"When I mentioned Joe Gibbs to Mr. Cooke, he said, 'Who in the hell is that?' They'll crucify us in the media. We need a big name.' I said, 'Mr. Cooke, you have to trust me.' "
— Bobby Beathard, the man in charge of finding Jack Kent Cooke a head coach in 1981.
Before the bedlam, the Super Bowls and the return of a bespectacled legend, there was the gamble. Before the hard sell, the seminal interview and a franchise-altering hire, there was Bobby Beathard's gut, his feeling that Joe Gibbs was the right fit.
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, a relatively unknown assistant was introduced as the coach of Washington's pro football team. He would start the 1981 season 0-5, but go on to win three Super Bowls. Now, after an 11-year hiatus with NASCAR, a 6-10 finish a year ago, and a 5-6 start this season, Gibbs is on the cusp of re-entering that imaginary room, a pantheon of the game's greatest coaches.
In six shorts weeks, he has erased the wrong-headed notion that he was a curmudgeon without a clue and recast himself as a coach as contemporary as he is 65 years old.
The day before the 25th anniversary of his initial hiring, Gibbs is golden. Again.
If his team beats the heavily favored Seahawks in Seattle on Saturday -- if Gibbs can take a gimpy Mark Brunell and his teammates to the NFC championship game -- he will be in better company than Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh or even Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. Vince Lombardi and Don Shula wouldn't look so far away anymore.
"In the pantheon of great coaches, I think Landry might be in there, too," said Beathard, who, besides working in Washington between 1979 and 1989, was Shula's director of player personnel in Miami. "But other than Joe and Shula, two real bulldogs in my mind, I haven't been around anybody that has the ability to keep their teams focused like they do."
"When people think of coaches, Lombardi is first and Shula is next because of his overall record," said Ted Marchibroda, the former head coach of the Baltimore Colts and Baltimore Ravens. "Then the next category is led by Joe." Now a Colts analyst, Marchibroda is considered one of the game's historians.
"People might throw Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and Belichick in that category with Joe," he said. "You could say Belichick did it against heavier odds in a different era. But Parcells, I'd put below that group. And Walsh always had better ballclubs. There are better teams this season that didn't get into the playoffs and Joe did."
In the postseason, Lombardi (10-2) and Belichick (10-1) are the only coaches with better winning percentages than Gibbs, who has won 18 games and lost five in the playoffs. Shula was 19-17, Landry was 21-16, Noll was 16-8 and Walsh was 10-4. Parcells is 11-7.
Gibbs is 4-1 in NFC championship games, 3-1 in Super Bowls and 5-3 on the road in the playoffs. Regular season included, he's a phenomenal 19-4 in January.
Part of Gibbs's legacy now includes a two-year, seat-of-the-pants thrill ride. The month of his rehiring, January 2004, the expectation was that Gibbs would have his team in the playoffs by his second season. He would get his bearings that first year and find a way to the postseason in the second year. By January 2005, a major recalibration was in order.
Gibbs had presided over one of the most anemic offenses in the league, and the consensus in football circles was that he would be lucky to go 7-9 his second year. At the time, even the most extreme, maniacal zealot could not have foreseen a shot to play in the NFC championship game.
A 3-0 quick start this season changed minds, until the morning of Nov. 28, when Gibbs was 5-6, having lost consecutive games to two coaches unceremoniously dumped by owner Daniel Snyder -- Norv Turner and Marty Schottenheimer. Gibbs's two-year mark at that juncture was 11-16.
Six straight wins, and another recalibration is in order.
"I don't think the odds were against him more than they ever had been this season, and he came through," Marchibroda said. "I don't care how well the defense plays, coaches don't win games making 120 yards. He's won a bunch of those games. Against Tampa Bay, he continued to run the football, no matter what. He wanted to control the game."
Maybe he does not surpass Shula and Lombardi. Maybe he has to win four Super Bowls in three separate decades to truly get a pass into the pantheon. Maybe winning playoff games with five different quarterbacks -- Joe Theismann, Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien and Mark Brunell -- is not enough for consideration.
And maybe this season is a one-year wonder, and Gibbs wakes up when it ends without a No. 1 draft pick and a quarterback going on 36. Maybe Gregg Williams stays to run the defense but other important assistants leave.
If Gibbs beats Seattle on Saturday, he's St. Joe again. If he beats a 13-3, nine-point favorite on the road -- if he becomes the first coach of a No. 6 seed to knock off a No. 1 team since the 1990 playoff realignment -- his pedigree goes one notch higher, closer to the top. The Patriots' pursuit of a three-peat is the best team story going. The best individual story? Gibbs, if Gibbs wins this weekend.
When Gibbs returned to coaching two years ago, the NFL had changed. There was free agency and a salary cap. No longer could he bury a quarterback for six years until he learned the system. He could not keep his roster intact. He could not hide players on the injury report. Twenty-five years after the start of his last go-round, he had a different hand dealt to him.
And Gibbs still transformed a franchise in two seasons.