Fifteen months ago, Joe Gibbs wondered if he would complete his first season as coach of the Washington Redskins.
"I was scratching and clawing against the wall, but I kept sliding down," he said, remembering the nightmare of being an 0-5 rookie coach employed by an owner with an unbending dislike for failure.
Yesterday, Gibbs reached the top of that wall.
He was named National Football League coach of the year by The Associated Press after guiding the Redskins to an 8-1 regular season record, best in the National Football Conference, and to their first playoff berth in six years.
In the AP's voting for coach of the year, Gibbs received 49 of the 84 votes cast by a nationwide panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. The Raiders' Tom Flores had 14 votes and the Cowboys' Tom Landry was third with six.
"This award is a reflection on the family that we are trying to establish here," said Gibbs, who was an assistant coach for 17 years before joining the Redskins. "It starts from Mr. (Jack Kent) Cooke and Bobby (Beathard) to the players and staff and fans.
"It's a thrill to get it the first time. But my goal is to be a success eight and nine years down the road. If you win it again then, then you really have established yourself in this profession.
"I don't want to be a flash that helped turn something around in a hurry. I want to be part of something that will last a long, long time."
What makes Joe Jackson Gibbs, 42, a successful coach?
"The way he comes across to everyone, superiors and subordinates, that he is a good person, that he is going to be tremendously fair," said Dan Henning, Gibbs' assistant head coach. "It gives you an incentive to work hard."
"His competitiveness," said Wayne Sevier, the Redskins' special team coach. "He's a tenacious guy, a mentally tough person who wants to win very badly. He'll work and work until he finds an edge."
"He's innovative and very intelligent," said Beathard, who recommended to Cooke that Gibbs replace Jack Pardee two years ago. "He's a student of the game; he's always trying to think of something new, to be a step ahead of everyone else. He's sharp. And he's not afraid to be different."
Gibbs is of the new breed of pro coaches. He runs contrary to the Lombardi stereotype of the patriarch-dictator who demands complete loyalty from his players and sometimes relies on fear to obtain success.
His style is built on informality. He has few rules, he considers his players friends and his office door is open. And it's all right to laugh, even on the practice field. His friends say he would take it as the highest compliment if he was considered a player's coach.
"I want football to be fun for everyone," said Gibbs, who laughs easily in a high-pitched manner. "I want to win, but I want the players to look forward to coming to work."
In the transition from assistant coach to his first head coaching job on any level, Gibbs has been troubled most by personnel decisions and by how his relationship with players is preceived by the press.
He was near tears when he cut Terry Metcalf in September. He encourages veteran guard Ron Saul, who is on injured reserve, to work out at Redskin Park and remain part of the team. He tells his players they will not be traded or discarded coldly, that their contributions will be rewarded by his loyalty, that they will become former Redskins only when they have been clearly beaten out.
When he thought a column by Dave Kindred in Tuesday's Washington Post portrayed him as cold and unfeeling about injuries, he reacted angrily, explaining that he feared the story put him in a bad light with his players.
"My injury policy is just the opposite of what I think the article implied," he said. "I tell the players, if you have any injury, tell me. If you are hurt, we'll play someone else until you heal, period. We aren't like the coach who gets upset if a player won't play with an injury or the coach who tries to hide injuries. We hold people out of games all the time if they are hurt; we always have and we always will."
The lingering memory at Redskin Park about the 0-5 period last year is Gibbs' strength under pressure. It was a time both he and the team could have fallen apart. They didn't, because of a trait Sevier attributes to Gibbs' longtime association with Don Coryell.
"Don had a way of turning the worst possible situation into a positive thing," Sevier said. "Joe does, too. At 0-5, he told the players that they had a challenge ahead of them, to show people they weren't losers. The players probably were ready to see this rookie coach crack but he never wavered. I can't imagine a worse spot for him, but he has an inner strenth. The way he held up cemented the relationship between him and the team."
That 0-5 start also answered the major questions about Gibbs when he was hired by the Redskins. Here was this bright, good-looking, well-respected man who doesn't smoke or drink and has deeply held religious convictions. It was an almost-too-perfect combination. But could he handle the broader duties of a head coach?
"If he couldn't have coped with all those things," Beathard said, "I'd hate to think where we'd be right now."
Henning: "There is one thing no one ever should forget about Joe Gibbs. He has a fire burning in his gut that drives him. It keeps him from failing."
Gibbs' coaching style is built around aggressiveness. Unlike many of his peers, he plays to win, not to keep from losing. He says if it's third and four and if there is single coverage on a wide receiver, he wants his quarterback to forget the short, first-down pass. He wants a long pass for the touchdown.
Gibbs, who has a master's degree in physical education, also is a teacher. That's one of the traits that originally attracted Beathard, who thought a team in transition, such as the Redskins, needed on-the-field patience and instruction.
In forming a staff, Gibbs hired other teachers, and mostly close friends. Rennie Simmons, his best friend, and Sevier were teammates at San Diego State. Henning coached with him at Florida State as did Don Breaux. Breaux also was with him in Arkansas.
He convinced Cooke to give the assistants generous salaries, and he rewarded their loyalty with coaching freedom. Joe Bugel has unquestioned control of the offensive line; Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, runs his unit with little interference.
"He lets you voice your ideas," Henning said. "He's willing to listen. He never is afraid to try something new."
Gibbs has a particular feel for assistant coaches, mainly because he was an assistant so long. He carefully chose his bosses back then: Coryell at San Diego State and the pros; John McKay at USC and Tampa Bay; Frank Broyles at Arkansas; Bill Peterson at Florida State.
"Joe was always asking questions and challenging methods in a constructive way," Broyles said. "Once a decision was made, he was totally loyal to it. But he always has been used to an environment where opinion is encouraged."
Gibbs seldom gives spirited pep talks; he prefers to set weekly goals for his players. His aim is to substitute consistent game performances (a strength of this year's Redskin team) for emotional peaks and valleys.
No other team in the league uses as many players in as many situations as the Redskins. A halfback who runs better than he catches is not asked to be a pass receiver; a defensive end who can stop the run better than he can rush the passer is replaced on third-and-long downs.
Henning: "Joe is the epitome of the offensive organizer and strategist. He is going to the final degree to devise a scheme that will put his players in the most advantageous situations. And he will organize it in such a way to get it done on the practice field and the game. A lot of coaches can't turn their ideas into reality, but he can."
Perhaps Gibbs' most notable offensive innovation is the Redskins' one-back offense, which he devised while San Diego's offensive coordinator. Created to take advantage of tight end Kellen Winslow's versatility, the one-back offense stemmed from Gibbs' fondness for creating formations to throw defenses off balance. He constantly is doodling with x's and o's, men in motion, down and distances and what he calls "packages" of specific plays using specific players.
The irony is that he just as easily could have become a defensive coach. As a graduate assistant at San Diego State, he started on defense, only to be switched by Coryell to offense after he had a run-in with John Madden, then a Coryell defensive assistant and later coach of the Oakland Raiders.
"I was coaching the alumni team in the annual spring game and John wanted me to turn over my game plan," Gibbs said. "Don had told me not to, so I didn't. John got mad and told me I was through as a coach."
Nineteen years later, he still is coaching. He admits he was frustrated at the lack of head coaching opportunities, although he says he never seriously considered leaving the profession.
"I'm just glad no one got him first," Beathard said. "People said it was a gamble to hire him, since he had never been a head coach. But a lot of the great coaches, Shula, Lombardi, Noll, came up the same way.
"I just had a gut feeling he could do the job. I never thought we were taking a chance."