When they were assistants with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975 and all the Xs and Os had been tucked away in training camp each midnight, Joe Gibbs and Wayne Sevier often dashed for a racquetball court. What happened helps explain why Gibbs is a Super Bowl coach.

"Joe was preparing that summer and through the season for the (over-35) nationals (the next year)," said Sevier, now the Redskin special teams coach. "And I was just a guy who liked the sport and thought playing somebody good would make me better. But Joe just drilled me, just flat out killed me time after time.

"I thought sometime he'd get a little bit lazy or overconfident and I'd slip up and get him. It never happened, and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand losing every time. It got to the point where I'd hit him with the ball. He was so much better, though, that he could hit me three times for every one I got in.

"So we just stopped playing. But he'd still go over there, by himself, and practice for an hour or so each night."

The intensity that drives Gibbs was evident much earlier. The Redskin coach's father, Jack, would find his preteen son crying as though the planet were about to stop spinning each time he or his team lost. Gotta accept that everybody loses now and then, Jack would preach.

"He's much better now," Jack said.

Gibbs was not necessarily born to football, although he carried one before more than one or two people carried him. Born in a three-room hospital in rural North Carolina, he was in his mother's arm when he was 1 day old when Jack tucked a tiny football near his elbow.

"A nurse took a picture of it," Jack recalled. "Think we still have it. Joe was named for his uncle, Joe Blaylock, who was a very good football player for Clemson."

If that's what makes Gibbs tick, what makes him win? A notion of offense that assures that certain players--oversized linemen, undersized tight ends with speed and hands, squirts who remind him of Terry Metcalf--will be overlooked by most teams.

He demands intelligence.

That's because so many plays depend on how the defense reacts to each snap. His three Rs are read, react and run, in that order. If, say, a cornerback retreats quickly, the receiver executes one pattern; a jam near the line calls for another, and so on.

A burner who cannot think on his feet won't last more than a few days of training camp. A Nick Giaquinto, who seems more suited to toting room-service trays, survives season after season because he is a football speed-reader. The player who runs 4.5 for the 40 doesn't always stay; the one who thinks 4.5 does.

"The first thing I did when Joe came," said General Manager Bobby Beathard, "was have a meeting, with all of his coaches and all of our scouts. It lasted maybe three days, going over position by position, what each coach looks for in a player and what we (the scouts) look for. So that we were all on the same page.

"That was never done before (when Jack Pardee was coach). Never. Those kinds of thing just never happened here."

The Dolphins' director of player personnel for six years, Beathard has drafted for both Super Bowl coaches. In Gibbs, he sees much of what made Don Shula so successful.

"They have staffs ready to accept these kids as challenges," he said. "We don't get ready-made players. There are very, very few like Billy Sims. It makes it easier to scout for a group like this, because they look for what a guy might be able to do rather than what he's done.

"When I was at Miami, I drafted Nat Moore in the third round. At the minicamp, he didn't show much. But after Nat knew what he had to work on, he was a natural. That wasn't uncommon down there. It's not uncommon here."

The No-Name Dolphins who went 32-2 over two seasons and walloped the Redskins and Vikings in back-to-back Super Bowls had relatively slow, safety types manning the corners. Team speed was woeful; they outthought nearly everyone.

Beathard sometimes is astonished how reasonably successful coaches evaluate talent so poorly. At Atlanta, Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin drafted Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan when Beathard was convinced the unheralded Ken Anderson was better.

"I've seen drafts destroyed by coaches," Beathard said.

Gibbs was wrong in judging Tom Flick a superior prospect to Neil Lomax, although Beathard said Flick never pushed himself in the offseason. Both the coach and general manager insist the Redskins are not going to fade quickly after the Super Bowl, as the Eagles and 49ers did.

No burnout for Gibbs. Not yet. He's scarcely been launched.