Joe Gibbs says his first three weeks as head coach of the Washington Redskins have been "exciting, enjoyable and surprisingly smooth." They also have been filled with some apprehension.

"Everyone is trying to put together what I'm like," Gibbs said, leaning back in his chair at Redskin Park. "They want to get a feel for the type of person I am. But I'm just tring to be myself. I think that comes over pretty quickly."

The man he replaced, Jack Pardee, was very well-liked, both at Redskin Park and among Redskin fans. His dismissal was controversial and Gibbs' appointment was greeted with a "who's he? reaction, perhaps a natural response considering he was a little-known San Diego Charger assistant before coming to Washington.

So these early days as Redskin coach have been crucial for Gibbs, who has been living in a nearly motel room since being hired. He realizes initial impressions can be lasting ones, especially now, with critics of Pardee's firing watching to see how he fits in.

Will he be a yes may for General Manager Bobby Beathard and owner Jack Kent Cooke?

Will he be in charge of the football team, or will be have roster cuts and starting lineups dictated to him by his superiors?

Will he be a hatchet man, cutting the veteran players Pardee kept, even in the final weeks of his tenure?

"I know people are waiting to see what I do and how I conduct myself," Gibbs said. "I've already been told that some veteran players think their Redskin days are over. Anyone who forms an opinion about me before I can start doing my job is doing everyone a disservice."

Gibbs' personality is well suited to this initial shakedown period.He is an easy conversationalist and seems to like to meet and talk with people. He has a smoothness and warmth that quickly puts others at ease.

Ultimately, the most important effect I'll have on this world is not how many games I win, but the kind of relationships I have with people," he said. "People interest me. I would have to be in some kind of people business if I wasn't coaching. But I'm convinced I am here in this world ot do the job I'm doing."

If he feels added pressure in these early days, he doesn't show it. There is a hardness about him, especially in his eyes and in the firmness of his voice, that says he is in charge here, that this is his team.

Sitting behind Pardee's old desk, wearing a bright yellow sweater bearing a Redskin insignia, Gibbs handles himself like a man who has been a head coach for years instead of weeks. He is thriving on the increased tempo, despite the toll it is taking on his body.

"I found for the first week or so, I didn't need any more than four or five hours of sleep," he said. "I just have so many things on my mind, so many ideas that I wanted to accomplish. I didn't want to take time out to sleep."

Since being named Redskin coach Jan. 12, he has hired the majority of his staff, spent five days scouting prospects at an all-star game, talked in person or on the phone to about 25 players, begun working on a spring work scehdule and bought a house in Vienna, Va.

Next week things will slow down. He will return today to San Diego for the first time since being hired by the Redskins. He'll remain there most of February and move his family to Washington permanently in April.

"Once I'm back in Washington, I don't expect to have many days off," he said. "We've got a lot to do, a lot to prepare for. But the more I think about it, the more excited I get."

Joe Gibbs has wanted to be a head coach for a long time. But to achieve his goal, he says he didn't compromise his standards when negotiating his three-year contract with Beathard and Cooke.

"I am in charge of the two things a coach has to be in charge of," he says firmly. "I hire the staff and I determine the roster. If you don't have those powers, it won't work, and I have them here.

"The draft is another sticky situation at a lot of places, because the coach says he has to have say over the players who could get him fired. Here, Bobby heads the draft but we are going to have input. The assistant coaches are going to work out the possible prospects and it will all be talked over by everyone, so when we take a guy, we can all live with it."

Gibbs says he has never been told by his bosses "to purge the roster, to make it younger. That's never come up. Nor have I been told I am going to have to keep a player.

"People have a misconception about this whole situation. I'm not going into this feeling I have to cut older players. That's not how it's going to work.

"I've been warned that the heart of this team, the veterans, were worried that I was coming in here to get rid of them. But I'm selfish. I don't care if a guy is 20 or 50, if he can play, I'm keeping him. I just want players who want the team to win as badly as I do.

"That's why I've tried to contact as many players as I could right away. I wanted to tell them first hand what my thinking is. Age will never be the single determining factor in cutting a player. It will be weighed, of course, along with a lot of other things. I want what is best for the team, now and in the future.

"I've decided to even forget about looking at film of last year's games for now. I'm going to hold a minicamp (probably in early April) and that's when I'll first start judging the players. I don't want to see how they played under a different philosophy and under different instructions. Once that camp is over, then we'll start deciding who we will ask back to training camp."

Gibbs prediced that he and Beathard, whose philosophical differences with Pardee led to the coach's dismissal, will always have "some strain in our relationship. Bobbt and I will disagree on players, because scouts always have different opinions than coaches.

