On the morning after the 1992 NFC championship game, Joe Gibbs asked one of his assistants to fetch a file marked "Super Bowl." Later that day, after he had studied the contents, took a few notes and called a team meeting, Gibbs began the business of preparing his players for their appearance on the biggest stage in professional sports.
Because Super Bowl XXVI was still two weeks away, Gibbs told his players that they had to use the extra week to take care of certain things. They needed to accommodate all ticket requests, arrange travel for family members and have their minds only on the Buffalo Bills by the time they traveled to Minneapolis seven days before the game.
On that one day, when there wasn't a practice or a game, when there was no player signed or draft pick scouted, it was easy to see why the Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs were so good so often. Gibbs left little to chance, and by the time he retired in the spring of 1993, he had established himself as one of the best coaches in NFL history with a resume that included eight playoff appearances and four Super Bowls. His Redskins won three Super Bowls, including Super Bowl XXVI, a 37-24 rout of the Bills.
To the thousands of Washingtonians who cheered his teams, Gibbs was a brilliant strategist and a first-rate motivator. He had the rare ability to take a diverse group of individuals and get them to play as a single unit. He also did it without screaming or cursing or cajoling.
Since devoting his attention to his auto racing teams, Gibbs has made dozens of speeches to corporations, telling each gathering that the most important decision he made with the Redskins was picking the right type of people.
"The longer I'm around competitive ventures," he said recently, "the more I'm convinced that you've just got to have the right people. In football, you've got to have guys who are smart and tough."
Gibbs believed he had surrounded himself with the right type of people at Redskin Park. He mentions quarterback Joe Theismann, saying: "Our punter got hurt in a game once, and we're looking for someone to punt. Everyone is hiding except Joe, who comes up and says he can do it. His first one went about six yards. There's no way we're going to let him punt a second one, but he runs over to the sideline and says, 'I just missed it. I'll get the next one.' He just didn't think there was anything he couldn't do."
Gibbs was also much more than that. He had brilliant people skills and knew what motivational buttons to push on almost every player. It was the lure of big money with some, respect with others, fame with others.
I once peeked into his vacant office late one night and saw an eerie scene: a clean desk, a sofa that clearly had been slept on and an open Bible. That was all.
The next day, I asked Gibbs what he had been reading, and he mentioned King David.
"His story hits me hard," Gibbs said. "He's someone who is rich in the way that the world measures wealth. But he's empty inside."
He paused and said he didn't want what he was about to say next in print any time soon.
"I worry about feeling the same way," he said. "I worry I'm just not contributing enough. Am I using my position to help enough people?"
Those kinds of thoughts bothered Gibbs the longer he coached. He believed some had come to take the franchise's success for granted and was increasingly bothered that his career had forced him to spend so much time away from his two sons.
Finally, in the spring of 1993, he walked away. He moved to Charlotte, where he has built two of Winston Cup's most successful racing teams. He spends his days now schmoozing with sponsors.
In a century in which Washington had a losing baseball team, and then no baseball team; when the basketball team provided only a few shining moments, Gibbs set a standard for excellence in this city. Think of the afternoons when RFK Stadium was filled with electricity because of his teams. Think of how it felt those dismal afternoons after he departed.
Without Gibbs, there might not have been the Hogs or Riggo rumbling around the corner or the Fun Bunch or Darrell Green making that amazing punt return or Gary Clark streaking down the sideline. Seven years since he coached his last game, Washington sports fans still know the nicknames: Art and Dutch and Doc and Bosco and the others. And they probably appreciate Joe Gibbs more now than ever.
Richard Justice has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1986.
CAPTION: Coach Joe Gibbs's resume with the Redskins included eight playoff appearances, three Super Bowl championships and a lot of respect.