Coryell Knew What He Had in Joe Gibbs

When Don Coryell became football coach at San Diego State, one of the first guys he went out and got was Joe Gibbs.

When he moved to the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the first guys he went out and got was Joe Gibbs.

When he came home to San Diego as the Chargers' coach, you guessed it . . .

"I had to get Joe," Coryell said, laughing.

Don Coryell was talking from his home on Mt. Helix, a few miles from the mountain Gibbs occupies these days. He was about to do what Gibbs probably wishes he could do, which is to say, get into his car and head for the hills for a couple of days.

Joe Gibbs is on top of the world. In a mere seven years as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, he is on the eve of his third Super Bowl. A national magazine published a statistical study ranking him as the No. 1 coach . . . ever .

All of this is not bad for a guy who came to San Diego 27 years ago as a crew-cut junior-college transfer who didn't really have a position to play. Coryell had just come to San Diego as well.

"I had to do a whole year's recruiting in a few days," Coryell said. "My first stop was Cerritos College."

And that was where he found Joe Gibbs.

"I didn't have time to look at films," Coryell said, "but the coaches said he was competitive, versatile, a fine person and a tough guy."

Those were traits an old paratrooper like Coryell could appreciate then, and appreciates now. As far as Joe Gibbs is concerned, the same description undoubtedly is still appropriate.

Coryell did not have many players, so Gibbs had to move around. He played guard, end, linebacker . . .

"And center," Coryell said. "We had two centers, but one of them got hurt and the other was thrown out of the game just before the half. We needed someone tough enough to do a job he'd never done before."

Naturally, that man was Joe Gibbs.

Reminded that he was the Aztecs' most inspirational player his senior year, Gibbs laughed: "Probably because I wasn't any good."

In truth, he was not a great player, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he was all he was expected to be, which was competitive, versatile, a fine person and a tough guy.

"He was a fine athlete," Coryell said. "Heck, he was national 35-and-over racquetball champion. That should tell you something."

What he didn't have was speed, and no amount of hard work could change that.

Elsewhere, Gibbs was looking for his niche in life.

"Like everyone else in those days," Gibbs said, "I was interested in math and science. But I discovered I wasn't very good at math and I wasn't smart enough in other areas. I wanted to play pro ball, but I wasn't good enough. If I couldn't play, I thought I could coach."

He was plenty smart enough for that.

Gibbs had been a graduate assistant for a couple of years when Coryell found himself in need of an offensive line coach for the 1966 season.

"We had a lot of excellent coaches interested in the job," Coryell said, "some of them with pro experience. We said, 'Heck, let's go with Joe.' We had all new starters, five of them, but Joe did a great job and we went 11-0. We ended up No. 1 in the nation."

Coryell knew he had himself a coach.

Gibbs went onward to sample a succession of positions with Florida State, USC and Arkansas. It was a time for broadening his horizons and his education.

When Coryell moved from SDSU to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973, you know who he wanted.

"You want the best people you can get," he said. "People you know and trust. We had to get Joe."

The same thing happened when Coryell joined the Chargers, although he was hired during the 1978 season and couldn't get Gibbs aboard until 1979.

Coryell knew, of course, that the time would come when someone else would come after Joe Gibbs with a head coaching job. Gibbs as an assistant coach was getting to be a little bit like Lee Iacocca fixing transmissions. The man was ready for the big picture.

What this low-profile guy got was a high-profile job in Washington, D.C., where the Redskin coach is scrutinized almost as closely as the President.

No one could have imagined that he would be as successful as he has been, however.

Except maybe Don Coryell.

"He's smart and, like I said, extremely competitive and determined," Coryell said. "He gets along well with people. He's with a good organization that lets him hire good people."

And, of course, Gibbs is competitive, versatile, a fine person and a tough guy.

While Coryell is spending a quiet day in the hills today, Gibbs will have a quiet day on his mountain. There are no press conferences today, just a few meetings and a time for contemplation.

The intensity will come Sunday, when the world watches the man Don Coryell forever beckoned when there was a job that needed doing.

Coryell himself will be watching on television.


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World