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Letting Gibbs Be Gibbs

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 08, 2008

Washington Redskins fans (among whom I count myself) joked about the second coming of Joe Gibbs when he returned to coaching four years ago after eleven years away from the game. The Redskins franchise was in disarray, with only one playoff game since Gibbs had left. We all wanted a new round of glory years.

One of the things fans loved about Gibbs the first time around was his emphasis on character. Gibbs has always said that he looks for three things in signing football players, in this order: First, character; second, football smarts; third, physical ability. He always led in the character department too, with a deep religious faith, fundamental decency as a human being, and real concern for the total well-being of his staff and players. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, this philosophy touched a great many lives and also won three super bowls. When he retired in 1992, Gibbs was elected to the Hall of Fame.

When he returned to football for the 2004 season, Gibbs was less successful in the wins and losses, but probably even more successful in communicating the importance of faith and character. The entire sports world was treated to an astonishing display of both his goodness and his personnel management ability when Sean Taylor, widely regarded as the best athlete on the team, was murdered two-thirds of the way through the 2007 season. A devastated team was heartened by Gibbs’ frequent references to God, heaven and the primary importance of each person making good use of the time he is given.

Against impossible odds, struggling players reeled off four straight wins to get into the playoffs for the second time in Gibbs’ four years. It is widely said in the sports world that the only coach who could have accomplished such a feat was Joe Gibbs. Earlier, facing a different sort of adversity, the team had fallen to 5 and 7 (and overall the team lost slightly more games than it won during Gibbs’ second tenure), but cohesiveness remained the team’s hallmark. Complaints, recriminations, finger-pointing and self-justification were extremely rare, almost non-existent. Characteristically, Gibbs himself took the blame for everything and the credit for nothing. According to Redskin owner Daniel Snyder, Gibbs’ young and very well-paid sports heroes would walk through walls for their 67-year-old coach.

Today I watched the press conference at which Joe Gibbs announced his second and presumably final retirement from football, primarily owing to family concerns. One grandchild has leukemia and his entire family is in Charlotte, North Carolina, so his family situation has changed since he began his second stint coaching the Redskins. And although Gibbs hasn’t completed his hope of duplicating his earlier efforts, he has done much to establish the philosophy, develop the management style, and assemble the building blocks for a successful franchise. His family told him they would support him if he continued to coach, but what he heard them say was, “We really need you here.” So Gibbs is stepping down.

Under Joe Gibbs, there was palpable goodness at the helm of one of the most significant and lucrative franchises in sports history. I hope that will become a more widespread pattern in professional sports. For most Redskins fans, who had very high hopes when he returned and always wanted more victories, it was ultimately enough just to have Joe Gibbs in charge. It was ultimately enough to become increasingly aware of the personal success stories—often moral and spiritual success stories—which unfolded under his leadership, including very real changes in Sean Taylor’s life shortly before his tragic death. Sure, we wished he could have won more games, but we still didn’t want to see him go. It was enough to have Gibbs be Gibbs. It was enough, in the most unlikely of venues, to have character matter.

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