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Sipping an unsweetened iced tea and tripping down memory lane, Joe Gibbs speaks in the sanguine tones of a man who is back where he belongs. Eleven years after he quit the NFL and two months after the Washington Redskins made the stunning announcement that they had talked him into returning as their coach, Gibbs is sitting at a small table at Morton's steak house in Reston, Va., regaling an audience, including longtime coaching cronies Don Breaux and Joe Bugel, with colorful tales of his football past. Already on this brisk March night Gibbs has masterfully evoked images of John Madden's staged tantrums at San Diego State, Bill Peterson's daunting forays onto the Florida State practice field in a white Cadillac and John McKay's sarcasm during his choppy times with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Breaux and Bugel have heard these anecdotes many times, yet they are rapt listeners. That's largely because Gibbs is a natural storyteller-he accentuates dramatic turns with hand gestures, pauses for effect and sprinkles in spot-on impersonations of his protagonists—and also because they are thrilled to be back in his company.
"What about the time with McKay on the airplane?" Bugel asks. "Tell us about that one, Joe."
Gibbs lets out one of those giddy giggles that belies his stature as one of the greatest football coaches of his era, then gladly obliges. "It's 1978, and I'm with the Buccaneers as McKay's offensive coordinator," he says. "On the first row of the team plane there was a placard with my name on it on the seat right next to his so we could go over the play calls. So we're in New York playing the Giants, and we're up by 11 in the fourth quarter and driving. On a third down I call a hitch pass to our tight end, [Jim] Obradovich, and he's wide open. But Doug Williams, for some reason, winds up and throws that sucker as hard as he can"—Gibbs cocks his arm and thrusts it forward emphatically—"and the ball bounces off Obradovich, and [linebacker Harry] Carson intercepts it and runs it down to the 25, and the Giants come back to win the game.
"Well, McKay doesn't say a word to me afterward, and when I board the plane to go home, I see another assistant, Phil Krueger, sitting in my seat. He shrugs, and I look down and spot my name tag lying on the floor. McKay had ripped it off the seat and thrown it in disgust! So now I have to go sit with the players. It was the most embarrassing moment of my coaching career."
Ever willing to provide a punch line at his own expense., Gibbs, a Hall of Famer who during his first stint with the Redskins, from 1981 through '92, won three Super Bowls and nearly 70% of his NFL games, lets out another high-pitched giggle. "You know," he says, "I could be in for a few more of those moments this fall."
Go ahead, call him crazy. The 63-year-old Gibbs won't disagree. "When my wife and I finally decided to do this," he says of returning to Washington, "she goes, 'Oh, my gosh! There's no way it can work out right again!' Big risk, man. Big risk. We're trying to do something that is almost impossible, and I guess that's part of the fun." Gibbs is attempting an unprecedented feat in U.S. major professional sports: returning after a prolonged absence to a franchise with which he is closely identified and restoring its championship luster. It's not such a wacky notion when you consider that, since he left Washington, Gibbs's aura of invincibility has grown with the success he had as a NASCAR team owner, his drivers winning two of the past four series championships. In the meantime the Redskins have made only one playoff appearance while compiling a 75-102-1 record, culminating with the wreckage of a 5-11 season in 2003 that was followed by coach Steve Spurrier's resignation. With his stock declining as fast as Howard Dean's soon would, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder put up a Hail Mary, offering Gibbs a reported five-year, $28.5 million contract.
Among the added enticements for Gibbs was the chance to get his band back together, assembling a staff that includes old friends and former assistants Breaux (offensive coordinator), Bugel (offensive line), Rennie Simmons (tight ends) and Ernie Zampese (offensive consultant). Referring to the Clint Eastwood film from a few years ago, the oldest of Gibbs's two sons, J.D., who now runs Joe Gibbs Racing, says, "I was up there to visit recently, and it's just funny to see the Space Cowboys back at it."
More than a quarter century removed from his ignominious banishment from first class on the Bucs' plane, Gibbs (140-65 in 12 years with the Skins, including 16-5 in the postseason and 3-1 in the Super Bowl) has earned the right to travel in style. On Jan. 6, after accepting Snyder's offer but before word of his return had gotten out, Gibbs boarded Snyder's private jet—Redskins One—and flew to a small airport outside Buffalo. Waiting for him on the tarmac was Gregg Williams, the recently fired coach of the Bills. An accomplished defensive coordinator earlier in his career, the 45-year-old Williams was being wooed by six NFL teams for that role, but the chance to work for Gibbs overwhelmed him.
"It was eight below zero," Williams recalls, "and I'm standing there with my hood pulled over my head, trying not to be noticed because Joe's return was still a secret. Then here comes this Redskins' jet, and Joe gets out wearing only a suit jacket and starts waving and screaming, 'Hey, Gregg!' " It was 11 p.m. when the two men arrived at Williams's home, and Gibbs spent the next 4� hours selling Williams on the coordinator job. Then Gibbs asked, "What's it going to take to get you?" Williams outlined his terms, including an annual salary (reportedly $1.8 million) that would make him one of the NFL's highest-paid assistants.