Coach Alex Gibbs is gone, but certainly not forgotten, judging by an event this week at which the nephew of the late Mount Airy High School and NFL coach was guest speaker.
Many football fans might recall Gibbs as the highly acclaimed offensive line coach who helped the Denver Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowl games in the late 1990s.
But 30 years before that, Gibbs was the head coach of the Mount Airy Bears for three seasons and guided them to the Class AAA Western State Championship in 1968.
Though he would go on to the bright lights of major college and pro football stadiums, Gibbs — who died in July 2021 at age 80 — considered the Granite City the place where his expertise as a coach was spawned.
“I know it meant the world to Alex,” the former coach’s nephew, Rusty Gibbs, told the Rotary Club of Mount Airy Tuesday afternoon. “His time here was extremely important.”
It proved to be a springboard for a career that would take Gibbs to college coaching gigs at schools including Duke, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio State, Auburn and Georgia before serving in the NFL ranks. And Rusty Gibbs’ path to Mount Airy also was somewhat circuitous.
His appearance as guest speaker for this week’s Rotary meeting at Cross Creek Country Club was arranged by member Carol Burke, who had crossed paths with him during an event in Charlotte, where Rusty Gibbs resides.
After hearing his last name mentioned, Burke inquired if he was any kin to Alex Gibbs.
“No one’s ever asked me that before,” Rusty acknowledged Tuesday during his time at the podium.
“Usually they ask me if I’m related to Joe Gibbs,” he said of the former head coach of the then-Washington Redskins who won multiple Super Bowl championships before becoming a NASCAR team owner.
Fond local memories
Rusty Gibbs is active in economic-development projects in Charlotte, including efforts focusing on the role of sports in big business as evidenced by the presence of professional teams there such as the NFL’s Panthers and the National Basketball Association’s Hornets.
Gibbs also is involved with volunteer work in Charlotte, including NorthEndPartners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Police Department.
When speaking in Mount Airy Tuesday, he could have talked about those roles, but instead his focus was on football and Alex Gibbs’ link to this community.
“Where he really got his start was in your town of Mount Airy in 1966,” Gibbs’ nephew said of a stint that began when Alex was just 25 years old, 10 years before Rusty Gibbs was born. Alex was the older brother of his father.
“When I was a kid, I only got to see Alex about once a year,” recalled Rusty, who relished those occasions when he had the chance to ask him questions and hear interesting stories. One was where, among his many stops, made the biggest impression on Coach Gibbs.
“It was probably Mount Airy, because it was all about coaching football and teaching kids,” Rusty Gibbs said of a job that sometimes included driving the bus. Alex Gibbs also developed a habit then of discussing non-football subjects with players meant to instill key life lessons in them.
Coupled with the role model he provided as “a fierce competitor,” his nephew said, Coach Gibbs stressed integrity, dedication and accountability.
His work in Mount Airy culminated with the 1968 state title victory.
“I was at that championship game,” Rotary Club member Greg Perkins said during a question-and-answer session with Rusty Gibbs. “I don’t remember it, because I was wearing diapers.”
Dr. Phillip Brown, the club’s president, mentioned that his father-in-law, Coley Burton, was a member of the 1968 Bears team.
As is the case with talented coaches, Alex Gibbs was destined to go beyond the high school level and he subsequently became defensive backs coach at Duke University in 1969. So great was his desire to break into the college ranks that Gibbs worked for free his first year there, it was revealed Tuesday.
Offensive line beckons
A pivotal moment in Alex Gibbs’ career would come during the 1970s when he joined the staff at Ohio State under its legendary coach, Woody Hayes. Gibbs also was on the staffs of other highly regarded coaches such as Bobby Bowden and Pat Dye.
Hayes offered Gibbs the job of offensive coordinator with the Buckeyes, which came with the requirement that he also coach the offensive line.
This was an odd development for a man who stood only about 5-5 or 5-6 and weighed 150 pounds.
“His players were like twice the size of him,” Rusty Gibbs said.
Yet this didn’t prevent his uncle from grabbing them by the facemask and poking them in the chest when they missed blocking assignments.
In pioneering the concept of zone blocking for which he is most known, Gibbs’ style deviated from the philosophy of just having ponderous linemen push the pile forward. His method relied on schemes that were more lateral in natural, designed to create gaps for running backs to hit, which require more nimble and mobile guards, tackles and centers.
“He didn’t want hulking offensive linemen,” Gibbs’ nephew said.
His tough coaching style tended to be punctuated with expletives, Rusty added, with film clips of his uncle on the sidelines filled with bleeps.
“But he was also a very caring person,” Rusty Gibbs said. “Alex was an interesting guy.”
Gibbs additionally would coach the offensive line at Georgia in the early 1980s, when running back Herschel Walker led the Bulldogs to a national championship.
He joined the NFL in 1984 for his first of multiple stints with the Broncos, initially working as offensive line coach in Denver for three years and later returning there as an assistant head coach from 1995-2003. In 2013, he was back with the Broncos as an offensive line consultant for a season.
Gibbs also was a coach with the Los Angeles Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks.
Rusty Gibbs told Tuesday’s audience that he attended an event in Canton, Ohio, in June during which his uncle was honored posthumously through the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Awards of Excellence program. It recognizes individuals who contributed to the game other than as a player or head coach.
And the three years Alex Gibbs spent in Mount Airy and its influence on him in achieving such accolades hasn’t gone unnoticed among his family.
“I’m just really honored to be able be here,” Gibbs told local Rotarians in praising the role this city played in his uncle’s future success.
“You gave him the opportunity to do what he loved.”