Commentary

With the NFL in his rearview, Gibbs turns focus to race teams and family

Think Joe Gibbs has less to worry about since leaving the Washington Redskins? Uh, no. Coach still has plenty on his mind these days, trying to keep up with Tony, Kyle, Denny and Joey.

Updated: September 12, 2008, 8:10 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Joe GibbsAP Photo/Chuck BurtonJoe Gibbs and son J.D. Gibbs have molded their race team into one of the Cup circuit's elite.

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Joe Gibbs wasn't thinking about screen passes or counter treys when the Washington Redskins opened the NFL season on Thursday night against the New York Giants. He wasn't thinking about Cover-2 schemes or how many people were in the box along the defensive line.

He wasn't thinking about what Redskins owner Daniel Snyder would say about the loss.

He wasn't even watching the game on television, choosing to speak at the Republican Convention in Minneapolis instead.

John McCain aside, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl wins and 154 victories has his mind on more immediate concerns these days.

Such as building momentum for Sprint Cup points leader Kyle Busch for the championship Chase that begins after Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway.

Such as making sure Denny Hamlin, 11th in points, gets into the 12-driver field.

Such as making sure 18-year-old phenom Joey Logano has a successful Cup debut as he takes the first step toward replacing two-time champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 car next season.

[+] EnlargeJoey Logano
AP Photo/Terry RennaJoe Gibbs, right, and J.D. Gibbs help Joey Logano, center, celebrate his landmark 18th birthday in May.

Such as how to keep happy all of the sponsors that helped him build his racing empire.

Such as winning a fourth championship.

"I kind of think this is where I belong," said the owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, who stepped down from his second tenure as coach of the Redskins after last season. "I've got family here, grandkids, my motocross, Nationwide and Cup teams.

"This is the place I belong. Obviously, football was very important to me, but coming back here, it was the right timing for me."

That doesn't mean Gibbs wasn't interested in what was happening at Giants Stadium. He opened his convention speech by declaring his support for the Redskins.

Were it not for politics, he most certainly would have been glued to the television at his Lake Norman home. Only he would have watched as a father, grandfather and fan instead of with the critical eye of a coach.

"There'll always be a deep feeling there of attachment and relationally being invested there," said Gibbs' son, JGR president J.D Gibbs. "But he's at the point now where this is the right place for him to be, and he's at peace with that.

"Now he might throw a few things at the TV. He wants them to win. He's still their biggest fan."

But Gibbs' days as a coach are behind him for good. He doesn't plan another comeback like the one in 2004 after 11 years away from the sport. He doesn't yearn for the chance to coach in another Super Bowl, although he left with a year remaining on his contract feeling his mission was not accomplished.

Gibbs is content with building on his legacy in NASCAR. He's been able to successfully make the transition from the NFL to motorsports where others have failed miserably. He's been able to handle controversial personalities such as Stewart and Busch without complete chaos.

He's arguably one of the top three owners in the sport along with Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush.

"What he's built over there is impressive," said Hendrick, who supplied engines for JGR in its infancy. "It's a successful organization with great depth and leadership."

That's why JGR remained so competitive when Gibbs returned to the Redskins in 2004. People such as J.D. and senior vice president Jimmy Makar were ready to fill any voids the way the offensive and defensive coordinators step up when the head coach is away.

But the timing of Gibbs' return couldn't have been better with JGR's transition to Toyota, the impending and unexpected departure of Stewart after this season, the arrival of Busch and the development of Logano.

"Joe just brings some intangibles that you really can't measure," said Busch, who leads the Cup series with eight wins. "No matter if Tony were leaving or not, Joe is just a great motivator of people and does such a great job of getting everybody to work as a team, and that's always needed if you want your race team to be successful."

Joe GibbsAP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariJoe Gibbs collected three Super Bowl trophies and 154 victories as head coach of the Redskins.

Family and stones
Gibbs was at Watkins Glen International Speedway last month when he received a phone call saying J.D.'s 4-year-old son, Taylor, had been taken to the hospital.

