- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

“Joe heard we were coming to town, and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough.’

— Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson

The day figured to be generally lousy for the Washington Redskins and their fans. At the White House, President Bill Clinton was scheduled to congratulate Jimmy Johnson and his Dallas Cowboys for winning Super Bowl XXVII — enough to make any Redskins fan choke on his Cheerios.

And then March5, 1993, got worse, so much worse.

Joe Gibbs was quitting as Redskins coach.

Though Gibbs and team owner Jack Kent Cooke had been discussing the move for days, no word had leaked until Channel5 sportscaster Steve Buckhantz heard a rumor from friends at a Northwest bar after his 10p.m. telecast the previous evening.

Buckhantz got on the phone, on the double. The next morning, he confirmed the rumor. At 7:05a.m., as much of Washington was awakening, he went on camera to break the stunning news. It was the biggest sports story in town since Gibbs had won his third Super Bowl more than 13 months earlier.

By the time Gibbs and Cooke held a 2p.m. press conference at Redskin Park, football fans around the country had heard the news. To most elsewhere, it was a surprising and interesting report. To people who painted their faces burgundy and gold on game day, it was a galloping disaster.

Had Clinton resigned the same day after less than two months in office, it might have been the day’s second-biggest story as far as some Washingtonians were concerned. After all, how many Super Bowls had Slick Willie won?

Gibbs, a devout man, had started the day by dropping a hint at a prayer breakfast in Richmond: “I ask for your prayers for the next couple days. There will be some momentous things occurring in my life.” When a fan asked for his autograph, Gibbs noted, “Life is flying by.”

He rushed back to Northern Virginia after Buckhantz broke the story, and the Redskins’ public relations staff began alerting media that a press conference was imminent. By early afternoon, Cooke was addressing a throng of reporters at the team’s training facility in Loudoun County.

“This is not a very happy day for me. … This day is one I never thought would come in my lifetime. … Joe Gibbs is in a class by himself, unquestionably the finest coach in the National Football League …”

Then Gibbs stepped to the microphone. At 52, he appeared older after 12 grueling seasons. His hands shook, his voice cracked and his throat occasionally emitted his trademark nervous cackle as he tried to explain why he was leaving one of the best jobs in sports.

His health was one reason. Even by football standards, Gibbs was a workaholic — watching film and plotting schemes until the wee hours in season and often sleeping on the couch in his office, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise. Now he said he had been diagnosed with “migraine equivalence,” a condition that doesn’t involve headaches but can cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.

“I finished last season, and I didn’t feel as good as I had at other times,” Gibbs said. “There were a couple of things I wanted to have checked out. … Now this body’s been tore apart inside and out [by doctors], and I’m going to be fine. … [But] I think it’s going to take longer than five months for me to feel great, to be back at a point where I would be ready to jump in [at training camp] and go full blast.”

Then Gibbs talked emotionally about the most important people in his life aside from his players.

“I think there’s a window of opportunity now with my family. When I came here in 1981 and we went to training camp, my whole family went with me. Now it’s different. I have one son [Coy] who’s playing at Stanford, and I’ve only seen him play two games — that bothers me. I want to sit in the stands and be just a dad. … My other son [J.D.] is working in Charlotte [with the newly formed Joe Gibbs Racing team], and I want to be with him.”

Gibbs said he arrived at his decision the previous week during a family vacation in Vail, Colo.

“The boys didn’t encourage me one way or another, but they understood. I think [wife] Pat is happier than anyone. The coach is the guy who hears everyone telling him how great he is. The wife is the one waiting alone at home while he spends every night at the office.”

Two days before the announcement, Gibbs had driven to Cooke’s home in Middleburg, Va., to tell the Squire of his decision. The owner insisted Gibbs spend the weekend thinking about it and even suggested turning much of the game planning to assistant coaches.

“I tell you, I was devastated,” Cooke told reporters after the press conference. “I looked at him and said, ‘Are you sure of what you’re saying?’”

Gibbs’ replied, “Yes.”

Richie Petitbon, Gibbs’ longtime defensive assistant, arrived at Redskin Park the following day expecting a normal day of offseason work. Instead, he ran into a bombshell.

“Mr. Cooke called and told me Joe was retiring and that he wanted me to coach the Redskins,” Petitbon recalled. “After I picked myself up off the floor, I said yes.”

And just that simply, the greatest era in Redskins history was over. After losing his first five games in 1981, Gibbs had coached the team into four Super Bowls. Washington’s disappointing 9-7 record his final season (down from 14-2 in 1991) put his 12-season mark at 140-65 (.683), paving the way for him to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

If Redskins fans had seen into the future, their gloom over Gibbs’ departure would have increased immeasurably. Petitbon lasted only one season, going 4-12 with an aging team. Under successors Norv Turner, interim coach Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier, the once-proud franchise stumbled to a 70-89-1 (.443) record from 1994 through 2003, making the playoffs just once.

As the years went by bringing defeat after defeat and Gibbs turned his racing team into a NASCAR force, Redskins fans gave up hope that their own Miracle Worker might return. Gibbs turned down offers to coach several teams, including the expansion Carolina Panthers in his native state. That seemed to be the final word until a figuratively warm sunny day in January 2004.

Gibbs returning? It seemed incredible, too good to be true, to most fans — but the coach had dropped another hint on March5, 1993, at that farewell press conference: “To tell you the truth, if I get out there and really miss coaching, yeah, somewhere down the road I might try to get back into it.”

So he did, just like that as current owner Dan Snyder beamed at his side — and so the Redskins disappointed us again with a 6-10 record last season. But among true believers, you might have a hard time finding many who don’t expect him to restore the team’s long-lost glory PDQ.

After all, Joe Gibbs is a winner — a big winner — and he has another job to finish.

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