Old assistants on new mission with Redskins

Years later, Gibbs brings back coaches from team's golden era

August 05, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - "We're putting the band back together," says a gritty John Belushi in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. He's referring to Jake, Elwood, "Blue Lou," "Mr. Fabulous" and "Bones" Malone.

But it might well be Joe Gibbs, 63, talking about reuniting his Washington Redskins coaching gang of Joe Bugel, 64, Don Breaux, 64, Rennie Simmons, 62, and Jack Burns, 55.

Along with Ernie Zampese - who at 68 is in his first go-round with the team - the Gibbs group reintroduces one of the NFL's most storied coaching staffs. It also appears to be the oldest. Some of the members seemed grizzled when they worked for Gibbs the first time - and that was more than a decade ago.

"I think most of us would probably be sitting somewhere on the beach or somewhere else retired right now, but this rekindled everybody's fires," Simmons said.

Gibbs rehired them one by one after becoming Redskins coach for the second time in January.

"It didn't take Joe long to round up the old troops," said Bugel, an assistant head coach who is overseeing the offensive line. The line he built under Gibbs in the 1980s - the "Hogs" - was known for its members' girth and ability to protect the quarterback. The line allowed nine sacks in 1991, its best year. Last season the Redskins surrendered 42 sacks.

The call Gibbs made to Bugel's Phoenix home in January was really just a formality.

"When the call came, I was in bed at about 2 o'clock in the morning," Bugel says. "My wife starts screaming, hollering, laughing. He told me, `Joe, we're going back home.' I said, `When do you want me there?' He says, `Tomorrow.' It took me three seconds to pack."

Simmons, a former offensive coach under Gibbs now in charge of the tight ends, was under contract to the Atlanta Falcons, so Gibbs did not call to wake him up, too. He didn't have to.

The two have been friends since high school in California, and both played at San Diego State.

"Joe and I have been so close. Basically he didn't even have to say anything," Simmons says. "When I heard Buges was coming back and Coach Breaux was coming out of retirement, mentally the wheels are turning. You think, `We're going back to Washington and rekindle this thing and get it going again.'"

While most assistants toil in anonymity, the Redskins coaches, who saunter around the manicured practice fields in shorts and T-shirts, are known to many fans who call out their names hoping for autographs.

Simmons says he's heard the coaches "referred to as the Space Cowboys," a reference to a 2000 movie starring Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones as seemingly over-the-hill astronauts.

With all of their experience, the coaches have been imparting to a young Redskins team not to get too high or low as the season unfolds. That can be tricky in Washington, where always-high expectations are particularly elevated this year with the return of a coach associated with franchise glory.

"Coach Gibbs related to us about when we were here before and we went 0-5 [in 1981], so we know what it can be," Simmons said. "And we never even got too excited when we won a couple Super Bowls because we knew that you're only a few games from disaster."

The message to the players is that the season is too long to allow losses to erode confidence or, conversely, to permit a few wins to inflate egos.

So far, most of the players seem to be listening. Having three Vince Lombardi trophies on display at the practice facility - as the Redskins do - helps hold the players' attention. Gibbs was coach for all three.

The time-tested reputation of Gibbs and his staff was critical to restoring stability to an organization that had undergone what amounted to a failed coaching experiment the past two years. Steve Spurrier, the fourth Redskins coach since the beginning of the 2000 season, had no previous NFL experience before compiling a 12-20 record and stepping down last year.

"I think these guys have forgotten more football than most people know, particularly on the offensive side of the ball," quarterback Mark Brunell said of this year's coaches. "It's a lot of fun to be a part of it."

Gibbs is in his 21st NFL season, and Bugel his 27th. Bugel has been a head coach twice, for the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders. Like Gibbs, Bugel appears trim and healthy. "I'm 64 going on 35," he said.

The staff is so experienced that Gregg Williams, 46, a 13-year NFL coaching veteran, considers himself a student along with the players.

"I'm glad that he [Gibbs] came looking for me, because I want to learn," said Williams, former head coach of the Buffalo Bills. "I get a chance every day to walk the walk with Joe Gibbs."

It remains to be seen whether the more senior coaches can keep up over the course of a rigorous NFL season. Gibbs was known for keeping tortuous hours in his first coaching stint, from 1981 through 1992.

"We don't really even talk about hours," Bugel said. "We'll stay until we get it done. If it takes until six in the morning, we all have beds here. We don't mind."

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