Joe Bugel easily could have followed his buddy Joe Gibbs into retirement after last season, a year in which their Washington Redskins endured star safety Sean Taylor’s murder and the loss of the right side of the offensive line before Week 2 ended.
But surrendering to tough times isn’t like Bugel, who was fired as coach of both the Phoenix Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders but soon returned to his true calling with the men in the trenches.
“I love the guys I’m coaching,” Bugel said. “This will be our fifth year together. They keep me vibrant. They keep me young. I’m having a good time, I really am. I’ve always loved it here. Washington’s a great place to coach.”
So at 68 on a staff headed by a boss 13 years his junior, Bugel begins his 42nd year of coaching, his 31st in the NFL and his 14th with the Redskins.
“Coach Gibbs had other things that motivated him, but football is what Joe and I do,” said 66-year-old tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, the other link to the first Gibbs era in Washington. “I know the two years that Buges was home [after the San Diego Chargers let him go when they changed staffs after the 2001 season], his wife was close to kicking him out of the house. Joe and I both feel good and the older you get the more you appreciate the game. He hasn’t changed from the first time we were here together, and these players feel the same way about him as those guys did back then.”
Indeed, chatting about their coach with the 30-somethings on Bugel’s line is like talking to the Hogs of Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic about him. Buges remains Head Hog. As he trots from one field to another during training camp, his linemen follow like 300-pound ducklings trailing Mama Duck. Make that Daddy Duck.
“Buges is like a dad to us,” said right guard Randy Thomas, starting his fifth season under Bugel. “He gets the best out of you. He has taught me to be relentless, to set the tempo of the game.”
Hearing that Bugel said he will coach until he’s 100, right tackle Jon Jansen, another fifth-year student, volunteered to play long enough to make that happen.
“Buges can’t go nowhere,” Thomas said. “He loves the game too much and he loves us too much.”
While Bugel became famous with the Hogs, who boasted second-year players Grimm, Jacoby and Mark May and third-year man Bostic, these days he prefers more seasoned players. Hence, the lineup of: left tackle Chris Samuels, who turns 31 Sunday; left guard Pete Kendall, 35; center Casey Rabach, 31 in September; and Thomas and Jansen, both 32. Backups Jason Fabini and Todd Wade, who started 24 games between them last season after Thomas and Jansen went down, turn 34 and 32, respectively, by Halloween.
“I like veteran guys, I really do,” Bugel said. “They’re smart. They’ve been in the system. You can’t worry about age. It’s how their health is and how they can play. Some of these young kids are up-down, up-down. A lot of those guys get saucer eyes. Going up against [six-time Pro Bowl defensive end] Jason Taylor, they probably want to get his autograph.”
Coach Jim Zorn, who visited Bugel’s Cardinals training camp as a rising assistant coach at Utah State, raved about his line coach’s enthusiasm and teaching ability and said he hoped to be so upbeat and intense after so many years of practices and meetings.
“[Joe has] an aptitude of teaching excellent technique and for earning the respect of players,” Zorn said. “There isn´t anyone on our staff who has more respect than Joe Bugel. He really kind of just walks around and you just want to be around him.”
That’s in part because Bugel loves to tell stories about the good old days - “I’m not used to these 80[-man roster limits]. We used to have 150. We had scout teams for scout teams. We never ran out of linemen. Those were fun days. Now there’s rules.” However, Bugel mostly uses the past to benefit the present. For example, he said he learned to coach in 1974, the season he worked for Ohio State legend Woody Hayes.
Recalled Bugel, “[Woody said], ‘Teach what he can’t do. Don’t keep working on things he’s great at. [Learn] what is his weakness and just beat on that every single day. Chris [Samuels] was always a good pass blocker, but he was a head-ducker. I said, ‘You’re going to learn how to run-block if it takes us 24 hours a day. If you listen, you’ll become a complete player.’ He bought into that. Now he’s one of the best drive-blockers in the league. If you help ‘em and they become good, they’ll eat out of the palm of your hand.”
Bugel, while recognized as one of the greatest line coaches ever, posted a 20-44 record from 1990 to 1993 as coach of the ever-hapless Cardinals and 4-12 in his lone year with the Raiders (1997). But after more than four decades in the business, Bugel knows how to build a winner.
“I think our team realizes that talent doesn’t just win; you’ve gotta have chemistry,” said Bugel, who owns Super Bowl rings from the 1982 and 1987 Redskins. “You can’t build chemistry. The players have to do that. It took a lot of tragedies, but the [2007 Redskins] finally realized that you had to be [close]. We’ve got the same team right now, a real good locker room. These guys are able to practice good together. We don’t have any [jerks] out there.”
And out there, the field, is where Bugel still belongs. Zorn, who brought in new men to coach the running backs and help with the quarterbacks, wanted Bugel to remain in charge of the linemen. In fact, Zorn allowed Bugel to keep all his terminology. He didn’t want to force a new system on a coach and players who helped produce a top-12 rushing offense and an average of 26 sacks allowed in each of the last three seasons.
“I think I’m doing something good to be around that long,” Bugel said. “I love it. I still do. The teaching aspect is good. Get players who listen and you’re in good shape.”