While his players certainly aren't going to walk over him, he's not a disciplinarian in the Bill Parcells mode. No doubt, he can come up with some strokes of genius with the X's and O's, but he's not the cerebral type like Bill Walsh. And while everyone in the organization certainly looks up to him and respects him, he's not the stern father figure that Tom Landry was.
Gibbs defies the stereotypes. The answer to what makes him a great coach is complex.
First and foremost, he is a competitive person to the nth degree. Certainly, all coaches at his level are competitive by their nature, but Gibbs takes it a bit further. For example, a lot of coaches take up racquetball to stay in shape. Gibbs did that, but he didn't do it just to keep fit, he got into it to win. After taking up the sport while an assistant coach in the mid-70's he entered tournaments and won the national championship for players 35 and older.
As much as he likes winning, Gibbs may like the competition itself even more. The challenge, the chase, the unknown are a lure for him. He summed this up in his re-introductory press conference
I told Pat (his wife), "There is no net." I am hanging. There is nothing down there. There's nothing going to catch us. And that may be the biggest thrill. Knowing how hard it is, but getting a chance to do something that's super hard. Hey listen, it's probably going to be one of the toughest deals you can imagine, but I think as part of that too that there's a thrill of saying it's that hard and getting a chance to do it."
Gibbs isn't a fiery competitor in the way of, say, Mike Ditka, who would rant and stomp when things weren't going well. But, make no mistake, Gibbs could get riled up.
At halftime of a 1986 game against Philadelphia, the Redskins trailed 14-0 and had given a performance that was listless at best. After the players filed into the locker room for intermission, they were stunned as a red-faced, screaming, chair-throwing tirade by Gibbs ensued.
"I thought maybe Coach Gibbs had been fired, and Ditka had been hired at halftime," free safety Curtis Jordan said.
"There were veins stick out of his neck," said linebacker Rich Milot.
Had such a rant been a commonplace occurrence, it may well have been blown off by the players, perhaps giggled about after the coach left the room. As it was, it got the players' full attention and they rallied to beat the Eagles
His competitive nature also fuels his tireless work habits. The hours from early in the morning to, well, early in the morning are legendary. Reporters would come to Redskins Park two or three days after a snowfall and see Gibbs' car in the parking lot still covered with virgin snow.
The long hours also speak to another Gibbs attribute that serves him well, his humility. Somewhere deep down inside there is an ego that gave Gibbs props as he hoisted the Lombardi, but it always stays well hidden. What drove him to work from early morning to, well, early morning while game planning was a fear that the coach he was about to face, or would face down the line was working harder than he was. He was afraid that the other coaches were better than him and smarter than him, so he'd better keep working.
Gibbs' lack of visible ego also allows him to surround himself with the best available assistant coaches. Even at the highest levels, there are many insecure head coaches who would view a staff of strong assistants as a threat rather than an asset.
The ultimate Gibbs statement about himself came after the Redskins won Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena. Not only had he won a championship in just his second year as a head coach, but he had beaten, in order, future Hall of Fame coaches Bud Grant, Tom Landry, and Don Shula. When a reporter asked if this accomplishment made him a genius, Gibbs practically turned white. He did not want the thought to even enter his head. No, he said, he was just lucky to be associated with a great bunch of players, the greatest owner and general manager in the world, and the greatest fans in the world. After you got through listening to him, you'd think that Gibbs had nothing more to do with all this than some guy sitting at home watching on TV.
We all knew better. Gibbs had competed against the best and had won. Over the years, the harder he worked, the more he competed, the luckier
Rich Tandler is the author of the upcoming book Gut Check: The Complete History of Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins. Read accounts of each games that Gibbs coached for the Redskins, data on every player who played for him and every coach who coached under him, offseason and between-games headlines and much, much more. For details on how to obtain this book, a must-have for any true Redskins fan, go to www.GutCheck.com
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