There's no cure for coaching bug

Joe Gibbs, the Washington Redskins' past and present coach, is but the latest manager or coach to return to a sport after being out, sometimes for years.

Football's Bobby Ross and Dick Vermeil, baseball's Jack McKeon and Earl Weaver and basketball's Hubie Brown are among those who also have made comebacks, with some faring better than others.


What do some of these coaches and managers say about why they came back? Was it the competition? The money? The feeling of being wanted?

All but Weaver were at least 60 when they returned, which is evidence - depending on one's view - of the sports world's enduring faith in experience, or of its lack of creativity and openmindedness.


Either way, more and more owners and front office decision-makers seem to see gray hair as an appealing antidote for the callowness besetting clubhouses and locker rooms.

"I think it's a trend, and I'm thrilled about it," said McKeon, 73, who managed the Florida Marlins to the World Series title last fall. "I thank God [Marlins owner] Jeffrey Loria was willing to take a chance on an old goat."

Ross, 67, coached at Maryland in the 1980s and in the NFL before retiring for more than three years. Reached by phone last week in the football offices at West Point, where he took over as head coach last month, he was clear about his motives.

"That emotion, that rush, that excitement, that challenge, that competition, that's what brings you back," Ross said. "When you're used to all that being such a big part of your life, and you lose it, to some degree there's an emptiness.

"You go, 'Well, geez, there's more I could be doing.' "

Ross, who has said he was tired of puttering around the house, noted that Gibbs, 63, probably didn't feel so empty. Gibbs has spent the past 11 years launching and overseeing his own NASCAR team.

"I hear NASCAR is pretty competitive, so Joe was probably able to stoke those fires," Ross said. "But he wasn't looking for the competition so much as for the thrill and emotion of game day; the building and development of a team; the fellowships with the players and coaches, which is unique.

"When I heard [Gibbs was coming back], I could relate. That feeling, that itch, that intensity, what the game does to you, we're probably similar in those respects. We probably felt the same emotions."


The money was attractive in both cases. Ross is earning $600,000 a year at Army, more than three times as much as his predecessor. Gibbs reportedly signed a five-year, $28.5 million deal.

Once-proud organizations desperate to get back to winning, such as Army and the Redskins, don't mind breaking payroll barriers to land coaches regarded as difference-makers.

Weaver, who retired as the Orioles' manager in 1982 and returned in 1985 at age 54, certainly received a sizable raise when then-owner Edward Bennett Williams lured him back to stave off a creep toward mediocrity.

Some of Weaver's players later said they felt he came back strictly for the money.

"But I didn't need the money," Weaver, now 73, said Thursday from his South Florida home. "How much money does a millionaire need?"

Weaver said he came back because of a promise he had made to Williams, who died in 1988.


"I told him when I retired that I would come back if he ever felt he needed me," Weaver said. "He didn't really need me [in 1985]. I just think he didn't want me going somewhere else. But I came back because he asked."

His second term didn't go nearly well as his first: the Orioles went 126-141, and he was gone after the 1986 season. Williams had tried to buy a pennant with free agents, and Weaver's magic no longer worked.

"You come back hoping you can win just like you used to," Weaver said. "It wasn't that the game had changed, with free agency and [big] money and all. We had some injuries, and it just didn't happen."

Whatever the problem was, Weaver finally had enough.

"Losing ate me alive," he said. "Some [older] guys can take it. If you don't care about winning, you can stay in it forever, just sit back and roll along. But if you're competitive like me, each loss killed me. I was at a point where I wanted to relax and do something else with my life."

He has spent much of the past 19 years with a golf club in his hand.


Some wonder whether Gibbs also will want to "do something else" once he gets a taste of coaching in the NFL with a salary cap, which didn't exist during his first term with the Redskins.

The cap forces coaches to make personnel changes they otherwise wouldn't make.

"The cap is a fact of life," said Ross, who was an NFL head coach with the Chargers and Lions. "But Joe is a smart person and such a great coach."

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hopes Gibbs follows the lead of Vermeil, who left coaching for 15 years, returned at 60 and won a Super Bowl with the Rams at 63. He now coaches the Chiefs, who face Indianapolis in an AFC playoff game today.

"I can understand completely why [Gibbs] is back," Vermeil said last week. "I think sooner or later you understand what you're really all about."

McKeon also said he could relate. He was out of managing for one, three, seven and nine years at various times before joining the Marlins last May and guiding them to their improbable Series success.


"I had had a good career and I could accept not being employed, but I wasn't fulfilled," McKeon said. "I was still young in my mind, aggressive, sharp, in good health. This is what I love to do. I love the challenge of making decisions. You just hope you get another chance."

He said he had no problems dealing with modern athletes, often perceived as spoiled and selfish.

"Shoot, I have nine grandkids; I can handle that," he said. "When I took over [the Marlins], I said, 'Boys, look, I don't need this job, I'm here to help you get to October, but you have to pay the price.' They bought into it."

McKeon is 33 years older than Jon Gruden, coach of the reigning Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Obviously, sports' winning template can take many forms.

"I hope Gibbs does great, just like Vermeil," McKeon said. "Anyone who thinks old guys can't do it, that's just a crock. If you're passionate about what you do, there's no age limit for succeeding."

Older coaches and managers


A look at some of the older managers and coaches who made comebacks in professional sports. Listed are the teams for which the coach returned, his age at the time he came back and his subsequent record.

Coach, Team Age Depart Return Fared


Jack McKeon, Padres 57 1978 1988-1990 193-164

Reds, Marlins 66 1990 1997-2000, 2003 366-308

(Won World Series with Marlins in 2003)


Leo Durocher, Cubs, Astros 60 1955 1966-1973 633-621

Yogi Berra, Yankees 59 1975 1984-1985 93-85

Rogers Hornsby, Browns, Reds 55 1937 1952-1953 123-135

Charlie Dressen, Dodgers, Senators, Brewers, Tigers 52 1937 51-53, 55-57, 60-61, 63-66 794-691

(NL pennants in 1952, 1953)

Frank Robinson, Expos 67 1991 2002-present 166-158



Dick Vermeil, Rams, Chiefs 60 1982 97-99, 2001-present 49-47

(Won Super Bowl in 1999)


Hubie Brown, Grizzlies 69 1985-86 2002-03-present 45-63

Source: Sun staff research