Coach Joe Gibbs still remembers the heady time nine years ago when he was walking to the hotel ballroom for the winning coach's traditional news conference the day after Super Bowl XVII.
"You get to feeling important. You think, 'Man, I've got it done here, and I've achieved things,' " he said. Then a woman stopped him outside the ballroom.
"This lady runs up and she goes, 'Oh, Don, Don, give me your signature,' " Gibbs said. "It makes you realize you're really not that important."
The tale of how he was confused with Don Shula the day after his Washington Redskins had bested Shula's Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl is the quintessential Gibbs story.
He tries never to take himself too seriously. At that news conference, he scoffed at the idea that he could be compared with the titans of the profession such as Shula, Tom Landry or Chuck Noll.
"Anybody who knows me knows I'm a very average person who works hard. My goal is to be one of those 10-year people," he said at the time. "I think coaches who have proven they can win over a long period of time should be considered the successes in this profession. Ten years from now, if I'm still standing here, then I'll be a success."
He's still standing there -- alone.
"He's probably at the top of the ladder as far as successful coaches are concerned," said Harry Gamble, the general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I don't think anybody's better," said Ernie Accorsi, who runs the football operations for the Cleveland Browns.
Tomorrow, Gibbs will fly to Minneapolis to make his fourth Super Bowl appearance and attempt to win it for the third time.
If the Redskins, who are favored by a touchdown, beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI next Sunday, he'll join Bill Walsh, who won three, and Noll, who won four, as the only coaches to win more than two Super Bowls. Landry and Don Shula have won two each.
Now that Landry has been fired, Noll has retired, Walsh has returned to college coaching after a stint in the broadcast booth, Shula has made the playoffs only once in the past six years and Bill Parcells hasn't decided what he's going to do when he grows up, Gibbs, 51, stands at the top of his profession.
"You mean I'm the old guy? Is that what you're saying? I don't think I'm compared with those guys," he said.
Gibbs said that Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos -- like Gibbs, in his 11th season -- called him recently to note that they're now second in NFL seniority to Shula, who has coached 29 seasons.
"I think that's a sad commentary on what we do," Gibbs said, referring to coaches' lack of security.
When he was asked about his 10-year comment, he said: "I think it's a success. I don't know how much of a success."
As for the standard set by Landry, Noll and Shula, Gibbs said:
"You're talking about guys who coached 20 years and did great things over and over and over again. I think those are the guys that everybody looks to. They certainly don't look at [he started laughing] Dan Reeves or Joe Gibbs in that same layer."
Gibbs was asked if, nine years from now, he'd set a 30-year standard that he couldn't match.
"If I'm standing here at 20 talking to you guys, you can take me over to that [flag]pole over there and hang me from that thing if that happens," he said. "The other one [10 years], I was probably a little premature. I needed the money, too. I didn't add that."
Gibbs has admitted losing more than a million dollars in bad investments in his early years with the Redskins, and now he has an expensive hobby in NASCAR racing. He'll sponsor a team on the circuit this year.
His interest in auto racing has fueled rumors that he'll quit coaching soon, but Gibbs seems to have lost none of his zest for the game and has said that this has been one of his most enjoyable seasons.
"As long as my family is still excited about it, that's important to me. When they lose it and I lose it [he'll retire], but until that happens. . . " he said.
Despite Gibbs' success, he hasn't become a larger-than-life figure. He doesn't have Vince Lombardi's gap-toothed smile, Shula's jaw, Noll's stare or Landry's hat.
"He looks like an ordinary guy and he sounds like an ordinary guy, but he's not an ordinary guy. He's very extraordinary," Accorsi said.
When the Cleveland Browns were searching for a head coach in 1989, they interviewed mostly defensive coaches, and asked each which was the toughest system to prepare against.
"All but one rated the Redskins first," Accorsi said. "That system has gone other places [via former Gibbs assistants Dan Henning to Atlanta and San Diego and Joe Bugel to Phoenix], and it hasn't been as effective. It's not the system. It's him. He's the ultimate coach. I don't think he's gotten anywhere near the aura he deserves. There's a design to everything they do."
Gibbs' version is that owner Jack Kent Cooke, general managers Bobby Beathard and Charlie Casserly, the assistant coaches and the players should get most of the credit.