Editor's Note: Joe Gibbs makes it look easy. As owner of the No. 18 and No. 20 Chevrolets on the Nextel Cup circuit, Gibbs has been one of the most successful members of the NASCAR community over the past decade.
His life as a team owner in NASCAR was preceded, of course, by a successful tenure as coach of the Washington Redskins. That part of his life produced three Super Bowl victories and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In racing, Gibbs won the 2000 Cup championship with Bobby Labonte, and then followed up with a Cup title by Tony Stewart in 2002. He also won the 1993 Daytona 500 with Dale Jarrett, in just the second season of Joe Gibbs Racing.
By any measure, Gibbs has had a successful career in NASCAR. Now, he's ready to climb another mountain by returning to coach the Redskins, where he perfected the coaching philosophy that translated so well to the racing world. His youngest son, Coy, a former Craftsman Truck and Busch Series driver, will join Gibbs on the Redskins staff. Oldest son J.D., meanwhile, will continue to serve as president of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Coach Gibbs spent time recently with Glen Grissom, executive editor of Stock Car Racing, and offered his views on a variety of topics, including that "S" we're sure he wears on his chest.
SCR: What prompted your decision to return to football after building a successful racing organization?Gibbs: Well, there's not one issue on that. I went for 11 years and really was very comfortable with what I was doing. Every now and then, you see the competition of the Super Bowl or something, and it piques your interest. But I was very much at peace with what I was doing. Of course, a large part of that was because of racing. It's very rewarding; it's very similar to football. The racing world and the football world, because they are team sports, are almost exactly the same. You run into the same problems. You run into the same thrills and face the same adversity. I think one of the reasons for returning to football is that the racing originally took a lot of time from me, but now we have the management team with J.D., my son, in place as president of Joe Gibbs Racing. He has moved to a point where he is handling almost everything on a day-to-day basis. We moved Jimmy Makar out of the crew chief position to oversee all of our racing technology, and we have two great crew chiefs, Greg Zipadelli and Michael McSwaim. We have a tremendous management team that's grown to a point where it's very secure and running things. So I think that prompted me from the standpoint that I'm not as needed here, even though I'm going to have a tremendous interest in this forever. The race team is here forever. How much longer I can coach is going to be questionable.
SCR: Could you give examples of the problems you face in the two sports and the similarities between them?Gibbs: The example I like best is that you've got quarterbacks in football and you've got drivers in racing-with the same problems. You know, they both require long-term contracts, for example. We just went through a big deal with Bobby (Labonte) and Tony (Stewart) trying to get them signed. So it's the same thing, and you have most of the same pressures. You've got to have a great quarterback, and you've got to have a great driver. In racing you have crew chiefs, and in football you have coaches, and it's the same role for both guys. So when you start comparing the two sports, even the numbers of people are very close. Here (at Joe Gibbs Racing) we have probably 200 people working on race cars; over in football they probably start off with, counting the front office, 160 or 170 people who go to training camp. It's a matter of how you can work through all that.
SCR: You were initially involved with drag racing, weren't you?Gibbs: I was in drag racing. I kind of got hooked on drag racing and hot rods. That's how I got started, but of course, when we came over here it was with NASCAR. I found that a lot of racing people have an interest in football, and a lot of football people have an interest in racing.
SCR: You have the start-up business, Joe Gibbs Performance. How is that venture going?Gibbs: That was an unusual effort. My son Coy had a real interest in starting a project where we would do a Joe Gibbs Performance vehicle. Now, those will be limited in number, very limited, like maybe 1,000 or 1,200 across America. But they will have a performance side to them, which means everything all the way up to a supercharger and handling package, a custom exhaust system, a stereo system, custom dash-all these kind of things. So it's going to have a very different look and a great performance side to it. We looked at all of that, and GM is our partner, and so is Decoma. It's a big company that works with GM on a lot of other projects, and so we felt like we had two good partners there. We have some great GM dealers that are going to work with us. We already have that network out there.
SCR: Because Coy is going to the Redskins with you, who is going to run Joe Gibbs Performance?Gibbs: Yeah, Coy had a chance for that, but in fact, he's moving out of racing. So Joey Walls will be running that project along with my partner in most of the stuff I've done, Don Meredith. Not the football Don Meredith. He will be overseeing that project with Joey.
SCR: One criticism of your situation might be that you are spread too thin. Is there a big "S" on your chest somewhere?Gibbs: I think somebody could look at that and say that being spread too thin might be a possibility. Obviously, I think I have a real good feeling about football and what the focus is going to be. There is a lot to do there, and I realize what I'm supposed to do there. I also know the management team we have in place over here with the race team and the way I can bring some things to the table over here. I thought that through, and I feel real comfortable with it. I tell everybody you don't have Superman; with me, you've got a physical education major from San Diego State, and that's ballroom dancing and handball.
SCR: How do you think football has changed, and how are you going to address that? A crew chief who stepped away from racing for 10 years would have a hard time coming back in.Gibbs: There are a lot of changes. I think the NFL changes roughly 30 percent a year, and if you're out three years, then you're pretty much starting over. And, of course, I've been out much longer than that. There are some salary cap issues now with free agents, and you have to make a lot of decisions based on that. I think the thing that hopefully hasn't changed is handling people, picking people, putting them on teams, and getting them to accomplish common goals. That, to me, has been the same in business, racing, and football.