Taylor was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. The inability to be by his grandson's side for all the treatment was frustrating for Gibbs and one of the reasons he returned to the family business he began in 1992.

"He was running a fever, and of course the dreaded feeling is coming back," Gibbs recalled of the call about Taylor. "I panicked, so we came back home. They did the original tests and the doctors had some scares there."

Fortunately, it wasn't anything serious, a relief to everyone involved.

"The point being, I could go with him in treatment only in the offseason before," Gibbs said. "I can do things like that now. If some emergency popped up with him, I could drop everything I've got and be there."

That wasn't the case in the NFL. With about a dozen assistant coaches and 53 players counting on him, there wasn't a minute in the day Gibbs felt belonged totally to him.

"I tried to tell Dan [Snyder] I couldn't do that, just walk off," Gibbs said. "It was awful [when Taylor first became sick]."

[+] EnlargeJoe Gibbs
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonFamily comes first these days for Joe Gibbs, who tutored 5-year-old grandson Ty Gibbs at the spring Cup race in Charlotte, N.C.

The life of an NFL coach is comparable to a crew chief in NASCAR, only worse. They're constantly dealing with roster moves, strategy meetings, practices, contract negotiations and other administrative duties.

Gibbs would spend almost as many nights sleeping on a cot in the stadium as he would his own bed. He was so busy, he barely had time to work out, and there was little to no time for his wife, Pat, and family.

"When he was coaching, and it happened when I was a kid growing up, I could walk right by him going to practice or in the dorm room at training camp and he wouldn't even recognize me," J.D. said. "He wouldn't even acknowledge me.

"Football, that's all he thought about."

Gibbs isn't nearly so wrapped up in racing, in part because he doesn't know enough about the technical side like he did in football to become so involved in the weekly preparation or game-day strategy.

His role is to hire the right people, take care of sponsors and put out fires wherever they might be.

"I had a kidney stone three weeks ago and took three days off," Gibbs said. "If I had been in Washington, it would have been a dadgum nightmare. I don't know what I would have done. They would have had to have had morphine close, I can tell you that."

Gibbs doesn't have a cot in his office at JGR, but he does have plenty of toys for the grandkids. Other than racing, they are his priority, particularly Taylor.

"It was tough on him when Taylor first went into treatment," J.D. said. "Plus, with the way this race team has grown … there's a lot going on right now. It was probably a good time for him to transfer back over here."

Peacemaker
Gibbs stood in the darkness with Busch between two haulers waiting to meet with NASCAR officials about a postrace bumping incident between his driver and Carl Edwards at Bristol Motor Speedway.

J.D. also was there, but it was clear this was his father's show.

"I was glad to give that one up," J.D. said. "He has a good feel for things."

Gibbs seemingly always has played the heavy at JGR. He reined Stewart in often early during his tumultuous career. When Stewart and Hamlin were at odds after an incident at Daytona last season, he detoured by Chicagoland Speedway on his way to vacation to restore peace.

When he was coaching, and it happened when I was a kid growing up, I could walk right by him going to practice or in the dorm room at training camp and he wouldn't even recognize me. He wouldn't even acknowledge me. Football, that's all he thought about.

-- J.D. Gibbs

"We're glad to have him back because we missed him when he went back to football in the first place," Stewart said. "Not that we ever felt like there was a void when he left, because J.D. has and continues to do a great job as president, but Joe's personality was definitely missed a lot.

"He has leadership qualities in him that are unmatched."

Those qualities don't go unnoticed in the garage. Hendrick admires the way Busch has matured not only as a driver -- he has a series-high eight wins -- but as a person under Gibbs since leaving Hendrick Motorsports.

He respects the way Gibbs is allowing Stewart to become the driver-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing next season when he easily could have held him to the final year of his contract.

