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So Far, Gibbs Cool in Face of Burnout

By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Jan. 9, 1987

"I sometimes feel like somebody who's been raised in a glass house. I only experience certain things for six months -- and that's football. It's every second." -- Joe Gibbs

In his office, quite by accident, the Washington Redskins' coach is seated almost equidistant from symbols of what tugs at his time. And his mind. Over his right shoulder is family, pictures of the boys, J.D. and Coy; straight ahead is football, the pullout sofa where he sleeps three nights each week during the season.

"The times it gets you the most," he says of a routine that has gotten him very close to the top of his profession and the Redskins to two Super Bowls -- and counting -- in five years, "is getting up and looking at those pictures.

"You haven't seen the kids for two or three days and that's tough. Like anybody else, I find myself saying: 'Hey, am I doing the right thing? Is this worth it?' I worry about that. I weigh that all the time."

Others weigh Gibbs and go beyond the numbers: the winning percentage of 72, highest of any active coach, going into his 100th game with the Redskins, Sunday against the Giants for the conference title.

His friend, John Madden, comes right out and says what some others whisper privately: Gibbs is showing all the symptoms of burnout. The CBS analyst has observed Gibbs from the start, his first day as an obscure assistant to Don Coryell at San Diego State.

"I think it will happen to Joe, same as it happened to {Dick} Vermeil {with the Eagles}, same as it happened to me {after winning 103 games in 10 seasons as coach of the Raiders}," Madden said. "He's not one to do this a hell of a long time.

"He's not like {Tom} Landry or {Don} Shula, those guys. He'll do his job and then get the hell out, in that 10-year {or so} period.

"There are two types of coaches. One includes guys like Landry, Shula and {Chuck} Noll, who just go on and on. Nothing bothers 'em. Dallas is coming off the worst year in who knows how long, so Landry gets his knee operated on and is ready to go. No big deal.

"The other type of coach includes Vermeil. And Vince Lombardi. Ten-year guys and out. I think {Bill} Walsh is in that group. And {Bill} Parcells."

Exhibit A for Madden is a plant that no longer occupies a fairly prominent place in Gibbs' office. It died because Gibbs, so consumed by his passion, failed to tend to it. 'Tunnel Vision'

"Those things creep up, because you're so intense," Madden said. "You get tunnel vision. And the tunnel's mighty small. I see a lot of myself {in Gibbs}."

Gibbs chuckles about the plant. One of his qualities is a self-deprecating humor. Although he clearly has an enormous ego, Gibbs is more comfortable talking about his faults than his virtues.

"It was a beautiful plant," he said. "Tall and kind of weird looking. Somebody gave it to me, and I thought it was a fake. Then I'm looking over his {Madden's} shoulder {during a meeting before the Redskins-Giants game here a month ago} and I say: 'What happened to my plant? Has it melted?'

"The sucker was dead. I hadn't watered it."

Gibbs cannot remember being without sports.

"Ever since I was little," he said, "that's all I ever wanted to do. My mother would come to get me {from play} and I'd cry all the way home. In school, I was a math major, a science major, all that. I hated the stuff.

"I thought: 'What can I do with my life?' I hit on coaching. I loved that, anyway. I figured I'd play something all my life. Really, that's the decision I made. I didn't like anything else. It's like a kid saying: 'I'm not gonna grow up. I'm just gonna stay playing.' "

Like any very successful coach, Gibbs is able to grab the attention of his players and keep it. Madden, who was Gibbs' immediate superior at San Diego State, noticed that from the beginning.

"He's solid {as a tactician}," Madden said, "because he started as an offensive line coach. Before he draws pass patterns, he draws how to protect {the passer}. So many guys don't understand. They draw all these fancy plays, but they don't know how to block for 'em.

"I think what he's brought to the game is different formations with the same people. Clint Didier might be the H-back one play and a wide receiver the next play. And a tight end the play after that. People are starting to copy that.

"Also, I've always felt he did a better job at halftime, making adjustments, than anyone in the league."

