ASHBURN, Va. - Joe Gibbs' second NFL retirement was much like his first. It came as a surprise, and it was all about family.
On the one-year anniversary of his grandson's diagnosis with leukemia, and less than a year after one of his sons left town to return to the family NASCAR team, Gibbs resigned Tuesday as coach of the Washington Redskins so that he could devote more time to what he called 'the most important thing I'm going to leave on this earth.'
The 67-year-old Hall of Fame coach, coming off an emotional season that included the death of safety Sean Taylor and a late run into the playoffs, said Redskins owner Dan Snyder tried to persuade him to stay on during a conversation that lasted until about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.
'My family situation being what it is right now, I told him I couldn't make the kind of commitment I needed to make,' Gibbs said during a news conference at the Redskins' practice facility, standing a few feet from the three silver Super Bowl trophies he won during his first tenure with the team.
Speaking about his family, Gibbs added: 'I felt like they needed me.'
Snyder said he 'tried very, very hard' retain Gibbs as coach.
'This is something none of us wanted to see happen,' the owner said.
The news startled players, who left Sunday's final team meeting certain Gibbs would return for the final year of his contract. Gibbs signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal when he returned to coach the Redskins in 2004, having been lured away from his second career as a NASCAR owner.
'That's part of this business - it's full of surprises,' safety Pierson Prioleau said. 'Most of us suspected he would be back, and he'll definitely be missed.'
Gibbs will continue to serve as an adviser to Snyder but was vague about his new role, other than to say he would no longer have an office at Redskins Park because it would place an unfair burden on the new coach.
'I think we've got a lot of pieces in place,' Gibbs said. 'I personally want to be a part of that. I want to see it finished. ... Our fans deserve championships. I want to be a part of seeing that come to fruition.'
Among the candidates to replace him will be two former head coaches who have been members of his staff, Gregg Williams and Al Saunders. Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher also could be a candidate. The team will have to interview at least one minority to comply with the NFL's 'Rooney Rule' as it seeks the sixth coach since Snyder bought the team in 1999.
Snyder said the process to find a replacement hadn't started and that he hasn't spoken to Cowher about the job. He and Gibbs praised the current group of assistants and spoke of the value of continuity following a playoff season, a possible sign that player-favorite Williams could have the inside track.
'Coach Williams is a great coach,' said fullback Mike Sellers, one of several players to endorse the fiery assistant hired to run the defense in 2004. 'The players love him. It would be sad to see him not get it.'
When Gibbs retired in 1993, he realized his two sons had grown up without him. Fifteen years later, he didn't want the same to happen with the seven people he lovingly calls his 'grandbabies.' One of his grandsons, 3-year-old Taylor, undergoes chemotherapy every few weeks. Also, his son Coy left his job as an assistant coach with the Redskins last year to return to North Carolina and work with Joe Gibbs Racing.
That left Gibbs alone in Washington, apart from his wife, sons and grandchildren. He made an overnight trip to North Carolina on Sunday to be with his family, interrupting the postseason routine of meetings that usually follow the final game of the season.
'I had real good visits with everybody, and at that point when I started back to D.C. and got on the plane that afternoon, I kind of had a real strong feeling in my heart of what I felt like I should do,' Gibbs said.
Gibbs went 31-36, including 1-2 in the playoffs, in his second stint with the Redskins, always maintaining he intended to fulfill the contract. He said this season was the toughest of his career, referring to Taylor's shooting in November, but pointed to his family as the chief reason for his resignation.
'I hate to leave something unfinished. I made an original commitment of five years. I felt bad about that,' Gibbs said, his voice occasionally choking with emotion.
Tuesday's announcement brings an end to a coaching career in which Gibbs twice raised the Redskins from mediocrity into the playoffs. He led the Redskins to four Super Bowls and won three NFL championships from 1981-92; he took the team to the postseason in two of his four seasons when he returned.
'I give him all the credit for putting us in great position for the future,' Snyder said. 'He's done a great job of stabilizing a situation that became unstable before, quite frankly.'
Even so, Gibbs' last four years were down-and-up, down-and-up. He had his two worst seasons as a coach - 6-10 in 2004 and 5-11 in 2006 - but he also led the Redskins to the playoffs with late runs in 2005 and 2007.
Following Taylor's funeral, Gibbs and his team rallied to win their final four regular-season games, finishing 9-7 to claim the final NFC playoff berth. The unlikely run ended Saturday, when the Redskins lost 35-14 at Seattle.
Gibbs' final career totals: 171-101, including 17-7 in the playoffs, a career .629 winning percentage that ranks third all time behind George Halas and Don Shula among coaches with more than 125 wins.
As word of Gibbs' resignation spread, fans flocked to Redskins Park to say goodbye. Gibbs stepped outside to greet them, creating a scene similar to the one when he emerged from retirement four years ago.
'Y'all tell me what you want done and I'll do it,' Gibbs said as he prepared to sign autographs and pose for photos.
'Stay!' yelled a fan in the back.