"It couldn't have been easy because Joe and Tony have so much history and such a special relationship," Hendrick said. "But I'm sure Tony has a great appreciation for the opportunity Joe gave him. And Joe respects Tony and understands this was something he needed to do for himself.

"I doubt it was an easy deal for either of them, but they've both handled it with class."

Class has been the cornerstone of JGR, which made the Nationwide infraction discovered at Michigan last month one of the more embarrassing moments of Gibbs' professional career.

He'd dealt with all kinds of troubles before, including the murder of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor last season at Washington. But nothing hit him as hard as when NASCAR officials found magnets under the pedals of his two Nationwide cars in an attempt to fool inspectors in a postrace dyno engine test.

"If you look at our history, it is pretty outstanding," Gibbs said. "We pride ourselves on that."

Gibbs initially was so angry that he was ready to fire all of those involved. After much consultation with the seven employees who were indefinitely suspended by NASCAR, he opted to tack on more punishment once their suspensions are complete.

"In the end, they're going to pay the price," Gibbs said. "I'm proud of our record. Now we've got something that gives you a black eye, and you don't like that."

Pulling the plug
J.D. was listening to his radio scanner before a race several years ago when a familiar voice came on to remind the team they'd already lost two transmissions on concrete that year and that the pit road surface was concrete.

"All the guys were like, 'Thank you, Joe. We can see that it's concrete,'" J.D. said with a touch of sarcastic humor. "They all laughed, but he wanted to make a point."

Gibbs doesn't often get involved during a race like that or earlier this season when he gathered Hamlin's crew to discuss why they were having trouble with the lug nuts on tire changes.

J.D. jokingly says the cord to his dad's radio purposely is unplugged on race day so he can "listen, but not talk."

"I'm the only guy going around with the wire dragging the ground," Gibbs said with his familiar high-pitched laugh. "I'm Rodney Dangerfield on that one -- I get no respect."

Hardly. Few, if any, are respected in NASCAR or the NFL more than Gibbs.

Hendrick calls him a great guy and a "heck of an asset to our sport." He's equally impressed with J.D.

"Together, they've done a terrific job managing all of those personalities and all of the changes the organization has been through," he said. "It's not a simple job -- trust me -- but they've made it look easy this year."

Day at the beach
Gibbs leaned back in his chair in the boardroom at JGR and thought of all the things he should have time for now that he's out of coaching.

"Pat will sometimes say things like, 'You know, if you want we can go to the beach,' he said. "If we really wanted to take two or three days off we can. That wouldn't have been a possibility with football."

But Gibbs' mansion on the South Carolina coast will have to remain vacant for now. The man known simply as "Coach" is focused on winning a championship to go with the three he won with Stewart (2002, 2005) and Bobby Labonte (2000).

Occasionally, he'll take a break for football, as he did last week when he went to visit first-year Washington coach Jim Zorn and on Thursday night when he watched part of the Redskins-Giants game.

Occasionally, he is reminded of how lucky he is to have accomplished in two sports what most dream of accomplishing in one.

"I've always said it's amazing the way God gives some very average people the ability to lead," Gibbs said. "Down through history he kind of picked the average guys, the fishermen. I'm the average guy with the average IQ.

"I figured I would be a physical education teacher and teach the rest of my life. So to be doing what I'm doing in both of these [sports] are unreal dreams in life."

But Gibbs is more into reality than dreams. Asked if he could have his choice between coaching the Redskins to another Super Bowl or winning another Cup championship, he stayed in the present.

"Obviously, now I want to win the Cup championship," he said. "I've got a lot invested in this year."

There still was somewhat of an empty feeling as Gibbs watched Washington kick off another season, knowing he left unfinished business on the table. He's not used to failing, and some consider his return just that with a 30-34 record despite making the second round of the playoffs last season.

"I felt like I was supposed to be back there for those four years for a lot of reasons," Gibbs said. "I'd like to have gotten back to a Super Bowl, but you don't get everything you want in life.

"You don't like that feeling, but there comes a time where you feel like that just wasn't meant to be."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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