Gibbs is a morning person, although not in the traditional sense. He's a lot fresher at 3 a.m. than at 8. One of the Redskins' best ideas, a package of motion plays that helped beat the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, came shortly before dawn.

"That's exciting," he said. "Creating. But there's lots of things that haven't been done in football yet, I'm sure. We change about a third of what we do every year. That part is fun."

The coaching ritual that has evolved for Gibbs is sleeping overnight Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He tapes a surprisingly relaxed television show with George Michael Thursdays, and usually is home by 10:30. Fridays, he often will be out of the office by 5:30.'That's Not Me'

"I kinda have to be emotionally involved with nearly everything," he admits. "Other coaches can back away, delegate more. That's not me."

The facet of Gibbs those not close to the Redskins are only now starting to see is his temper. Like many volcanoes, his infrequent outbursts are loud and colorful.

"I like 'em," said assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell, whose door Gibbs more than occasionally barges through. "People sitting in my office might think he's picking on me. Or humiliating me.

"I just smile -- and get it done. I like that fire underneath."

Madden is surprised Gibbs keeps such a tight cap on his emotions.

"There's a pot boiling inside him, I guarantee you," Madden said. "This is a firey guy. If you'd asked me, 20 years ago, what kind of coach I thought he'd be, I'd have said: 'Firey.'

"Inside, he's like Billy Martin and Shula. Or Earl Weaver. Vince Lombardi. Those type of guys. He's learned to contain {his rage}. Outwardly."

Madden was told about the tantrum Gibbs pitched at halftime during the Eagles game a couple of weeks ago, about R.C. Thielemann saying he'd never seen a man say so many things without swearing.

His old boss laughed.

"He couldn't have done that 20 years ago," Madden said.

Twenty years ago, Gibbs would have cussed?

"Hell, yes. He was like the rest of us 20 years ago." 'Chewing Me Out'

To accommodate their being apart so much during the season, Pat Gibbs sometimes would tape her day for Joe. Coy's games; J.D.'s braces. Her own routine.

"About five minutes into the fourth tape," said Joe, laughing, "she's angry with me. I'm not even there. She's chewing me out on tape. Well, so much for that."

Although he disagrees with Madden and the others about burnout, Gibbs is more than willing to address it. He knows he's on the fastest sporting track; he also knows that, just now, he loves it.

Smiling sheepishly, he says: "There's another world out there, I know. But mine has been, since about 1960, football. Many of us get out in the world and start charging for success. Or money. Or position. Or to win football games.

"All of a sudden, at about 50 or 55, you realize that your kids are so very important and you didn't spend enough time with 'em. But I think that happens to all of us, no matter what the business.

"Most guys say: 'Next month, I'll take the time.' And they still don't get to it. I at least have six months off. Maybe I'm more fortunate than most that way . . .

"The privilege I have is to coach the fans' team, Mr. Cooke's team. I know there'd be 500 guys tryin' to get this job if I wasn't here. I want to do the best I can, and that weighs on you.

"What hurts the most, and I think this is what happened to Vermeil, is you think you're doing your best and then something happens and somebody says you're not. All that adds up. I'm not sure that's burnout, but maybe it's part of it."

Wayne Sevier, the Redskins' special teams coach, has known Gibbs since high school. His strong religious faith, Sevier said, will keep Gibbs from suffering burnout.

"He has a certain serenity about him when there's turmoil all around," Sevier said. "It's the tranquility he gets out of religion. It's why I think he'll be able to handle the burnout better than most people."

"I hope so," said Gibbs.

Suddenly, Sevier pokes his head through the door and changes the subject. He reports that Redskin Park is still standing, no thanks to Gibbs' single-mindedness.

What happened was this: before Gibbs began the interview, he popped a blueberry muffin into the team's microwave oven. Walking back to his office, the coach forgot to retrieve it.

Usually, muffins get warmed in microwaves in about 10 seconds; this one was in for nearly 10 minutes.

"The smoke just got stopped before it hit the {fire alarm} sprinklers," Sevier said.

That muffin was burned out. Gibbs, returning to his projector with a smile, most assuredly was not.

© Copyright 1987 The Washington Post

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