Coaching is filled with characters, but even among all those characters, Joe Bugel was rare.
The former Washington Redskins offensive line coach, offensive coordinator and head coach of the Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals and Oakland Raiders, died Sunday.
He was 80.
He got his money’s worth out of those 80 years.
He spent his life coaching and helping other coaches build winning teams.
He helped the Redskins win Super Bowls and helped players and coaches earn spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He gave the young Redskins offensive line the nickname “The Hogs” and helped them make it famous.
Bugel was a knowledgeable offensive line coach. But knowledge is of little use if the coach can’t impart it to the players. Bugel had a way of teaching that got his points across to the players.
There was a drill he would supervise early in practice where his starting offensive linemen would pair off and essentially engage in a tug of war with each other for about a minute. Each lineman grasped the arms of a teammate with his hands and the battle began. Their legs and feet were in constant motion as the players pulled and pushed each other with all their strength. It was a test of endurance, persistence and determination.
One day, Bugel had Russ Grimm, the starting left guard who became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and starting left tackle Joe Jacoby, who should be in the Hall of Fame, go against one another. Grimm and Jacoby were not just teammates, they were best friends.
However, for that one minute or so, it was a battle between great players who did not believe in yielding to anyone. I don’t remember either gaining an advantage. It was a fierce, exhausting exercise. When Bugel called time, he began yelling, “That’s a great friendship. That’s a great friendship.”
Bugel understood what it took for his players to be successful and admired them for their efforts.
Several years later, the Redskins’ offensive line was depleted by injuries. That meant a rookie, Mark Schlereth, a 10th-round draft choice out of Idaho, would be pressed into starting duty. The opponent was the always physically powerful defense of the Philadelphia Eagles.
There are easier opponents for a rookie to face in his first start.
After Wednesday’s practice that week, Bugel put his arm around Schlereth’s shoulders and walked around the practice field with him several times. The coach talked as they moved up, across and down the sidelines.
Bugel was telling Schlereth he knew he was up to the challenge, that the Redskins wouldn’t have drafted him if they didn’t think he was going to be a quality NFL player. Sunday was the day to prove it.
That Sunday, Schlereth played well, the offensive line held up and the Redskins won.
Several years later, I was talking to Schlereth and some other offensive linemen. I was asking about coaching styles. Bugel had left for Arizona by then and Schlereth said something to the effect that no one yelled the way “Buges” did.
Coach Bugel yelled, I asked?
Oh yeah, Schlereth said, his expression one of painful memories and affectionate admiration.
Bugel had a great enthusiasm for his work and was on a constant search for perfection. That didn’t always make the players he was tutoring comfortable or happy. It made them better players, though, and they appreciated the rewards that came with it.
Sometimes, Bugel’s passion came out in coaches’ meetings.
One day during training camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, who always has loved a good story, recounted a Bugel moment.
The coaches were in a meeting one night, and Gibbs diagrammed a play on the large white board.
Bugel didn’t like what he saw. He stood, said something to the effect that was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen, that it had no chance for success, walked to the board and punched a hole in it with his fist. Then he stormed out of the room.
Gibbs and Bugel had been known each other for years, and Gibbs had a large degree of respect and tolerance for players and coaches who got their jobs done well.
Instead of taking offense at Bugel’s reaction, Gibbs saw the humor in it.
“Somebody said he’s had some ‘shooters’ that night,” Gibbs said, laughing.
With the media, Bugel was available, affable, professional and insightful. Interviews with him almost always were infused with humor. He was a naturally funny, entertaining coach. He took your questions and filled your notebook.
In the summer of 2008, though, Bugel endured what had to be the toughest time of his life. His daughter Holly, 36, who had been fighting a rare form of bone cancer that already had led to an arm amputation, died.
Throughout the ordeal, Bugel handled the situation, the worst situation a parent can face, stoically and with grace and courage.
Her death came in the midst of training camp, and Bugel’s distress was palpable. But in public, he was all business, all about his job. He thanked all for their concern, then he did his suffering in private.
Coaches first want to leave their mark by winning. Bugel won plenty.
He left an even bigger mark just by being himself.