Second time around: Mr. Gibbs returns to Washington

Friday, January 9th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) _ Joe Gibbs' first coming was nothing like this.

He was a little-known coordinator greeted with minimal fanfare when the Washington Redskins hired him in 1981. ``I was a big gamble at that point,'' he recalled.

He returned this time to a hero's welcome, met with cheering fans and a hoard of reporters covering the biggest unretirement in Washington since Michael Jordan.

``I'm a little embarrassed by so much attention,'' Gibbs said after a series of crowd-pleasing handshakes that would do a New Hampshire primary candidate proud.

Gibbs stood behind the podium at Redskins Park for the first time in 11 years on Thursday, admitting that his biggest challenge could be living up to his own legacy. The three Super Bowl trophies that shone so immaculately in front of him all bear his name, making him the long-lost savior in the eyes of fans who have seen just one playoff victory since his departure.

``There is no net,'' Gibbs said with a panicked laugh. ``I'm going to pray a lot. There's nothing down there. There's nothing going to catch us. That's maybe the biggest thrill of it _ knowing how hard it is, but getting a chance to do something super-hard.''

Gibbs spoke in a packed auditorium with several of his former players in attendance, including Mark Moseley, Gary Clark and Joe Jacoby. Auxiliary monitors and speakers were set up in the hallway. Such measures have never been used before at Redskins Park.

``I didn't wear my Super Bowl ring,'' Gibbs said, holding up his hand. ``This is all new. The past don't buy much, other than relationships. I've got to prove myself all over again.''

Gibbs made it sound as if he were starting at square one. He needs to complete his staff, even though he's already assembled five assistants. He needs to study tapes of his players. He needs to learn how to best use computers in an NFL setting _ they weren't around when he was last here. And he needs to learn the salary cap, a headache that didn't exist in his glory days.

``I reached a point in my life where you love the thrill of trying to do something that's almost undoable,'' the Hall of Fame coach said. ``Certainly this is probably as close to that as you can get.''

Gibbs' departure after the 1992 season was family-related _ his sons were growing up without him. Now his sons have sons. Gibbs' son J.D. is president of the successful Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR team, which can now run itself without its namesake. His other son, Coy, wanted to get back into coaching and will join Gibbs' new Redskins staff.

In other words, this was the perfect time for the 63-year-old coach to return, even though he had been at peace for years with his decision to retire.

``I apologize to all those people to whom I said 'No way,''' Gibbs said.

``My race team had matured,'' said Gibbs, explaining his turnabout. ``It was a lot of things, and it all kind of added up. If I had asked (wife) Pat any of those other years, it would have been a 'No way, read my lips' deal.''

Gibbs has a five-year contract, the title of team president and said he will have ``final say on the roster.'' He does not have the same contractual authority over all personnel matters that owner Dan Snyder gave to Marty Schottenheimer three years ago.

His new staff includes former Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams, who becomes the team's sixth defensive coordinator in six years. Joe Bugel returns to coach the offensive line, the same job he held when he oversaw the famed ``Hogs'' under Gibbs from 1981-89. Don Breaux, Jack Burns and Coy Gibbs will also be on the offensive staff.

Gibbs often slept on a cot at Redskins Park during his first tenure. He's promised his wife he'll come home at night this time around, and his diagnosis as a diabetic a few years ago means he has to take better care of his health.

Still, the more he talked, the more it sounded as if the midnight oil would continue to burn in his office.

``There's no getting around it,'' he said. ``In football, you've got to bust it.''

Gibbs said it was difficult watching the Redskins lose over the past few years. Steve Spurrier, whom he replaced, quit last week after a 5-11 season.

Gibbs said he ``talked some'' in recent weeks to the Atlanta Falcons about their head coaching vacancy, but his heart was in Washington.

``This is where I had those times,'' Gibbs said. ``I couldn't coach anywhere else.''