Forty three years ago, Jack Kent Cooke and the Washington Redskins hired the man who would go down in history as the franchise’s best head coach, Joe Jackson Gibbs. Gibbs would go on to win 154 games in two stints with the team, become the only individual to win three Super Bowls with three different QBs, and eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As we sit on the cusp of the selection of Washington’s next head coach, I wanted to take a brief trip down memory lane to see how Gibbs’ original hiring in 1981 was received. My own memory of the event is essentially non-existent at this point, so I went back to the Washington Post archives.
Recall, Gibbs had been the offensive coordinator for the Chargers for two years before coming to Washington. In that time, San Diego was an impressive 23-9, losing in the Divisional Round in 1979 and in the AFC Conference Championship in 1980, fielding top five offenses in both seasons.
“Joe appeals to me because of his obvious dedication to the game,” Cooke said of Gibbs after the meeting, which marked the first time he had talked to him. “I have confidence that Joe will provide the Redskins fans with a team that will stir the imagination, win or lose.
“And I believe his abilities match his ambitions. He’s a pioneer in the game in as much as he recognized before others the perceptible change in the character of the game.”
Coming strongly recommended by General Manager Bobby Beathard - who would also eventually end up in Canton - the 40-year old Gibbs was grabbed up by the Redskins only days after San Diego had been eliminated from the playoffs.
Beathard said he had known Gibbs for years and that he had “closely followed his career and I feel that he has prepared himself for this position as well or better than any coach in the NFL. He has a track record that speaks for itself. Besides being bright and a terrific Xs and Os man, Joe has demonstrated leadership.
“You can find a lot of fine assistant coaches but there are few assistants who can lead.” Joe has an unusual talent to get along with players.”
I found this description interesting. Gibbs’ technical prowess was clear. He was an innovator, but also a leader....by virtue of his connection with players. This quote from Beathard reminded me of a quote in an Athletic article on Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and quarterback Jared Goff:
Goff says one of Johnson’s best qualities is how he listens. “I know anything I say to him will be taken pretty seriously,” Goff says. “He really values my opinion and cares about what I’m saying. That’s huge for a quarterback.”
After spending last 2 weeks in Detroit, @NickiJhabvala learned a lot about Ben Johnson, "The one thing that literally every player said was he's a very clear communicator and he's collaborative...He listens to them."— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) January 23, 2024
Gibbs was taking the reigns of a team that hadn’t been in the playoffs in five years, and brought a reputation for offensive innovation to DC, but interestingly, that alone was not enough to compel Beathard and Cooke to hire him:
[They] didn’t decide to sign Gibbs until they were convinced he has the motivational and teaching skills they believe are essential for improving the club. They also were impressed with his enthusiasm, his outgoing personality and his desire to work long hours. Cooke was openly critical of the Redskins’ lack of emotion this season.
Cooke wants to make the Redskin games “fun for the fans” and he wants to see more passing and more progressive thinking on offense. Cooke was very impressed with the Chargers this season, especially because they were entertaining even when they lost.
The ringleader of the Chargers’ fun offense - who broke multiple NFL records under the OC’s tutelage - quarterback Dan Fouts referred to Gibbs as a “genius.” It was an admiration shared by many on the team at the time.
“The way he relates to the players, he makes us want to play for him,” said Hank Bauer, a running back. “There’s just a presence about him that I can’t explain. Joe is a winner. . . The players really love and respect him.”
That sort of praise parallels the descriptions that Johnson’s current players frequently offer in support of him in Detroit.
“I just think Ben’s brilliant, man. I can’t say enough about Ben Johnson. I think he’s an incredible head coach and the way he’s communicated to us and simplified it to us but yet still complicated (it) to maybe who we’re playing, I think it’s going to be very advantageous,” (Lions’ center) Frank Ragnow told the media.
“I think just the way he’s an incredible communicator. He’s super relatable,” Ragnow said. “I think him just being younger helps for sure, but then he’s just very relatable and like I said, these (are) complicated things we’re doing as an offense, but the way he simplifies it and gets it across so guys can just play fast. I think that’s very special.”
Johnson took charge of a young Lions’ offense - including several rookies, like Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta - and quickly molded them into one of the most potent units in the league. Joe Gibbs was hired in 1981, specifically for his ability to do the same.
“That’s why we need a teacher like Joe,” [Beathard] said. “We are going to have to bring along young players and help them get better very quickly. I’m very impressed with Joe’s abilities in this area. He really knows how to bring the best out of the guys he’s worked with.”
It’s hard not to see the parallels between Washington’s greatest head coach, and the man who is the odds-on favorite to be Washington’s next head coach. Will lightning strike twice in the nation’s capital? We’ll see.
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