ASHBURN, Va. In a bid to return to their heyday, the Washington Redskins reached into their past with a most stunning move: Joe Gibbs is coming back.
The Hall of Fame coach who led the team to three Super Bowl championships instantly restored hope to a franchise searching for answers after a decade of losing and the resignation of Steve Spurrier.
Gibbs retired 11 years ago and then rose to the top in a second sports career as a NASCAR team owner. He signed a five-year contract worth about $25 million Wednesday in a coup for owner Dan Snyder, who grew up rooting for Gibbs' great teams.
''Who better to set our strategy and lead the Redskins back to championship glory?'' Snyder said.
The details of Gibbs' contract, confirmed by a source within the NFL, speaking on condition of anonymity, is similar to the NFL-record deal given to Spurrier.
''The desire to coach has always been with me, even after being away from the game for 11 years,'' Gibbs said.
Gibbs owns a minority share of the Atlanta Falcons and will sell his portion. In a statement, the Falcons said Gibbs approached them several weeks ago and talked about their vacant coaching job.
''When the opportunity at the Redskins came up, Joe told us he couldn't turn his back on the history, fans, loyalties and relationships built over time in Washington,'' the Falcons' statement said. ''While we understand his feelings, we are disappointed that he didn't continue his talks with us.''
Gibbs was also given the title of Redskins team president, but the protocol for roster decisions will essentially remain the same. Vinny Cerrato continues as director of player personnel, and Snyder will have the final word to settle any disputes, according to the source.
Gibbs will be introduced at a news conference Thursday, but he already has his first two hires in place, according to the source. Former Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams will be defensive coordinator.
Joe Bugel, who oversaw the ''Hogs'' as offensive line coach under Gibbs from 1981-89, returns to that post.
The Williams hiring was first reported by SportsLine.com.
Spurrier quit last week with three years left on his contract. His teams went 7-9, then 5-11.
In contrast, the Redskins made the playoffs during eight of Gibbs' 12 seasons, and his .683 winning percentage ranks third in NFL history. His record was 124-60 in the regular season and 16-5 in the playoffs, including Super Bowl victories after the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons each with a different quarterback.
Since Gibbs' retirement after the 1992 season, the Redskins have gone 74-101-1 with just one playoff appearance under five different coaches.
Burned out from long days and nights he was known as a workaholic who sometimes slept on a cot at Redskins Park Gibbs left football and pursued a successful NASCAR career. His racing team heavily involved both his sons, giving him the family life he missed in the NFL.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996 and over the years has said he had no desire to return to coaching, although he has retained NFL connections. He was involved with a group that attempted to purchase the Redskins after owner Jack Kent Cooke's death in the late 1990s, and he and two partners bought a combined 5 percent of the Falcons for $27 million in 2002.
Gibbs joined the late Paul Brown as the only coaches already elected to the Hall of Fame to return to the game.
Gibbs, 63, will find today's NFL different from the one in which he once coached. He led the Redskins during the last years before free agency and kept together a corps of talented players for the better part of 10 years.
But it's been done before. Dick Vermeil left Philadelphia in 1982 and returned with St. Louis in 1997, winning a Super Bowl in his third season with the Rams.
''I'm happy for Joe,'' said Vermeil, now coaching Kansas City. ''I appreciated very much where he was when he left and understood completely why he left. And I can understand completely why he's back. He'll be a great influence on the Redskins organization as long as they allow him to be.''
''I think sooner or later you understand what you're really all about. What you are, what wills you to move forward and to work,'' he said. ''He had a tremendous passion for the career he was in, and I know he was very successful in his second career. But this time, he's driving the race car now.''
The mere mention of Gibbs' name brings instant credibility among the players, who had become disenchanted with the losing atmosphere. Even though most have never met Gibbs, they know of his legacy.
''You can just walk through this building and look at those Super Bowl trophies, and that will tell you enough about him even if you were too young to watch the guy coach,'' tackle Chris Samuels said.
The other candidates the Redskins interviewed former Giants coach Jim Fassel, former Vikings coach Dennis Green and Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes were all fired from their last jobs. Gibbs left on his own terms.
''Joe Gibbs is the greatest head coach in the history of the National Football League,'' said Houston general manager Charley Casserly, who worked in the Redskins front office during Gibbs' tenure. ''He will figure out what to do in 2004, get a plan in place and put it to work. ''
Snyder first contacted Gibbs on New Year's Eve, and the talks were kept under wraps during the owner's high-profile trip to the West Coast to interview Fassel and Green.
Gibbs' return also rekindles the great NFC East coaching rivalry of the 1980s. Gibbs will again face off against Bill Parcells, the former Giants coach now with Dallas.
''I said when he retired that Joe was the best coach I'd ever faced,'' Parcells said. ''I have great respect for his ability. I don't think the time that he has spent away from the game will have any effect at all.''
Gibbs' racing teams have been among the most successful in NASCAR, with two Winston Cup championships in the last four seasons. Bobby Labonte won the title in 2000, Tony Stewart in 2002.
Gibbs' oldest son, J.D., is president of Joe Gibbs Racing. The racing is largely unaffected by Gibbs' move.
''I think it is a great thing for him,'' Stewart said. ''He has always been involved in football. Even when he hasn't been coaching, he's kept a close eye on football.''
AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.
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