SAN DIEGO -- In a private moment several months ago, Joe Gibbs' eyes danced as they rarely do in the midst of his annual six-month ordeal known as the professional football season.

He was talking with a reporter about his team. He hadn't figured it out yet. But he knew the team was good enough to get to the Super Bowl, if . . .

"If we can only get on a roll," he said. "Someone's going to catch fire here. It could be us."

Then Gibbs pursed his lips and squeezed his fingers into two tight, meaty fists.

"And it's San Diego."

The words came in short bursts, almost breathlessly.

"That's the greatest part. That would mean so much to me."

At the peak of his professional life, Joe Gibbs, 47, has come home to San Diego to do what he does as well as anyone else in the business: coach a football team. He is thrilled to be back, to show the people who knew him in college in the early '60s and in pro football through 1980 that he has become the success they thought he might be. He also is happy to show them that, as he says, he has become a better person along the way.

Gibbs, the coach who has led the Washington Redskins to their third Super Bowl in six seasons, is a private man, an unknown man to many who watch him coach so studiously from the sideline. His personality unravels slowly, through stories he tells on himself about the good old days as an assistant coach to Don Coryell or John McKay, through jokes about the wife and kids, through the occasional locker-room pep talk, usually G-rated but so very fiery.

The book on Gibbs is short and sweet: he wasn't good enough as an offensive lineman at San Diego State to play in the pros, so he became a coach. He was an assistant until the Redskins called in 1981 and asked him to take over their team. The Redskins started out 0-5 and he thought he was about to be fired. He wasn't. Since then, in the past 6 1/2 years, his Redskins have lost only 28 games.

At Redskin Park, Gibbs is loyal and intense, but getting looser by the season, say those who know him. If he has gained one thing over the past seven years, it is a sense of perspective. He looks at himself in the mirror and marvels at the graying temples and all the wrinkles. He wishes he could do more about the paunch around the middle. Yet he often makes fun of the way he looks and the ravages of the job when surrounded by reporters.

Also, he handles criticism better than he used to, he says. He handles players better, too, and doesn't seem to have as much trouble benching or waiving a player as he did when he began. He still has a habit of painting his team as a severe underdog even when it can't help but win, but he has toned down his criticism of officiating, which some construed as plain old whining.

Away from the Park, Gibbs is boring. He admits it. He has milk and cookies before bed and his idea of a great time is sitting at home with his wife, Pat, and two sons, eating hamburgers and watching TV. A born-again Christian, he goes to church on Sundays and helped open a youth center to give a home to urban kids. He doesn't like the life he led prior to 1972, when he recommitted himself to religion. The stories are there -- he once beat up a couple of Marines on the front lawn of a sorority house, he ran with the guys, he swore -- but Gibbs sheepishly tries to avoid discussing them.

Now, he reads only two books during the season: the Redskins' playbook and the Bible. For a man in the public eye, he genuinely dislikes publicity. When cameras caught him praying on the sideline at the end of the NFC championship game, he found it "embarrassing."

So, if Gibbs only offers brief glimmers of himself to the outside world, it's up to those who know him to tell everyone what he's really like.

"Your team reflects your head coach, as witnessed by the Bears," said guard R.C. Thielemann. "Joe is smooth throughout, win or lose. We're the same way as a team. We try to keep an even keel. Ever wonder why this team does so well during strikes? The big reason is Joe Gibbs."

Gibbs has guided the Redskins to the Super Bowl during both strikes, something no other coach has been able to do. He says it is because he simply tells himself to "handle things better than anyone else."

"It used to be that I would have been bothered by the strike," he said. "Now, I realize we just have to work through it."

Miami Coach Don Shula, who took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl during the 1982 strike season and lost to the Redskins, saw Gibbs up close when their coaching staffs met to compare notes before the season.

"He's very unpretentious," Shula said. "He impresses me. He is very well-organized and a tremendous competitor. He's a guy who can roll with the punches. He seems to really be enjoying himself, yet he's such a hard worker. He doesn't seem uptight, like he really lets things bother him."

Middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz was on the outside looking in during the strike, yet he said of all the people he might have been angry with, Gibbs never came to mind.

"He seems looser since the strike," Olkewicz said. "He handled it right. Probably the worst thing he could have thought of was the strike. Probably nothing could be worse, I'm sure he thought, and they went 3-0."

Sometimes, the very people one would expect to hear criticize Gibbs sing his praises the loudest.

"He knows if something's bugging the team," said center Russ Grimm, who was not put back into the starting lineup when he returned from an injury. "He just sits down with us and we just talk it out."

"We were his kids," said Pete Cronan, a linebacker with the Redskins from 1981 until 1985, when Gibbs told him his career in Washington was over. "Joe has a great knack to make everybody on the field feel good about themselves. He goes out of his way to praise you, almost to the point of embarrassment. That's how he takes fair talent and gets more out of it.

"Now that I'm out of football, I've been exposed to a lot of people in the so-called real world," Cronan added. "And I have realized what a great manager of people he is. He motivates through positive reinforcement."

After practice some days at Redskin Park, Gibbs can be seen with an arm around a player, walking off the field, talking softly. More often than not, that player is hearing that he is going to be used differently -- or not at all -- in a certain game. It's usually not pleasant news, but the player always seems to nod, say thank you and spring into a jog as he leaves his coach's side.

New York Giants General Manager George Young has watched Gibbs make those changes from afar, in his office at Giants Stadium. Joe Theismann to Jay Schroeder to Doug Williams at quarterback, John Riggins to George Rogers to Kelvin Bryant to Timmy Smith at running back, Charlie Brown to Art Monk to Gary Clark to Ricky Sanders at wide receiver.

"He's always found a replacement and worked him in and kept his cool as he's been doing it," Young said.

"People don't realize how hard it is to change quarterbacks and keep on winning," said New England Coach Raymond Berry, one of Gibbs' best friends in the business.

Certainly, players have griped about things and even publicly questioned their status, as Williams did in December when he thought he would have to be traded to get a chance to be a starting quarterback. But they almost never question Gibbs' decisions.

"His attitude has been business-like, a quiet intensity," said kicker Jess Atkinson, whose playing fate has been in Gibbs' hands the past two months. "You can tell in his voice that what he says, he means."

"I think it takes a lot of enthusiasm," Gibbs said. "I think it takes a lot of energy. You've got to be up for it. I still feel like I'm up for it. If you don't, that's the time you quit."

Gibbs has another full year left on his contract with owner Jack Kent Cooke. But he has a deal that's even more important with his wife and two football-playing sons, J.D. and Coy.

"I sit down with my family each year to make a decision about continuing to coach," Gibbs said. "I think they feel good about it and want me to keep doing it. They have promised me they'll say if they want me to get out of coaching. And if they say it, I will seriously consider it."

So far, the thought of leaving the business has never come up, Gibbs said.

"You want to make sure you want it for the right reasons," he said. "I hope I don't want it for myself, for the money. I want it for a lot of other people, for the players, the organization. I ask myself that all the time . . . I hope I've got that in the right perspective."