Gibbs humbly reject label of greatness

MIKE LITTWIN

January 28, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Gibbs is missing something, although it wouldn't be championship rings.

His record suggests -- actually, demands -- that he be considered among the greatest coaches in NFL history. Not only has he won three Super Bowls, but he also has won them with three different quarterbacks over 10 years. There's no Montana era or Bradshaw era or Unitas era. For the Redskins, there's only a Gibbs era.

And yet. And yet. Something is missing.

If you want to know what it is, try saying this: Lombardi, Landry, Gibbs.

L Doesn't work, does it? You get Lombardi, Landry . . . Gibbs?

Maybe it's because he's humble that Gibbs doesn't seem a likely candidate for Rushmorean ascendancy. In fact, Gibbs is so publicly humble, so convincingly humble, so thoroughly, aw-shucks-I'm-so-blessed, ever-so humble that you wonder sometimes if it isn't an act. Certainly, his players say he is a force with which to be reckoned. It's his shop. He runs it.

This lack of stature couldn't be born of his relatively brief reign as coach of the Redskins. Bill Walsh was a 10-year man, and he willingly -- if not humbly -- accepted the designation of genius as if it were his due. Here is a combination that trips comfortably from Walsh's lips: Einstein, Freud, Walsh.

There's a wonderful story involving Walsh and another of the greats. Though it was his first Super Bowl, the cult of Walsh was already in full gear. At a news conference, a San Francisco TV guy asked Walsh's opponent -- only Don Shula -- what it was that Shula had taken from Walsh's football philosophy. To which Shula replied something like this: "Let me get this straight. You're asking me what I've learned from Bill Walsh. You're asking me."

Shula has stature. Chuck Noll had stature. Al Davis, the coach/commissioner/owner, has mystique.

Gibbs has, well, he has the rings. He has a 115-53 record. He has, well, quirks.

He is most famous for regularly sleeping in his office about three nights a week during the season, unless it's a particularly big game. There's film -- called "fim" by your typical coach -- to study. And Gibbs studies so completely that it's virtually all he knows, other than stock-car racing. You've heard the stories. He didn't know who Oliver North was, even during the hearings. He hadn't heard of Madonna. He didn't know who was running for president.

"You can't separate the coach from the man," said linebacker Matt Millen, who has spent time with a few of the football geniuses. "He's dedicated to the point where it's almost fanatical. But what makes him different from a lot of coaches is that his ego doesn't tie him to one concept or one scheme. He has a great willingness to adjust.

"I don't think we have great talent on this team, but we have a great team. And that's because Gibbs knows how to use the personnel."

That's what he does. He adjusts. He'll try the no-huddle. If he's got a quarterback like Rypien, he goes deep. If he's got a #F running back like Riggins, he grinds it out. What Gibbs does is not sexy. He doesn't have a Tom Landry jaw or hat. He never said winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Lombardi may not have said that either, but you believe he did.

All Gibbs does is coach winning football teams, and, fanatical or dedicated as he might be, he doesn't seem to burn out.

"If I was smart, I might step aside, but I'm not very smart," Gibbs, 51, said after the game Sunday. "I know the odds are not that good that we'll be here again. But I love what I do. There are negatives, but games like this make it worthwhile. I have no thoughts of stepping away. We'll be teeing it up again next year."

No one is more excited by that prospect than Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who, when asked how he would feel if Gibbs told him he had had enough: "I would be devastated."

Cooke knows the greatness of Gibbs. He knows that Gibbs probably spent part of his Sunday night worrying about next season and the fact after the last Super Bowl win, the Redskins were 7-9. He knows that Gibbs is smart, whatever Gibbs says. Marv Levy, who coached the losing Buffalo team, was Phi Beta Kappa and has his master's from Harvard. But a football game is not a debate, although the Bills might have lost that one, too. Late Sunday, Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly was saying he couldn't remember huge chunks of the evening's events -- a lucky stroke of amnesia for him, all things considered.

In every aspect of the game, the Redskins were a step ahead. Where receiver Gary Clark was concerned, it was often six or eight steps ahead. The Redskins dominated the game without any dominating players. They have Joe Gibbs. That seems to be plenty.

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