Joe Gibbs coaching the Dallas Cowboys? It would have been the unthinkable to Washington Redskins fans for the greatest coach in franchise history to have ended up with the team's bitter rival. But it could have happened if Gibbs had wanted it to happen.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during an interview here Friday that he spoke to Gibbs when he was searching for a coach following the 1997 season, between the tenures of Barry Switzer and Chan Gailey. Jones said that he never formally offered the job to Gibbs and he was seeking input about his search, but he also made it clear that he was interested in hiring Gibbs.

"When I talked to him, I didn't want to [offer Gibbs the job] because I wanted two things," Jones said. "I really wanted the benefit of his knowledge and his thinking about what the ideal situation might be for a head coach. I do recall asking, 'Now, it goes without saying that we'll have a little different conversation if there might be some interest in you getting back into coaching.' That's paraphrasing a little, but that might have been exactly what I said. But I initiated the thing by saying, 'I really wanted to spend some time and ask your advice in some areas. That's the main reason I called, with the assumption that that's what we'll talk about. If there's a chance that you might think about getting back into it, we'll have a different conversation.' "

Gibbs chose to continue running his Charlotte-based NASCAR operation until Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hired him in January. Gibbs, who was not available to comment on the subject late Friday, said upon his return to Washington that the Redskins were the only team he could envision himself coaching.

Jones said he was uncertain whether Gibbs would have considered coaching the Cowboys if he did want to coach.

"I don't know," Jones said. "I can't speak to that. But I do know we talked about how good it was for him to be there with his entire family. They could all work together there in Charlotte, and he was pretty satisfied with where he was right there."

Jones praised Snyder for getting the Redskins' Hall of Fame coach, who won three Super Bowls in his first go-around with the team, to return.

"It was as good a decision as you could make," Jones said. "It was a significant accomplishment on Dan's part to have lured Gibbs back into coaching. . . . There's no one that I respect any more than I do Joe Gibbs as far as putting together winning teams. He came through Arkansas years ago, and I gained a great respect for him. . . . The Redskins and Dan Snyder couldn't have done anything better to help their team.''