Skins fans welcome back head coach Gibbs

On Jan. 7 Comcast SportsNet ran a text banner along the bottom of the screen, the type usually reserved for natural disaster warnings, rain-delay reminders and other urgent unexpected news.

January is neither baseball season nor hurricane season, and in Washington it hasn't been football season in a while. But with the bulletin running on the text banner announcing that Joe Gibbs (the old Redskins coach from more than a decade ago) had been named the new Redskins head coach, Washingtonians could finally believe that January could be important again.

But newcomers to the D.C. area and those outside the beltway may wonder why Gibbs' hiring is such big news. The answer lies somewhere between Gibbs' history, the team's desperation and the fans' nostalgia.

Gibbs' history is impressive. In his 12-year coaching stint, from 1981 to 1992, Gibbs took the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three. Moreover, he won them with three different quarterbacks, and became the only NFL coach ever to do so. The Redskins history post-Gibbs is as ambiguous as the Gibbs era is celebrated, and includes only one playoff appearance.

Though Gibbs is among the oldest coaches in the NFL at 63, and has been out of football and into his NASCAR team for more than a decade, many think his past history can translate to the present.

"He's one of the few you could hire where Redskins fans think they have a chance to go to the Super Bowl again," said AU alum Ashton Williams, who writes for the Associated Press and assists in their coverage of the Redskins. "The only other two would be Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells."

"You think about Gibbs, and you think about 'Skins victories," said John Fitzpatrick, a sophomore at AU and a lifelong fan from Glendale, Md. "He's been out for a while, but he's always been a good coach. That's not something that just leaves you."

"He won 70 percent of his games, he had the third-highest winning percentage in the league all time," Williams added. "If you're a Redskins fan, there's no way this can be over-hyped."

Under Gibbs, Redskins fans got used to winning, a notion that high school or college-age sports fans may find laughable. And with that confidence in victory came a city pride that some say doesn't exist anymore.

The only Washington-area team to have won a championship since Gibbs is college basketball's Maryland Terrapins - whose 2002 NCAA trophy can only really be celebrated by those living east of the Potomac River - and soccer's D.C. United, whose three MLS titles were celebrated by their core fan base of about 20,000 people, but few others. With no Washington pro sports team having risen above mediocrity in 2003, Gibbs seems to be the first person to have provided the city any real hope.

"He's a white knight riding in on a big steed," said Dr. Richard Bennett, associate dean of the School of Public Affairs and academic advisor to AU Women's Lacrosse. Bennett has been a Washingtonian for the past 24 years and is a husband to a "die-hard" Redskins fan. "Redskins fans are looking for someone, anyone, to turn around their miserable performance in the last several years. People think if [Gibbs] did it before, he can do it again. Can he? I honestly don't know."

Bennett believes that the excitement is not only about football, but also about the rejuvenation of social pride, which the city once felt and shared.

"The images that come to mind are large parties, friends getting together to watch the game and the exuberance when the Redskins won," Bennett said of recollecting the first Gibbs era. "Games were used as a reason for celebration. When the team's not winning, you don't have the same drive to have those parties, because the game is more of a wake."

The possibility that Redskins fans could realistically hope for a resurrection of that culture is still very new, and some say it is especially exciting to some fans because it's unexpected. Just as in football, Gibbs experienced success in NASCAR as well with two Winston Cup championships as a team owner. His return to coaching came as a shock to fans and media alike.

"At first I didn't believe it," Fitzpatrick said of hearing that Gibbs had been hired. "I thought he was pretty content with Pontiac and NASCAR. But then the disbelief turned into 'holy crap!'"

"Nobody thought he was coming back," Williams said. "It's not like Michael Jordan announcing his retirement, or Bill Parcells. People really thought he was done. If he was having success in NASCAR, why would he come back?"

Washington fans can only hope it is to bring their team back to glory. While success from the Terrapins, whose football team has gone to bowl games the past three seasons, or from the Capitals or Wizards or even the Orioles would be welcomed, none could parallel a Redskins revival.

"From talking to folks like my wife, it's the Redskins who are most important]," Bennett said. "People may say 'Yeah, Maryland had a great year,' but who are people concerned about? [Owner] Daniel Snyder and the 'Skins."

The only obstacle to a return to greatness may be the city's own expectations. Certainly, some fans are more cautiously optimistic than others. But the majority says that under Gibbs, the Redskins can win sooner than later. That might leave the second coming with too little room for error.

"I don't know how patient fans will be," Fitzpatrick said. "With Spurrier, people said he was a college coach, and it may take him a year or two to grasp NFL nuances. With Gibbs, I think people think that automatically we'll win."

"Parcells turned around the Cowboys," Fitzpatrick continued, "and there's [Marvin] Lewis with the Bengals. You hear about those turnarounds. But you can't expect it"

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