Fire within Gibbs shows no signs of burning out

Ken Rosenthal

July 24, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

CARLISLE, Pa. -- Everyone has a favorite Joe Gibbs story. About how he never heard of Oliver North. About how he kept in touch with his wife using a cassette tape. About how his car was still covered with snow at Redskin Park, three days after a storm.

Gibbs, 50, is the prototype of the workaholic football coach, but he's still with us, isn't he? Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh went network. Tom Landry and Buddy Ryan got fired. Gibbs, entering his 11th season, is trying to win his third Super Bowl.

His tenure is the longest in the NFC, and the fourth longest overall. Gibbs isn't as much an institution as Don Shula (28 years), Chuck Noll (22) or Chuck Knox (18), but he's getting close. Not bad for a guy who seems a prime candidate for burnout, the official coaches' disease of the NFL.

During the season Gibbs sleeps three nights a week at Redskin Park rather than waste an hour driving home and back. Just last year former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann said, "You have to wonder about his health." Two years ago CBS' John Madden said, "He's not one to do this a hell of a long time."

Well, there Gibbs was yesterday, running practice, joking with reporters, ignoring the stifling heat. If ever there was a day to burn out -- truly burn out -- this was it. But Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said, "I see his enthusiasm being the same as it's been. He's fired up and ready to go."

Which, of course, is good news for the Redskins, who have had a winning record under Gibbs every season except 1988. This year they again lack a star quarterback -- holdout Mark Rypien would be third-string with the New York Giants or San Francisco -- but they're still favored to win the NFC East.

The reason is Gibbs, whose offensive schemes prevail even as his team constantly rotates quarterbacks -- Jay Schroeder and Doug Williams, Rypien, Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge. No one prepares better, as evidenced by his 12-4 postseason record -- second in percentage only to Vince Lombardi's 9-1.

There isn't much left for Gibbs to accomplish, yet he presses forward with the same dedication every year. His players revere him for it -- "if the coach works that hard, I can too" -- but even Gibbs wonders how long he can continue in a profession that chews up its best and brightest, from Madden to Dick Vermeil to Mike Ditka.

First off, the sheer competition is draining: "There's a lot of emotion in this game," Gibbs said. "How many times can you do it?" Second, the strain on his wife and two sons is overwhelming: "There are definitely times when you get up in the morning and rTC say, 'What are you doing?' "

So, how does he keep going? For one thing, he has excellent relationships with his owner (Jack Kent Cooke) and general manager (Casserly). Both Parcells and Walsh reportedly engaged in power struggles with management. Gibbs' sole problem -- former GM Bobby Beathard -- left for San Diego.

Of course, he gets along with his players too. Gibbs refuses to allow the Redskins to use his photo on the cover of their media guide. With few exceptions (a John Riggins here, a Dexter Manley there) his players reflect his low profile. Can you imagine Gibbs shouting at his quarterback like Parcells?

"He's very consistent in his attitude toward the coaches and players," said Washington quarterback coach Rod Dowhower, who was the head man with Indianapolis in 1985-86. "You know what to expect each day, and that's real important."

Gibbs can appear serious, even humorless, but Dowhower and others see another side. "He's an excellent communicator -- direct, but sensitive," Dowhower said. "He can laugh, tell a joke, be lighthearted when it calls for it. But he can also be a task-master and get down to business."

Another Redskins assistant, offensive line coach Jim Hanifan, said the perception of Gibbs as one-dimensional is also mistaken. Gibbs is deeply religious, and is involved with a home for troubled teen-agers. He jogs as often as possible, and his off-season interests include racquetball, skiing and auto racing.

Still, not even Gibbs would suggest he's a Renaissance Man. His life consists of faith, family and football -- in that order. "It's priorities," he said. "If you get to where a loss is the most important thing in the world, chances are you're going to start living on that."

So, frantic or not, he tries to make time for prayer each day. Really, how bad can things get? His wife Pat overcame two life-threatening operations for the removal of a brain tumor in 1979. He lost $1.2 million in poor real estate investments shortly after becoming coach in 1981.

"The thing I worry most about is that it takes a physical toll," Gibbs said. "I know exactly how far I can run -- and at the end of the season it's half as much. You're not getting sleep, you're not eating correctly, you're not rested.

"I worry a lot about that. But there are problems in every job. The thing that's unique about this is that for a six-month period, your life is not your own. That, and the fact everything is open for people to see -- that's the difference."

This year he'll be coaching against Ray Handley instead of Parcells, Rich Kotite instead of Ryan, Jimmy Johnson instead of Landry. You'd never know Joe Gibbs was there, except for the fact that he always is, and always wins.

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