It’s high noon in Huntersville, North Carolina…and the preeminent coach is completely and utterly exhausted. During the last 48 hours, the always strong and stoic Joe Gibbs has confidently hired two new drivers, bravely launched a new diversity program for his race team and tirelessly prayed for a friend going through one of the most intense moments of his life.
And naturally, God has been coaching the coach through it all.
“I would have to say it’s been the busiest three or four days of my life,” Gibbs admits, with a sigh followed by a chuckle to end the definitive statement. “I’m no different than a lot of people in America. Everyone is on the go. The way I get through it is by spending a lot of time talking to God during the day. Most of the time, it’s as simple as ‘Jesus, help me with this.’”
Perhaps what sets Gibbs apart from all of the coaches that have coached before him is his eagerness to not only share his victories and disappointments in front of the world, but at the same time, to share his religious life with anyone who will listen. A physical education major turned head football coach turned NASCAR team owner, Gibbs has undoubtedly seen the highs and lows of a life well lived. Yet, the gray-haired man with the trophies on the shelf and the Bible by his bedside remains a true winner in every sense of the word by relying on the Lord for guidance and mercy and direction….even when he has felt himself going off track.
“Every time I have gotten in trouble in life occupationally, it’s when I haven’t been disciplined enough to stay close to the Lord and stay in His word and ask for His guidance and direction...” Joe Gibbs
..says the 74 year-old father of two and grandfather to eight. “When I have opened up myself to real adversity, traumatic things have happened to me, simply because I wasn’t following God’s game plan.”
Born in Mocksville, North Carolina, Gibbs first gained national notoriety when he was named as the head coach of the Washington Redskins after serving as an assistant coach for 17 years for various football teams. From 1981-1992, he led the much-loved team to eight playoff appearances, four NFC Championships and three Super Bowl titles. Just as Gibbs was preparing to hang up his hat on his football coaching career, he was approached by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and good friend Don Meredith about starting up his own racing team. Joe Gibbs Racing was launched in 1991.
“In both football and NASCAR, I always laugh that you are never more than two hours away from disaster,” says Gibbs, who resides in North Carolina with his wife Pat. “I used to complain about that. I remember once standing on the race track one day after we had gone through some big disappointments as a race team…and I looked up and asked God, ‘Why does this happen to me?’ and it dawned on me. This is exactly where God wants me. He wants me in these sports where you can’t count on what’s going to happen around the corner and the next day.”
Game plans have a way of changing at a moment’s notice.
“I do not have a life where everything is in place and you know what is going to be happening tomorrow and next week,” continues Gibbs. “That’s not the world I have ever lived in. I think that if I were in a job where I knew exactly what life would be like and what kind of money I would make, I think I would not be a very nice person to be with.”
Proving that Gibbs has not always followed a straight path to success, he returned to the Washington Redskins for a four year coaching stint in 2004. But the lure and excitement of the track and racing team dominated his attention and is where his heart is now. Going into the 2015 NASCAR season supporting a multitude of drivers along with more than 450 employees at his 250,000 square foot racing team facility, Gibbs still says three NASCAR Cup Series Championships are nothing in comparison to the relationship he continues to have with God.
“I feel like God is the perfect head coach in the game of life,” he says enthusiastically, as if to rile the troops up in a pre-game speech. “He left us with a game plan–God’s Word–and as far as I am concerned, I would love nothing more than to spend the rest of my life witnessing about this game plan to people. Life is a game…you and I are playing it, and we have the perfect Head Coach. Everything you need to know about living a successful modern day life is in the Bible…in God’s word. If you want to know about how we got here, it’s in God’s word. If you want to know about relationships, it’s in God’s word. If you want to know about life, it is in God’s word.”
It seems so simple, right?
Gibbs admits it’s not.
“I mean, I got myself into some trouble financially years ago, because I wasn’t studying what He said about finances,” he says. “When I have followed God’s plan, I have had some success. When I didn’t follow it, I have gotten myself in some messes.”
Gibbs has been notoriously open to discussing these traumatic times in his life, both publically and through the stories he has included in his books Joe Gibbs: Fourth and One (1992), Racing to Win (2003) and Game Plan for Life (2009), where he goes into detail about a property deal gone bad, which had him teetering on bankruptcy. But through it all and through an illustrious career, Gibbs has always gone back to the backbone of God’s teachings for all the support he could possibly need.
SURROUNDING HIMSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE
Whether through his life as a winning football coach or as a successful race team owner, Gibbs has always referred to his teams as family. It’s those family members that not only helped him see success, but they also are the ones who have walked alongside him during his religious journey.
It’s not always about finding the right people.
It’s about finding genuinely good people.
