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TSN: An old friend is new again


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An old friend is new again

By Dave Kindred

Sporting News


It's very science fiction, Joe Gibbs' return is. It's like one of those guys on Mount Rushmore showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and said, "Dubya, go fly a plane or something; I'm back." Joe Gibbs is back? Are we sure that's not a body double? How do we know it's not a computer-generated image, one of those hologram things complete with a black Redskins cap?

One day last winter, after 11 years away playing NASCAR vroom-vroom, Joe Jackson Gibbs came back to Redskin Park, stepping out of a limousine, a big, black, presidential, monarchial Cadillac stretch, which was a long way from the early 1950s when Joe's father, deputy sheriff J.C. Gibbs, made himself a legend by wrapping the department's Plymouth around a telephone pole in hot pursuit of a moonshine-running bootlegger in the dark North Carolina hills.

Shortly after the coach's arrival, his secretary said there was a note on his desk. From Bill Parcells, she said.

Gibbs told the story the other day. Said he approached the note cautiously -- smiling now, about to suggest he had called for a bomb squad. "Didn't want something to blow up," he said.

He read the note from the dinosaur who thundered through the NFL East in the Mesozoic Era, retired to television, then returned to terrorize mere mortals again. Parcells congratulated Gibbs on making the same journey and added, "Does this mean we can't be friends for the next five years?"

At that, Gibbs laughed out loud.

"Yeah," he said.

No one's your friend in the NFL.

But then, that's half the fun of it if you're Joe Gibbs, who long ago raised anxiety to an art form.

Ask him about his first game back. Ask if he watched the Redskins' chip-shot field goal with 21 seconds to play and a 13-10 lead. There he was, hands on knees, head down, as if he couldn't bear to see what would happen, as if watching at that moment was less important than praying.

Ask him if he watched, and he falls silent and finally says, "I think so."

The story about his daddy's competition with that fleeing moonshiner isn't much different from a story about his son. Coy was 8 years old. Gibbs put him to bed, and they said their prayers, and he told the boy how perfect heaven was. That's when Coy wondered if there were games in heaven, games he could play in and win. Which caused the coach to call a theological audible. Yes, he said, the Lord would take care of that.

So when someone asked Gibbs the other day about what it's like to be back in the NFL, back where every Sunday is a hot pursuit, where winning is heaven and losing is not an option, he said, "Your heart is about to jump out of your chest."

Only Chuck Noll has won more Super Bowls than Gibbs, four to three. Not even Bill Walsh won his three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, as Gibbs did. Maybe Noll and Walsh, maybe Landry and Lombardi, maybe even Parcells -- maybe every great football coach believes he works on the precipice of professional peril, one misstep from oblivion.

Gibbs said it out loud. He said it in 1989, when his Redskins already had won two Super Bowls. Two years later, they would win a third. Still, on a cold and dreary November day deep into a 10-6 season, he turned away a compliment by saying, "You're three weeks from being fired."

When asked if he could possibly be talking about himself, Gibbs said, "Do not lose three in a row." He said it evenly, coldly, and it was clear he believed it. Three in a row, they call for your head. Four, they get it.

Maybe in some places that is still true, but not in Washington, not anymore. The Redskins' owner, Dan Snyder, gave Gibbs a five-year contract said to be worth $28 million. There is a sense of manifest destiny about Gibbs' return, a feeling expressed by Joe Bugel, the offensive line coach whose famous Hogs anchored those Super Bowl teams and who ended his retirement at 2:30 one morning, the minute Joe Gibbs said he needed him again.

"That first game, we're in the bus on the interstate, five police cars escorting us, and all along the road people are waving to us, they're shouting, they're giving us thumbs-up, they're holding signs, 'Joe is Back,' 'Joe for President,'" Bugel said. "And I look over at Breaux ..." The offensive coordinator Don Breaux had been with Gibbs from the start, too, and he answered the call for one more try. "And we both have tears rolling down our cheeks. And he says, 'We're back.'"

Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking Gibbs is stuck in the Mesozoic Era. His staff includes a coach with the futuristic title "Third Down Specialist -- Safeties." He also hired away from the NFL a replay official to advise him on challenges to game calls.

And he hired a fresh-faced kid, a rookie, a linebacker at Stanford who became a NASCAR driver. He's the Redskins' offensive quality control coach. His name is Coy Gibbs. He's now 31 years old. He still wants to win.

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