Competition, ego make coaches come back

No matter their hiatus and success in other pursuits, Joe Gibbs and others just can't stay away from the NFL.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 11:34 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

He has a handsome bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a steady stream of income from his day job -- CEO of a NASCAR racing team. Why would Joe Gibbs at the retiring age of 63 want to leap back into the swirling vortex that is the NFL?

Why, after winning two NASCAR championships would he subject himself to sulking wide receivers, the ubiquitous media and the thorny salary cap? Why put himself under the suffocating pressure to win in a league where an errant field-goal attempt, a 10-yard holding penalty or a tweaked hamstring can cost you a game -- or your job?

Why?

"Because he is, first and foremost a football coach -- he always has been," said his son, J.D. Gibbs. "Even with NASCAR, football was always just under the surface."

Why?

Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs is back where he wants to be -- on the NFL sidelines.
The buzz, the kick, the staggering adrenaline rush that Gibbs will feel at 1 p.m. on Sept. 12 when the Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tee it up in the NFL season opener. The ultimate answer, of course, can be seen in the three gleaming Vince Lombardi Trophies under glass in the lobby at Redskins Park. Gibbs coached the Redskins to three Super Bowl victories in his 12 seasons on the sidelines in Washington.

Like so many successful people, Gibbs feels most alive when he lives in the moment. In early August, he acknowledged as much.

"Obviously, everybody knows [because] you did something once doesn't mean you can do it again," Gibbs said. "I guess I've liked doing hard things -- and this is going to be extremely hard."

Gibbs is not alone. After a three-year sabbatical, Bill Parcells reentered the coaching orbit, taking the reins of the Dallas Cowboys last year and goading them to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Dick Vermeil, out of coaching for 14 years, came back to lead the St. Louis Rams in 1997. After eventually winning a Super Bowl title, he retired, only to resurface in Kansas City two years later. Only the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots had a better record than Vermeil's 13-3 Chiefs last season. Marty Schottenheimer returned to coaching in 2001 with the Redskins, putting a career mark of 150-96-1 on the line after a two-year absence. He's now entering his third season with the San Diego Chargers.

"Why come back?" Schottenheimer said a few weeks ago. "Because you love the competition. You love the opportunity to teach and compete. It's almost a narcotic.

Schottenheimer actually tried to leave the sport in his earlier days, but that didn't work, either.

"After my playing career, I had a little adventure in real estate, but that lost its luster. When the opportunity to coach came available, I took it and never regretted it. When I had a few years off recently, I played golf many, many days. But that gets old after awhile."

"Why? I think No. 1 because they're not fulfilled, they're not ready to get out of the arena," Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson explained last week. "I sensed this with Dick. He stepped away for what all of us thought was the final hurrah. But talking to him every other week, he told me the only time he felt like he was doing something constructive, helping to lead people was that hour or hour and a half when he addressed corporate groups.

"Like these other guys, coaching is the essence of their being. Leading players and coaches toward a collective goal is what they do and do so well."

These are not money-grabbing, flavor-of-the-month coaches, here. They represent the chiseled Mt. Rushmore of NFL coaches. Schottenheimer, with 18 seasons logged with the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers, leads all active coaches with 170 victories (170-124-1). Parcells is next with a 159-113-1 mark in 16 seasons with the Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys, followed by Gibbs (140-65). Vermeil is sixth on the list with a 109-99 record after 13 seasons with the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs. The four coaches have won six Super Bowls between them and sport a collective record of 578-401-2, good (exceptionally good) for a winning percentage of .590. All four are also on the first page of the all-time coaching leader board; Schottenheimer is No. 9 in wins, followed by Parcells (No. 11), Gibbs (No. 14) and Vermeil (No. 27).

Gibbs' return to the NFL was big news in January. There was a widespread assumption that Gibbs was motivated, at least in part, by the success of his former colleagues. This, he said, is not the case.