“To be successful as a leader, you really need to know what motivates your team and what discourages them,” says Gibbs, whose two sons, JD and Coy, work alongside their father on the Joe Gibbs Racing team. “If I have the right 50 football players surrounding me, I’m going to be a successful coach. If I surround myself with 450 good people on my race team, I’m going to have the right people that will help us all succeed.”
Of course, essentially hand picking the right people is something Gibbs has much experience with, and something he has grown to learn how to do more effectively with each passing year. Gibbs received much praise with building championship football teams with players that had mediocre careers with other teams.
Sometimes, you have to look farther than the stats sheet.
“I remember scouts coming to me when I was coaching football telling me about how much a prospective player weighed and how high they could jump and all of these stats that were relatively easy to quantify…and I would always go back to simply asking what kind of person they were,” he says. “As a team leader, it can be hard to assemble a bunch of people who are dedicated to succeeding as a team rather than putting their individual goals first.”
WALKING IN THE FAITH
Mixing his faith life with his professional life has always been of utmost importance for Gibbs, who purposely begins each week with the executive group at Joe Gibbs Racing in prayer. Yet, it’s the personal time he sits alone with God that Gibbs seems to treasure the most. “My study time is usually at night before bed, concentrating on God’s word and listening to tapes,” explains Gibbs. “And during the day, I don’t necessarily go to Him in formal prayer. And it’s not like I can hear Him talking to me. But when I can see things flaring up or I can’t seem to explain why certain things are happening or especially when I need to make some big decisions, I go to God to ask Him to lead me through this.”
When asked of any verses he tends to live by, Gibbs chuckles.
“I’m not really a verse kind of guy,” he laughs heartily. “It’s not like I consciously study just one scripture or anything like that. I just like to lay out His principles in the Word in front of me.”
Of course, no matter how strong his own faith looks to be, Gibbs says he has encountered his share of religious naysayers through the years, both personally and professionally.
“I will have people say, ‘Joe, how did we get here?’ and I always tell the same story,” he begins. “Look at a watch. It has a second hand and a minute hand and is quite complicated. I ask the person if they believe that there was a watchmaker who made that watch. They haven’t met him or seen him, but they believe there was someone who made that watch. So, you then look at the earth and see men and women and plants, and isn’t it just common sense that there was a maker of this world?”
Gibbs says he has made it his mission to witness to people in this way, during fleeting moments when doubt can even overtake what he knows is true in his own heart. “If I come across someone looking to lead a modern day successful life…but who objects to God’s word because it was written over 2000 years ago in some thick book with a lot of strange language…it can be hard for me to convince them,” Gibbs says. “I personally feel that God’s word contains the principles we should all live by, and for me, I have decided to follow it via my own personal game plan for life.”
However, Gibbs has his times of doubts. One that weighs heavily on his heart was the recent on-track accident which his former driver Tony Stewart was involved in, in which 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. was tragically killed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York.
“I’ve seen many tragedies, and the only thing I know how to do is pray for the people involved,” says Gibbs. Feeling the need to help young people with life struggles, he was instrumental in helping to found Youth for Tomorrow, a residential youth home, private school, and counseling center for at-risk teenage girls and boys in the Washington metropolitan area in 1986. “Tragedies occur sometimes in life. It happens all the time. Horrible events take place every day. But when I see someone hurting, I always try to just lift them up in prayer, and let God do the rest.”
HIS PERSONAL BACKBONE OF FAITH
Through it all, Gibbs says he has felt extremely thankful to be able to lean on various accountability partners throughout his life. “My Sunday School teacher from when I was a kid served as one of my most treasured accountability partners throughout my life until his passing about twenty years ago,” Gibbs remembers. “He never played a single sport. He, instead, played the piano. But he mentored me through all of life’s ups and downs, and both personally and professionally.”
And then there is the woman that has stood behind him and beside him when the cameras turned off and the games and races were through.
“When my wife Pat and I agree on something, we have never made a mistake,” Gibbs concludes. “When I have tried to do something on my own, I get in trouble. [Laughs] But yes, she has always been a big encouragement for me, and she has helped me make decisions in the most spiritual of ways. I also have both my boys working with me, so we also get to spend a lot of time together. I am fortunate that way. And then there is my racing family, many of whom I lean on a lot.. I’m lucky to have a great group surrounding me at all times.”
By: Tricia Despres
Tricia Despres is a Chicago-based entertainment writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times, Advertising Age and Country Weekly magazine. From making story deadlines to making dinner for husband Paul and girls Taylor and Amanda, Tricia leads a busy life....but is never too busy to listen to the whispers of God.Read More Articles by Tricia Despres