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The Greatest Generation of Coaches

From Gibbs to McKeon to Parcells, the old guys are being called back to save professional sports.

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 2004 • By ED WALSH
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WHEN NEW YORK KNICKS president Isaiah Thomas announced recently that he was bringing Lenny Wilkens back to the NBA to coach in New York, people across America turned to each other with the same question: "Isn't he about 80?"

Wilkens, who is in fact 66, has been around the block more than once and many basketball fans assumed his coaching career was over when he was let go by the Toronto Raptors at the end of last season. Instead, Wilkens is the newest member of a growing group of retirement-age coaches being called on to make another run at glory.

Joe Gibbs was named the Washington Redskins' coach a week before the Wilkens announcement. Former coaching greats Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil are both back in pro football, leading new teams to success. And Jack McKeon coached the Florida Marlins to victory in the 2003 World Series after taking the helm last May. McKeon, a former National League Manager of the Year who refers to himself as "a seasoned citizen," took the Marlins from last place in the National League East to the top of Major League Baseball--at the tender age of 72.

You might call this new crop of old managers the greatest generation of coaches, as our love for these fogies seems to have tapped the same vein that Tom Brokaw hit with his best-selling tributes to the ordinary heroes of World War II.

Brokaw's books on the greatest generation harkened back to a better, more wholesome time. A time when values mattered, when people wore patriotism on their sleeves and everyone sacrificed to defend freedom and build America into the world's premier power. Americans of that era were allowed--even encouraged--to be proud of their nation's achievements. And with that pride came a firm belief that the future held great promise.

The greatest generation of coaches represents at root something very simple: winning. Team owners have turned to proven winners to redeem failing franchises. And like Brokaw's band of brothers, these coaches remind us of the days of yore, when winning was assumed and the future looked bright indeed.

DICK VERMEIL first proved that old coaches can teach new tricks when he returned from 15 years in retirement to win a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. Vermeil is only the fourth coach in NFL history to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl, and he accomplished the feat with players nearly a generation apart. Now he's got the Kansas City Chiefs in championship contention and he doesn't show any signs of wearing down.

Bill Parcells is another coach who's taken two teams to the Super Bowl (the Giants and Patriots), so Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones needed little convincing to sign him up for another run at the title. Jones had never hired an experienced NFL coach before bringing Parcells on board, but after several pitiful years the Cowboys didn't have time to dawdle in the cellar any longer. If the Cowboys' 2003 season is any indication, Jones made a wise decision, as the wins piled up and whispers of "America's Team" began to circulate around the NFL again.

The same urgent need to win motivated Dan Snyder to bring back Joe Gibbs, the Redskins' legendary coach from the 1980s. After firing four coaches in five years, Snyder finally turned to a man who has won in the NFL. Gibbs reminds Redskins fans of better days, when their ball club was a perennial contender and they could wear its logo with pride. The very idea of Joe Gibbs on the Skins' sideline gives every fan hope that winning will become a habit again.

But first Gibbs will have to confront the question that faces every resurrected coach of yore: Can you win in today's league?

THE PAMPERED, overpaid, egomaniacal players that dance across our TV screens these days are not the nose-to-the-grindstone types that dominated the pro sports in years past. As Budweiser's recent commercials featuring fictional football star Leon so hilariously point out, modern athletes want accolades and attention but don't always respect the notion that the team is more important than the individual.

Greatest generation coaches are accustomed to having players respect their discipline and follow orders. They're not likely to put up with the superstar tantrums of modern athletes. As one sports columnist noted, "Vermeil is old school; Parcells is a one-room schoolhouse with no lunch break, no recess, and no field trips."

Yet so far, so good. Both Vermeil and Parcells have managed to keep their teams focused on winning rather than preening. It may be that players are willing to be kept on a short leash if they're being led to a championship. After all, whether it's for honor and glory or simply to score a better endorsement deal and more fame, every player wants to win. That drive transcends generation gaps.