The toy box in the corner of Joe Gibbs's office is jam-packed with colored pencils, books, toy trucks and pieces of plastic racetrack. Parked beside it is a pint-sized lime-green race car that gets driven around the plush cream carpet Thursday mornings, when Jackson and Miller Gibbs, 5 and 3, respectively, accompany their grandfather to work.
The corner suite at Joe Gibbs Racing is a far cry from the former coach's office at Redskins Park that doubled as a bedroom Monday to Thursday during football season. That was a utilitarian cocoon designed to keep the outside world's distractions at bay and ensure every waking moment was dedicated to beating the upcoming opponent.
It has been 11 years since Gibbs traded the high-pressure life of NFL coach for the high-octane world of stock-car racing. And in NASCAR, he has found success to rival his trio of Super Bowl titles, fielding race teams that have won two of the past three Winston Cup championships.
Self-effacing to a fault, Gibbs deflects most questions about what explains his success in such different arenas. "I've been fortunate enough to get around the right people," he offers. "I stand on the sidelines, and John Riggins makes touchdowns, Mark Rypien throws touchdown passes, and I get credit for it."
It's fairy-tale stuff, really, how Gibbs built his racing empire, starting with just 17 employees, hand-me-down Chevrolets and leased garage space. Today, Joe Gibbs Racing employs 210 and is splitting the seams of its 140,000-square feet complex in a swank office park north of Charlotte. His teams have earned 36 victories and more than $52 million in winnings (split evenly between owner and driver). Joe Gibbs Racing roars into NASCAR's season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday with top drivers -- Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte -- and is a definite contender for another title.
At 62, Gibbs now sits atop a racing empire. And it's even more impressive when you consider he can't take apart an engine or install a carburetor and knows so little about the inner-workings of a stock car that his drivers and crew chiefs won't let him talk over the radio-headset on race day. Gibbs just listens in.
"I'm sure they would let him if he wanted to," explains J.D. Gibbs, his elder son and president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "But he knows better than that."
His knack for winning, no doubt, does reside in people. But it's not so much their talent as his ability to pick the winners among them, get his teams to work toward a common purpose and forge bonds of loyalty that keep them united despite the relentless business pressures that tear most sports dynasties apart.
Gibbs's "people-first" formula sounds as retro as a '57 Chevy or a commemorative NFL jersey. But it's exactly what lured crew chief Jimmy Makar away from Penske Racing, arguably the most technologically advanced outfit in motor sports, 12 years ago when Gibbs had little more to offer than one receptionist and an impassioned view of how to build a team.
"People looked at me like I was crazy. And if it was any other person in the world wanting to try this endeavor, I would have never done it," Makar says. "But he was looking at it so much differently than everyone else in the sport. I came up through the ranks of racing, where the attitude was pretty much that everyone was expendable. Joe walked in with a completely different way of looking at it. His people were going to be his focus -- not just assets he could buy and sell and trade. And he has truly been that way."
For Gibbs, the rewards have been bountiful.
Through racing, he has rediscovered his family. J.D.'s office is two doors down the hall. Son Coy, 30, races for his dad in NASCAR's developmental Grand National series. And both sons, with four grandsons between them, live 15 minutes from their parents.
Gibbs has also discovered the rewards of being his own boss, scooting out early to play golf or frolic with his grandbabies -- the only activity, his golfing pals say, that he'd put down his clubs for.
And he has come to understand, after all these years, what the late Jack Kent Cooke felt when he looked out from the Redskins owners' box on game day, puffed out his chest and surveyed all he had built.
"My thrill in football was the technical stuff: Making it work. But I never understood his thrill," Gibbs confesses. "Now I do. He found a way to purchase that team, and it was in his family. He had [son] Johnny working with him. And he used to get a kick out of being in the box and saying, 'Hey! I own all this! And I picked these guys to do this! And look! We're going to win a ballgame.' It's the thrill of putting something together and seeing a dream work. And it's having your kids with you."
Life after the NFL has proven a tricky second act for many former head coaches, and they've doubled-back for football's adrenaline rush in droves -- Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Jim Mora, George Seifert, Marty Schottenheimer and two-time Super Bowl champion Bill Parcells, who takes the reins of the foundering Dallas Cowboys this season.