SCR: Racing and football are both, at their core, people businesses.Gibbs: Yeah, I would say the most important thing in racing is people. Everything that I've been involved in, it's been the people. If you get the right people, you won't have to worry, because they're going to make you look good.
SCR: Considering you've been so successful in your life, is there a core set of values you have that you turn back to? Something that you consider the essence of Joe Gibbs, that you can apply to football, to racing, and now to your performance business?Gibbs: In my case, with the three things that I've been involved in, I've found that being able to talk to people is very important. You've got to understand what makes them tick, and picking people is critical. It starts with character, which I think is very important. So all those principles are kind of what I believe in. In a part of the book I wrote (Racing to Win) I talk about the key areas in life. That's occupation, relationships, and health issues. I think they are all really important. Team building is huge, and so I try to take all those issues and relate them back to what I think is important. God kind of gives us a game plan here in this world, and if we follow that game plan in those areas, to me, that's what leads to success.
SCR: In essence, leadership is probably your strongest asset.Gibbs: Well, I think it's the people skills. There are a lot of things. Going into specifics, it's being able to talk to a team, communicate with team members. You've got to be a good teacher. It's all the things that you're trying to use and how you pick people. If you go back into a person's history and start talking to people they had contact with 10 years ago, then you develop a profile over a 10-year period. It's not just where they graduated from and how they tested, but actually going into their background. Chances are most people grow up and become successful in life in about a period of 10 years. You see in their past a history of accomplishing and doing well and being the right kind of person and being an achiever.
SCR: You have a very strong faith, and I wouldn't say the football world is known for, at least overtly, being faith-based. In particular, I think there is a newer generation of football player. I'll generalize, but they're known as selfish, self-centered, and maybe self-referential.Gibbs: In the past, some people have asked how I deal with those guys. They make a lot of money, have huge egos, etc. But truly, that wasn't my experience. We had tremendous team spirit; we had guys looking out for the team, guys who would sacrifice for the team. Yeah, there was a business side of it, but once they crossed those lines, I found the really great players are just like the really great drivers, in that they're not thinking about how much money they're making today. Instead, they're thinking how they want to win this race, and I found the really great players are not focused on money, but rather on how they want to try to win the game. So I've found (the negative reputations of pro athletes) are greatly overstated. Great players in football and great crewmen and drivers and everyone in racing are not focused on that. They want to really and truly be great. They want the ball; they want to make the play to win. Drivers say, 'give me the stuff to win.' It's more along those lines instead of self-centeredness or being worried about themselves.
SCR: Here you are at this point in life, with three Super Bowl titles and two Winston Cups titles. Obviously you are a goal setter, so what's the goal? What do you set in front of you now?Gibbs: With each one of those Super Bowl wins or the NASCAR championships, I would hear people ask what I get a kick out of. It's a different group of people on almost every single level that went with you to climb that particular mountain. Obviously it was Bobby Labonte and that whole group; then there was Tony Stewart and the Home Depot group; and certainly with the football team, it was '82, '87, and '91, so that was with a different group of characters and trying to see them accomplish this goal. Certainly it's always something totally different to strive for, too.
SCR: So, a Super Bowl is in the cards then?Gibbs: No, it's not in the cards. That's what's exciting about it.
This is probably 90-95 percent high risk, and you're probably not going to get what you want. So I'm very wide open on something. Everybody wants to win a championship, but it took us nine years to win the first one in motorsports. So is that the dream? Yeah, it's a dream, but we all know most of the time our dreams never come true.
SCR: How are the sponsors of Joe Gibbs Racing taking this?Gibbs: We've had lengthy talks with the sponsors and have been in constant contact with them. I think they look at the upside, too. Basically, what are the things that I can bring to the table that weren't there originally? So we're hoping that some of the things that we get to do to cover this will actually enhance the benefit to the sponsors. And like I said, we have the management team and everything in place, and I think the sponsors have great confidence in our group.
SCR: Having you around has to be a motivating factor to your race team, but now you won't be around as much. How are you going to satisfy that need with your race team? Will you be making regular trips back?Gibbs: The 200 people here know me, and they know what the race team means to me. I think that's a big part of it. I think I've explained to them in detail how I envision this helping. For instance, their jobs and the number one thing that they want me to do is keep the money coming in and keep the sponsors in place. Otherwise, they won't have a job. So that's first. They could give a flip about me walking around here talking. They simply want to have a job. And so I think they understand all that. They know and they kind of trust me, and I think they look at what I do best for them. A lot of them joke about me being at the racetrack because I don't do anything there anyway, except provide moral support. So I think they understand the ins and outs of the racing thing, and our racing family here is pretty tight.
SCR: What do you think of the changes NASCAR made to the points system?Gibbs: I think that's going to be a radical deal for us. It's going to take a lot of different strategies. I think it's a huge change. We have some concerns about part of it, but we also know that NASCAR has done a very good job of directing the sport to where it is today. We've got to thank the France family for the leadership, because they've been terrific. I think that if they think this is best for the sport, then of course, we're on board.