"But I also think we will be able to sit down and talk it over and come to an agreement. Things won't be done arbitrarily.That's why I keep calling this a team effort."

Gibbs is aware that many of his peers feel the Redskins' present front office setup, where the coach is not the dominant figure, won't work. He disagrees.

"I've been involved in three different pro situations. At Tempa Bay, John McKay determined everything. At St. Louis, management had the power. At San Diego, it was shared between the coach and the general manager. Here, it's slightly different because of Bobby's input into the draft.

"But it's enough like the Chargers to convince me it will be a success. The Chargers are winners and we will be, too."

When Gibbs flew to New York City to be interviewed by Cooke and Beathard, he brought four pairs of pants, a suit and a list of assistant coaches he wanted if he was hired.

"I'm getting tired of wearing the same stuff but I'm really excited about the people we've hired as assistants," Gibbs said.

Cooke gave him permission to hire nine assistants, along with a commitment to pay the salaries it would take, as Gibbs put it, "to employ people who are so good they will be head coaches somewhere else pretty soon."

The lure of those lucrative salaries plus some longtime friendships have resulted in what Beathard describes as a "first-rate" staff, which currently has seven members.

"I've gotten everyone on the list so far," Gibbs said. "Every one of them. I feel like I've hit a home run already."

Three of the assistants -- Dan Henning, who will be assistant head coach, Don Breaux, the backfield coach, and Warren Simmons, Gibbs' administrative assistant and tight end coach -- are personal friends. Henning gave up an important staff job with Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins to join Gibbs.

Joe Bugel, the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, turned down an offer from his friend, Bum Phillips, who wanted him to be New Orleans' offensive coordinator. Joe Peccatiello, the linebacker coach, gave up the defensive coordinator's job with Seattle. Wayne Sevier, who was with San Diego, walked away from a potential Super Bowl club to be the Redskins' special teams coach.

Richie Petitbon, Parde's secondary coach, was pushed hard by Beathard for the defensive coordinator's job. Gibbs hired him, although he admits he doesn't know Petitbon very well.

If LaVern Torgeson, the Rams' defensive line coach, agrees to take a similar job with Washington, Gibbs will have filled all but one possible staff spot. And he may leave the last position empty unless he can find a young, eager college coach who wants to break into the pro ranks as a jack-of-all-trades defensive aide.

Gibbs admits his offensive staff is a bit top heavy, but he claims everyone has accepted their specific duties. He actually will be the offensive coordinator (and work with quarterbacks). Henning, who was in charge of Miami's passing game, will handle receivers. And Bugel, a former Houston assisstant, will direct the offensive line. But both of those assistants, Gibbs hopes, could benefit in future job hunts from having prestigious Redskin titles.

And he says he sees no problems developing on his defensive staff despite the possible presence of two former coordinators (Torgeson and Peccatiello) under Petitbon, who has never held that position before.

"When I looked for assistants, I wanted people who could work together and get along for the six months we'll be together every year," Gibbs said. "I also wanted people who were highly motivated, who didn't wnat to be satisfied with just being assistant coaches. They also had to be good teachers, and they all have the same sense of loyalty to me. You could go to war with them and depend on them.

"The fact that some of them left good jobs to come here says something, I think, about the Redskins and what we want to do here. These people don't want to be associated with a loser in any sense of the word."

To help allievate any doubts in his assistants' minds, Gibbs took his offensive staff to Cooke's estate in Upperville, Va. There, the coaches receives a spirited pep talk.

"By the time we left the house, we were all ready for the season to start," Gibbs said. "Everyone was fired up. Mr. Cooke really got us excited."

Gibbs talks to Cooke frequently about the assistants, about his house hunting, about his job in general. Both men seem delighted with the arrangement.

"That's one thing I wanted to get straight before I took the job," Gibbs said. "I wanted to know if I could call Mr. Cooke directly. He is so interested in this team, he's the boss and eveyone knows that.

"But how many other owners care so much that assistant coaches are important to him? But how many towns care about their team like this one does? I've only been here a few weeks and I can't believe the intensity of interest. It's like a college town when it comes to football and I love that."

Gibbs laughed. "Everyone around me kept telling me I'd be a head coach real soon," he said. "I was the only one who doubted it might happen so quickly.

"But now that I'm here, I feel very comfortable in the job. It seems like I've been here forever. I just hope I feel that way once we start playing games." CAPTION: Picture 1, Joe Gibbs, hired Jan. 12, is already at work in his office at Redskin Park. He has hired most of his staff, scouted college prospects and bought a house in Vienna, Va.; Picture 2, "I'm convinced I am here in this world to do the job I'm doing," says Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs. Photos by Ricahrd Darcey -- The Washington Post