"Let me tell you," Gibbs concedes, "when you get a high-profile job like that, there's a thrill that goes with that."
He was peerless as a coach during the Redskins' glory days, winning Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. He was entertained by presidents. And more than any single person, he dictated the mood of the nation's capital each fall, as fans grieved over losses and exulted in victory.
Yet for all the adulation, Gibbs was essentially a hired hand. The most he could earn other than his salary was $75,000, the bonus for winning a Super Bowl. He chortles at his folly.
"That was the bonus -- at least when I was in it -- unless you had something else in your contract," Gibbs says, guffawing. "And I wasn't smart enough to get it in my contract."
Like Cooke, who parlayed soap-selling into riches for his family, Gibbs was itching to start his own business. And auto racing, a passion since childhood and an interest of both sons, offered that chance.
Gibbs attributes the crucial first steps -- convincing Dallas-based Interstate Batteries to invest $2 million to sponsor his team and hiring driver Dale Jarrett, who won the 1993 Daytona 500 with him -- largely to intervention from above. "It was kind of a miracle beginning," he calls it.
Religious faith has been the foundation of Joe Gibbs Racing from the outset, reflected in the framed mission statement that greets visitors to the complex. It reads: "Our goal is to field for our sponsors and fans competitive race cars on a consistent basis with the goal of winning races and championships. Our expectation is that we will be able to see in our growth and success things that would have never been accomplished except by the direct intervention of God."
Horsepower has obviously helped his drivers win races. So has Gibbs's horse sense, particularly when it comes to identifying and cultivating talent.
Gibbs's NFL coaching philosophy evolved over time, borrowing from Larry Coryell's passion and Frank Broyles's salesmanship. He poured in sweat equity by the quart, dissecting game film and offensive schemes until he could scarcely see. But eventually he became convinced that a creative playbook wasn't the key to success, nor was a rocket arm or speedy receivers.
"We started out looking at speed and height and weight," Gibbs recalls, "and later on, it became more character. Moral fiber. What's the person made of, first. For instance, with quarterbacks, people always look at their arm. NO! I learned a long time ago, it's character first. Then toughness. Are they tough? Can a guy get hit in the face trying to throw a ball and get back up and play? And then third was smarts; they've got to be football smart. Then comes their ability."
Gibbs picked Redskins players that way. His assistant coaches, too.
The stories are legion about Gibbs's staff working until dawn to thrash out the week's game plan. But according to Redskins assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell, there was as much yakking as working. "They'd spend three hours telling stories! Three hours!" Mitchell says. "And then they would go to work."
In time, Mitchell saw the method behind Gibbs's apparent inability to manage time. Crafting game plans was contentious stuff, and the coaches would invariably argue like dogs over it. But after three hours cackling over jokes and stories, the conflict among them never escalated to the point of spoiling the team's chemistry.
"He knew exactly what he was doing," Mitchell says.
Gibbs worked on his players as deftly, spinning yarns to instruct addled rookies or just jutting out his jaw if that were more effective.
"We didn't have as much talent as a lot of other teams, but Joe had that believability," Mitchell recalls. "And it wasn't just the players who believed him. The front office believed in him! When he walked down that hall and we had lost a game, there was so much fear in us. Not that we would be fired or anything like that; it was a fear that he wouldn't be pleased with us."
Says Gibbs: "You learn from everybody. But in the end, I think it takes a gift. The gifted people can talk to people and understand what makes them tick. You've got to be able to touch the hot button. With some people, it's threaten 'em a little bit. But people like Earnest Byner, who are so motivated and so performance-oriented, if you threatened 'em, you'd ruin them."
When Gibbs headed south after the 1992 season to race full time, he brought three decades' of coaching experience to bear. But he credits Cooke with his most valuable lesson: Knowing when to let the experts take over.
"Most people that have built a business like Mr. Cooke did, when they get a football team the natural tendency is to say, 'I'm going to fix this! I did those other things, so I'll fix this!' " Gibbs says. "But Mr. Cooke said to me the first year I was coaching, 'I ruined my first coach [telling him what to do]. I'm not going to ruin you! And no matter how much he thought we were making a mistake -- and he'd tell me, boy, in no uncertain terms, he'd say, 'I think you're screwing this up!' -- he'd say, 'You have to decide!' "
D.C. Ties Remain
He has had many chances to return to coaching, but chose a role as minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons after the team's owner, a founder of Home Depot (sponsor of a Gibbs race team), suggested it. The idea made sense, Gibbs concluded, after he realized his grandsons were growing up associating him only with racecars.
His Redskins days behind him, Gibbs's strongest link to Washington remains Youth for Tomorrow, the home he helped found 20 years ago for the region's troubled boys. Its trustees and board members recently gathered at Gibbs's racing complex for their annual meeting, and the former coach slipped seamlessly into his role as their chief visionary, moral conscience and biggest cheerleader.
He welcomed the 60-some guests with a self-deprecating story, replete with the high-pitched laughter that punctuates so much of Gibbs's speech, about being invited to meet President Bush after winning NASCAR's 2002 championship. Stewart, known for his tempestuous outbursts, accompanied him to the Oval Office, as did Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli.
The president is much taller than Gibbs expected, he confided. And he seemed to tower everyone when he turned, eyeing Stewart, and asked Nardelli: "So . . . you hired a tough guy, eh?" Then he turned to Stewart, who shrank in his presence, and asked incredulously, "You beat up photographers?"
Said Gibbs, gushing over the president's grace and good humor: "He knew Tony Stewart, and he knew his background! And he knew Bob Nardelli! But I'm not sure about me."
Then he led his guests in prayer before turning to the serious matters before them: A fire, set by a 17-year-old resident, that destroyed one wing of the home; plans to open a home for troubled girls; and the need for $2.2 million more to complete an academic and physical education center.
He ended with a story about Cooke, whom he described as a self-made billionaire and "one of the greatest analyzers of people" he'd ever seen. "But at the end of his life," Gibbs said, "I saw that man get so emotionally concerted about 'Who is going to get my money?' and 'What am I going to do with it?' "
Cooke's riches ate away at him. The team was sold at auction. And the billionaire's estate ended up in a foundation, never having the impact it could have, he implied, with more purposeful charitable planning.
"My point is," Gibbs said, "what are we going to do with what we have? The question is, what are we going to do with it? I believe when I stand before the Lord, and He asks me to account for myself, it's not going to be the three Super Bowls that matter. It's going to be this Youth Home. We're all here for a purpose, I believe. And I just wanted to share that with you."
After the group departs, Gibbs retreats to his office. Billy Graham's "Unto These Hills" and the Bible sit within easy reach of his desk. Bookshelves showcase an autographed football from Sammy Baugh and a raft of racing trophies. And the walls are hung with photographs of his golfing buddies, racing associates and two sons.
Gibbs began preparing for them to take over the business a decade ago when he and his wife gave each 49 percent ownership of the race team. He and Pat retained 2 percent and all the voting stock -- an arrangement that keeps them in charge, but avoids the heavy inheritance tax that makes it so burdensome to keep multimillion-dollar sports teams in families.
But until he's ready to retire, Gibbs is keeping busy -- flying to races on his Lear jet on weekends, leading staff meetings on Mondays and filling the balance of the week with motivational talks and outings with sponsors. Whenever he has a free afternoon, he rounds up his golfing partners, insurance executive Butch English and pediatric cardiologist Craig Greene, for a few holes. A favorite ploy is leaving word at the doctor's office that "Dr. Gibbs would like a consult with Dr. Greene at 4 p.m." That's code for, "Get your clubs!"
"I really struggled with getting out of football because that's the only thing we'd known," Gibbs says. "Could I make a living doing something else? Could I be happy doing something else? You know that you're very competitive, and you wonder, "Am I going to be happy sitting out there?' As we see, most coaches aren't. They turn around and come back.
"What happened for me -- and the Lord probably knew it -- is that I found something else that is very competitive. And my kids can be involved in it, too."