"I didn't pay any attention to that," Gibbs said. "Dick has been such an open, great guy. I always pull for him. I always had such admiration for Bill. I watched them and said, 'Hey, this is terrific what they're doing.' But a lot of other coaches have come back and couldn't get it done.

The eternal flame
In the final season of his remarkable run in Buffalo, Marv Levy was 72 years old. His hearing wasn't so good and the players' rolled their eyes when Levy would bring out big vocabulary words and the World War II analogies, but the man could coach. Only George Halas, in his fourth tour of duty with the Chicago Bears that ended in 1967, ever coached an NFL team at that late age.

After opening the 1990s with an unprecedented four straight Super Bowl appearances, the momentum waned in Buffalo. Levy's 1997 Bills went 6-10 and he moved into the realm of retirement and Social Security. Six years later, months prior to his 79th birthday and two years after he was enshrined in Canton, Ohio, Levy was lobbying for another command.

"Coaches, like anybody else, need a sabbatical," Levy said last year. "Most of the coaches who retired like me have said that about two months after they left, they shouldn't have been so hasty. And there are some people who don't want to come back.

"I haven't heard any [comeback aspirations] from Chuck Noll or Don Shula. But, yes, the flame does burn."

For these rare, forceful men who have been at the center of the noble effort, nothing in retirement fully replaces the NFL challenge. Ego gratification, certainly, is a huge factor. Boredom is another. And everyone loves to be loved. When teams wine you and dine you and shower you with serious quid, it's tough to say no. And, naturally, the other half of the equation is a proud team in disarray, a franchise willing to pay handsomely for proven coaching expertise. And, while it's not usually the leading factor in decision-making, no, the money isn't bad.

Gibbs got a five-year-deal worth an estimated $28 million, or better than $5.5 million per season. Parcells makes around $4.5 million a year, followed by Vermeil ($3.3) and Schottenheimer ($2.5 million).

Because he is, first and foremost a football coach -- he always has been. Even with NASCAR, football was always just under the surface.
J.D. Gibbs on his father Joe's return to the NFL

When Gibbs left the Redskins after the 1992 season, he talked about relaxing, dabbling in announcing, looking after his NASCAR team, which he started in 1991, and spending more time with his family. The relaxing never really materialized. Gibbs threw himself into racing and in his second year driver Dale Jarrett won the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of NASCAR. But even as he was winning the series championships with Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002), the NFL was calling him. Two years ago, Gibbs became a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and when Redskins owner Daniel Snyder came calling at the end of last season, it was a tough call to dismiss.

The Redskins had gone 12-20 in two seasons under Steve Spurrier (and an appalling 2-10 in the NFC East) and when Spurrier resigned on Dec. 30, Gibbs was Snyder's only focus. Gibbs had been at the helm in Snyder's impressionable years as a fan and he had fashioned 11 winning seasons and eight playoff berths in a dozen years.

"I guess I've learned that you can never say never," Gibbs said. "It became obvious to me when I began to think about coaching again that there wasn't any other place I could coach, really. It was kind of a miracle that it came open. Daniel wanted Steve to come back and I think everybody thought Steve was going to come back, and so his decision kind of shocked everybody -- but it fit right in with my timing."

Timing, in the case of these marquee coaches, was everything.

The last three stops of Parcells' coaching career have been dictated by his health. Eight months after he left the Giants in 1991, he underwent heart bypass surgery. Two years later, he accepted the job with the Patriots but his health steadily declined and he walked away after four seasons -- though he went immediately to the Jets. In his final year with the Jets, the stress of filling two jobs, coach and general manager, was a factor in his 1999 departure. Feeling good again, he accepted the Cowboys job last year because they are a "storied franchise" -- a year after turning down the Buccaneers.

In the months after he retired from the Rams, Vermeil began to rethink his position. Eleven months later, Peterson, an old friend, asked Vermeil if he missed the game. Vermeil's wife, Carol, beat him to the answer. "Yes," she said, opening the door to negotiations. Vermeil missed the intense personal relationships that come with coaching and he eventually signed on with the Chiefs for the 2001 season.

