ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Joe Gibbs, the man the Carolina Panthers likely will pursue first in the search for a coach, says one great passion he has left in football would be to build a team from scratch and lead it to the Super Bowl.
"One of the biggest thrills for me would be taking something from nothing," Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach, said last night in a telephone interview. "To me, I've gone to some Super Bowls the other way. I think if I could do it again, it would be thrilling to do it different.
"A lot of my friends have said, 'Joe, you don't want to do that. It's crazy.' But the main thing for me is to push forward. My feeling is it's certainly not something to rule out."
Gibbs said he has never met Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, and has not yet discussed the situation with anyone representing Richardson. Gibbs also stressed that he has many things to evaluate and learn before knowing whether he would want the job. He said he would consider it only if the circumstances were "perfect."
However, he is intrigued.
"I've prayed about it," Gibbs said, "and I plan to take this course: If they are interested in me, it probably would be the one place that would be the biggest pull for me."
Richardson said Gibbs' interest in the Panthers is "an extremely exciting prospect."
Gibbs, 52 and a native of Mocksville, N.C., is the 10th winningest coach in NFL history -- 124-60 in the regular season and 16-5 in the playoffs. Only Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi has a better postseason record.
Gibbs led the Redskins to three Super Bowl championships in 12 years and now owns a NASCAR race team located in Charlotte.
"I'm already down there a lot," Gibbs said. "J.D. [Gibbs' son, who is director of marketing and promotions for the race team] is there. I love it down there. It's a place where our family is comfortable.
"But so many things have to happen. I really wouldn't be interested in coaching again unless the thing was perfect.
"It would have to have the right feeling, a feeling where you love the owner and you really develop a marriage there."
Richardson wants Panthers general manager Mike McCormack to meet with Gibbs to determine whether the two sides are compatible.
McCormack said: "If he was free, he would be on our list. He's under contract with the Redskins."
Gibbs said his contract would not pose a problem. He still had two years remaining on his Redskins contract when he retired last March. He said it becomes void a year after he stepped down.
"Joe Gibbs' reputation is flawless," said Richardson. "He's a man I have confidence shares our values. He's a man I think embraces the philosophies we feel we would have to have in our organization to be successful.
"Mike McCormack and he would need to talk about their 'D philosophies and see if they match as well as we think they do. We'd want to come to an understanding of what his expectations are and he'd have to understand what our expectations are.
"From there, we'd hope we could move up and look forward to the next step."
McCormack, who will head the hiring process, said:
"Joe Gibbs, along with some others, if they are free, would be worth an awful long look. I would emphasize 'with some others,' because we don't know who's going to become available."
Some league sources, who requested anonymity, have questioned whether the salary a coach such as Gibbs could command -- well in excess of $1 million annually -- would fit in the Panthers' budget.
"Let me tell you," said Richardson, "if you spend $200 million for a franchise and $160 million for a stadium, a coach's contract would be a minor detail. A minor detail. Money will not keep us from getting what we want."
McCormack said he would be interested to see if any current NFL coaches are available after this season and said he doesn't have to have a coach in place until January 1995, eight months before the Panthers' first game. Richardson said he would like to name a coach three to six months from now.
McCormack said choosing a coach will be his most important decision as he builds the Panthers organization.
"A football team is like an iceberg, and the coach is the tip," McCormack said. "You think of Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, Don Shula's Miami Dolphins. The coach defines the team."
McCormack's prescription for the job: "A teacher, a team player, a great football man, a man with an ego but not a great ego, who understands that it takes a lot of working together."
Other than Gibbs, there are not believed to be any coaches currently without a job whom the Panthers would consider.
But what if Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's relationship with owner Jerry Jones became further strained to the point of divorce after this season? What if Shula were to leave the Dolphins?
The Panthers apparently prefer an experienced pro coach, but some college coaches have surfaced as possibilities: Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Stanford's Bill Walsh, Florida's Steve Spurrier and Miami's Dennis Erickson.
"They all have jobs," McCormack said, declining to discuss them.
Three coaches whose names have surfaced in the past apparently are not in contention -- Dan Reeves, Raymond Berry and Mike Ditka.
McCormack had planned to talk to Reeves, who played collegiately at South Carolina, after Reeves left the Denver Broncos following last season, but soon thereafter Reeves became the New York Giants coach.
Berry, the former New England coach who is a close friend and former teammate of Richardson, apparently won't be considered for the Panthers' coaching job but might get another position in the organization.