Coach Joe Gibbs still remembers the heady time nine years ago when he was walking to the hotel ballroom for the winning coach's traditional news conference the day after Super Bowl XVII.
"You get to feeling important. You think, 'Man, I've got it done here, and I've achieved things,' " he said. Then a woman stopped him outside the ballroom.
"This lady runs up and she goes, 'Oh, Don, Don, give me your signature,' " Gibbs said. "It makes you realize you're really not that important."
The tale of how he was confused with Don Shula the day after his Washington Redskins had bested Shula's Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl is the quintessential Gibbs story.
He tries never to take himself too seriously. At that news conference, he scoffed at the idea that he could be compared with the titans of the profession such as Shula, Tom Landry or Chuck Noll.
"Anybody who knows me knows I'm a very average person who works hard. My goal is to be one of those 10-year people," he said at the time. "I think coaches who have proven they can win over a long period of time should be considered the successes in this profession. Ten years from now, if I'm still standing here, then I'll be a success."
He's still standing there -- alone.
"He's probably at the top of the ladder as far as successful coaches are concerned," said Harry Gamble, the general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I don't think anybody's better," said Ernie Accorsi, who runs the football operations for the Cleveland Browns.
Tomorrow, Gibbs will fly to Minneapolis to make his fourth Super Bowl appearance and attempt to win it for the third time.
If the Redskins, who are favored by a touchdown, beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI next Sunday, he'll join Bill Walsh, who won three, and Noll, who won four, as the only coaches to win more than two Super Bowls. Landry and Don Shula have won two each.
Now that Landry has been fired, Noll has retired, Walsh has returned to college coaching after a stint in the broadcast booth, Shula has made the playoffs only once in the past six years and Bill Parcells hasn't decided what he's going to do when he grows up, Gibbs, 51, stands at the top of his profession.
"You mean I'm the old guy? Is that what you're saying? I don't think I'm compared with those guys," he said.
"I think that's a sad commentary on what we do," Gibbs said, referring to coaches' lack of security.
When he was asked about his 10-year comment, he said: "I think it's a success. I don't know how much of a success."
As for the standard set by Landry, Noll and Shula, Gibbs said:
"You're talking about guys who coached 20 years and did great things over and over and over again. I think those are the guys that everybody looks to. They certainly don't look at [he started laughing] Dan Reeves or Joe Gibbs in that same layer."
Gibbs was asked if, nine years from now, he'd set a 30-year standard that he couldn't match.
"If I'm standing here at 20 talking to you guys, you can take me over to that [flag]pole over there and hang me from that thing if that happens," he said. "The other one [10 years], I was probably a little premature. I needed the money, too. I didn't add that."
Gibbs has admitted losing more than a million dollars in bad investments in his early years with the Redskins, and now he has an expensive hobby in NASCAR racing. He'll sponsor a team on the circuit this year.
His interest in auto racing has fueled rumors that he'll quit coaching soon, but Gibbs seems to have lost none of his zest for the game and has said that this has been one of his most enjoyable seasons.
"As long as my family is still excited about it, that's important to me. When they lose it and I lose it [he'll retire], but until that happens. . . " he said.
Despite Gibbs' success, he hasn't become a larger-than-life figure. He doesn't have Vince Lombardi's gap-toothed smile, Shula's jaw, Noll's stare or Landry's hat.
"He looks like an ordinary guy and he sounds like an ordinary guy, but he's not an ordinary guy. He's very extraordinary," Accorsi said.
When the Cleveland Browns were searching for a head coach in 1989, they interviewed mostly defensive coaches, and asked each which was the toughest system to prepare against.
"All but one rated the Redskins first," Accorsi said. "That system has gone other places [via former Gibbs assistants Dan Henning to Atlanta and San Diego and Joe Bugel to Phoenix], and it hasn't been as effective. It's not the system. It's him. He's the ultimate coach. I don't think he's gotten anywhere near the aura he deserves. There's a design to everything they do."
Gibbs' version is that owner Jack Kent Cooke, general managers Bobby Beathard and Charlie Casserly, the assistant coaches and the players should get most of the credit.
"I've been very fortunate. A lot of my friends went places, and they didn't have everything there to win," Gibbs said.
He said the offense is "kind of run by committee in a way," and he even jokes about his input into the defense that is run by assistant coach Richie Petitbon.
"I may walk down there and say, 'Stop 'em,' or something really smart, and then I walk back," he said.
But the Redskins have changed players -- only six remain from the first Super Bowl team -- assistant coaches and even general managers, and yet Gibbs keeps them winning.
Jerry Glanville, the maverick coach of the Atlanta Falcons, has said: "I've never discussed football with him. I think he's on one of those higher cerebral planes."
That wasn't a compliment in Glanville's eyes, but it captures Gibbs' reputation.
Beathard, the San Diego Chargers general manager, who hired Gibbs in Washington, said: "He's got a determination that's the equal of anybody I've ever seen. The only guy I've seen like that is probably Shula. He can sell his program. He's got something those great coaches or great generals have. He can lead."
When Beathard left in spring 1988, there was much speculation that Gibbs pulled a power play and was going to take over the organization. Instead, Casserly moved in, and the roles remained unchanged. Casserly has the final say in the draft. Gibbs has the final say on which players to keep.
Gibbs said: "I never wanted something else. I just want to coach."
Gibbs generally is a players' coach. His tirades are so infrequent -- he threw a chair in Phoenix this year, called the players off the practice field after an embarrassing loss last year and cleared a table full of oranges a few years ago in Philadelphia -- that they make headlines.
Wide receiver Art Monk said: "You can go in and talk to him about anything. He's just there for the players all the time."
Matt Millen, who played for Joe Paterno in college and Tom Flores and George Seifert in the NFL before joining the Redskins, said: "Successful coaches are consistent in the way they do things. They're convinced that's the right way, but they also know it's not the only way."
Gibbs has won 129 games, but what drives him is the quest for the next victory.
After the NFC title game victory over the Detroit Lions last Sunday, Gibbs said, he and his family were hugging and high fiving in the car going home when his wife, Pat, said, "This whole thing will be ruined if you don't win the Super Bowl."
Gibbs said: "What a great thought. Everybody in the car busted up."
=1 Gibbs will have the same thought next Sunday.
Joe Gibbs can become the third coach to win more than 2 Super Bowls Sunday. Here are the records of the 8 coaches who've won more than 1. They've combined to win 19 of the first 25 Super Bowls:
Coach.. .. .. .. ..Team.. .. .. .. .. ..W L
Chuck Noll.. .. .. Pittsburgh.. .. .. ..4 0
Bill Walsh.. .. .. San Francisco.. .. ..3 0
Vince Lombardi.. ..Green Bay.. .. .. .. 2 0
Tom Flores.. .. .. Oak.-L.A. Raiders.. .2 0
Bill Parcells.. .. N.Y. Giants.. .. .. .2 0
Joe Gibbs.. .. .. .Washington.. .. .. ..2 1
Tom Landry.. .. .. Dallas.. .. .. .. .. 2 3
Don Shula.. .. .. .Baltimore-Miami.. .. 2 4