Schottenheimer, who had coached the Chiefs to seven playoff berths in 10 seasons during 1989-98, was in broadcasting for two years, living in North Carolina, when he got a call from Vermeil, of all people. The Redskins, he said, were interested in a new head coach. Schottenheimer took the job and after getting fired following an 8-8 season, moved on to the Chargers where he is 12-20 over the last two seasons.

When Parcells took the Dallas job, he got a call from Schottenheimer.

"You're out of your mind," Schottenheimer told him. "You've got to be as crazy as I am."

"I was kidding him, really," Schottenheimer explained. "I knew from first-hand experience exactly why he came back."

Learning curve
Back during his salad days with the Giants, Parcells used to hold court with the regular beat writers on Fridays, pontificating on a number of topics. One fall day, he talked about coaches and players who had turned to broadcasting.

In a year, Parcells said, a coach could lose his fluency with the game. Even the great John Madden and Bill Walsh, he said, needed help in translating the current NFL lexicon into language they could understand.

That was years before the NFL salary cap and a free agency system that requires a degree in quantum physics. The New England Patriots' mastery of these areas has helped drive them to two Super Bowl titles in three years. It isn't just about X's and O's anymore.

Vermeil, for example, has said it took him more than a year to get comfortable again after his 14 years away from the game. He said he couldn't count the number of times he said, "I'm so embarrassed" during that first year with the Rams.

"It was a shock," Vermeil told Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star earlier this spring. "I went back to work at a tempo and focus level that I hadn't been doing for 14 years. [Gibbs has] been running a racing team, but that's not the same as coaching a football team, especially the way Joe did it. I'm sure he got the same adrenaline rush, but it can't be the same work commitment.

"I had to get used to being the leader of a football team on a daily basis again. I had to recognize I had been away from the game for 14 years. I had to recognize that kids could do more and learn more today."

Indeed, Gibbs has wrestled with a steep learning curve.

Gibbs, an offensive specialist, studied modern defenses, often late into the night. And then he studied some more. After several months, he finally felt comfortable scheming an offense to counteract those defensive advances. Gibbs, whose organization and work ethic is legendary, seems poised to return the Redskins to their former glory.

Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs holds the Vince Lombardi trophy after winning Super Bowl XVII.
On Sept. 27, Washington plays Dallas in a heavily anticipated Monday night game. It reunites Gibbs and Parcells, two old NFC East campaigners. After the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1986 (beating the Redskins three times in the process), Washington came back and won the following year. The same cycle occurred in 1990 and 1991. The two coaches made their teams better and their battles elevated both squads. Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, after suffering at the hands of the Giants and Redskins, went on to win consecutive Super Bowls in '92 and '93.

Parcells showed he hadn't lost anything off his fastball by taking the Cowboys to the playoffs last year before they lost to the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers. Will Gibbs have the same effect? After the offseason workouts in June, Gibbs said he was looking forward to a July vacation full of grand babies and beach time. Can he summon the effort, the will to win?

Schottenheimer believes the answer is yes. He and Gibbs live in the same subdivision outside of Charlotte, N.C., "The Peninsula." Their homes are separated only by a quarter of a mile. The two crossed paths one day earlier this summer.

"I kidded him about coming back," Schottenheimer said. "I was a little bit surprised because he has a very successful racing team going. I think he'll be fine.

Peterson, like so many others, said he wasn't surprised by Gibbs' return.

"I think any time you're out the game for so long, you think that maybe they have found something to fulfill themselves," Peterson said. "For Joe, the challenge, the opportunity to once again do what was important to him, on a personal basis, made a great deal of sense.

"What's unique is that he's going home, back to Washington. They say you can't go home, but we're going to see if Joe Gibbs can go home again."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE