe was always a little bit mischievous, growing up," says Winnie Gibbs, Joe's mother. "But he never had any trouble with the law."

Rather, his high spirits led him to Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College; there he was discovered by San Diego State College coach Don Coryell, who recruited him and built him into a tight end, offensive guard and linebacker. Coryell later hired Gibbs as his graduate aswhat their defense has worksistant coach and, much later, as the coordinator of the San Diego Chargers' high-powered offense.

Gibbs was among the 26 junior college transfers that Coryell brought to San Diego State in 1961, his first year as coach there. He was also among the 23 who entered the Sigma Chi fraternity, according to Simmons (who now is an assistant coach for the Redskins).

"It was a John Belushi- type fraternity," says Wayne Sevier, a quarterback on those San Diego State teams and now a Redskins assistant coach.

"I pledged that fraternity three times," Gibbs says, with that strange little laugh. "Every time they wanted me to pay my bills, I depledged."

And what of the story Simmons tells of Gibbs beating up two Marines on some sorority lawn? "It was a group of Marines against a group of us football guys. I don't remember all the ins and outs," Gibbs says. Then, laughing, "But I do remember that I almost got kicked out of school for that one."

"I got to the fight late, but I remember two Marines were on the ground," Simmons says, "and Joe didn't have a scratch on him . . . Coryell had to vouch for him."

Now that they are Super Bowl heroes, Simmons adds, "Guys from Sigma Chi come up to Joe and I and give us the secret handshake. Obviously, they don't know the real story."

Gibbs says he was an overachiever as an athlete. Coryell says that Gibbs is being modest and that the competitive fire still blasts furnace-like within Gibbs. Proof positive, says Coryell, is that Gibbs won the national racquetball title in the 35- and-older category in 1976.

"And no stiff can do that," Coryell says.

When Gibbs graduated from San Diego State in 1963, he married Pat Escobar, his Santa Fe High School sweetheart. Warren Simmons was best man and accidentally handed the bridal couple the wrong rings.

Gibbs says he used to watch his future wife when she was a high school songleader. Giggling and speaking in true Californese, Gibbs says, "You know, just started eyeballing some babe."

In 1964, Gibbs became Coryell's offensive line coach at San Diego State. ("Everyone else back then wanted to be an engineer," Gibbs says. "When I got to San Diego State, I decided I hated math.") Then Gibbs moved from being an assistant coach at Florida State (1967-68), to the University of Southern California (1969-70), and to Arkansas (1971-72), before rejoining Coryell in the pros at St. Louis (1973-77). He went on to Tampa Bay (1978) and then back to Coryell and the Chargers in 1979. In 1981, Joe Gibbs became head coach of the Washington Redskins.

"I've learned there are two things that you can't keep in this life," says Dan Fouts, the Chargers' quarterback, "a secret--and a good football coach. I was sorry to see Joe go."

"In '62-'63, I never would have imagined Joe as the head coach of the team that won the Super Bowl," says Sevier. "But by '68-'69, I probably would have. I could see Joe's career evolving."

Joe Gibbs' life was evolving then, too.

Joe Gibbs treats his public image so carefully these days. He worries that people will misconstrue his feelings about Christianity, that they might see him as a Bible-swinging one-man caravan selling the spiritual elixirs of life.

Gibbs wants to be known as more than a Good Joe, because even he has to admit that his accomplishments raise him above such mediocrity. But he doesn't want to be known as a Great Joe, man of a Spartan, Christian life.

"Obviously," Gibbs says, "I have not lived a perfect life."

Being known as a Very Good Joe, then, suffices. His conversion in 1972 was not an earth-shattering experience in Gibbs' life.

"It was a growing awareness," he says. "It definitely turned my life around. It was like I had been trying to grab things in life, conquer things, that people said I should conquer. Once I conquered them, there was an empty feeling like 'Is this all there is?' Really, it (becoming born again) was a straightening out of my relationship with God. I think thwhat their defense has workat I recognized that there was a God since I was 9 years old. But I came to know that when you recognize His presence, even though you will go through hard times and struggle, that everything will work out for the best."

Once it didn't seem that things would work out for the best. When Gibbs he left his job as Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator to become San Diego's offensive backfield coach, prospects were bleak.

" John McKay (Tampa's head coach) said that he was going to take more control of the offense and I could understand that," Gibbs says. "I think I had the feeling that, when I went to San Diego, I'd worked hard in my career and I felt like I was taking a backward step. I was worried about it. I could feel my career slipping away. I started thinking in my mind that, if at some point, I didn't get a chance to become a head coach, I'd probably give another career a strong consideration. I really don't know what I would have done."

Soon after Gibbs arrived in San Diego, the offensive coordinator left and Coryell named Gibbs to take his place. He was back in the saddle again.

And last year, Joe Gibbs rode off into the Super Bowl sunset, riding a white stallion. And just being himself, a private man in the public eye.

Now, Joe Gibbs lives in Vienna, Va., in the midst of, what he calls, "the third phase of my life." First, came the days in North Carolina. Next, came the California days. These are the coaching days.

"I'm kind of like a Heinz 57. I've been all over," Gibbs says. "I will continue coaching until I lose the anticipation and the great expectation each week."

Redskins players have developed a certain respect for Gibbs. "Coach Buns," they call him. Because Gibbs doesn't swear, he uses the word "Buns" instead of you-know- what.

"Sometimes, when he gets mad, his face gets all red and he just screams, 'Ah, buns!'" says Mark May, the Redskins' offensive right guard. "Or before games, he'll keep telling us, 'We've got to get after their buns.'"

"If a player can't get along with Joe," says Bobby Beathard, the general manager, "he's in for a rude awakening somewhere else."

J. C. Gibbs says he remembers meeting his son outside the locker room, after the Redskins had won the Super Bowl last January. "I couldn't say anything when Joe run up and grabbed me and hugged me around the neck," he says. "I couldn't believe Joe was there and I couldn't believe he beat (Miami Coach Don) Shula . . . I was kind of stunned.

"Joe keeps a lot inside of him. He's always been that way. The most trouble I had with him growing up was, after he'd lose a Little League game, he'd come home crying. We'd say, 'Son, you have to be as good a loser as a winner. Somebody has got to lose.' He's still a hard loser. I know that. I know that more than anybody else."

"Ever since Joe was a little boy, all he ever studied was football. He was such a good boy growing up," says Winnie Gibbs. "Only, now, I think he's better."