Reporting David Elfin
Back in 1965, Washington’s own Marvin Gaye had a smash hit with Kim Weston called, “It Takes Two.” That’s the theme of today’s column as baseball season will end tomorrow or Thursday in Boston and the Nationals will be permitted to announce their new manager.
The Redskins rocketed from a quarter century out of postseason to a constant playoff contender in the 1970s under coach George Allen, a master motivator. But it was the strategic wizardry of coach Joe Gibbs that made them champions in the 1980s.
Coach Lefty Driesell recruited Maryland out of the college basketball wilderness in the 1970. But it was coach Gary Williams’ intensity that delivered the Terps their only Final Four appearances and lone national title in the 2000s.
The Nats are hoping that they are taking their own second step towards greatness with their all-but-official hiring of Arizona third base coach Matt Williams as their next manager, succeeding the retired Davey Johnson.
In his prime, Johnson was as fiery as fellow former slugging, Gold Glove-winning infielder Williams. But Johnson, who’ll be 71 in January, was more a pat on the back than in your face type the past two years with the Nats, many of whom were young enough to be his grandsons.
Washington soared to a major league-best 98-64 record in 2012, Johnson’s first full year, but slipped back to 86-76 this past season, finishing four games out of the playoffs and 10 games behind Atlanta in the National League East.
The Nats lacked vocal leaders. Among those nine All-Stars, only the bubbly Gonzalez and the inspirational Werth, who’ll be 35 in May, aren’t low-key, no-nonsense types. The rest apparently could use some of Williams’ tough love approach, or at least that’s the way general manager Mike Rizzo, who assembled most of the roster, figures it.
Rizzo, who worked for the Diamondbacks during Williams’ final four seasons as a player, admired his willingness to confront teammates who didn’t give their best. As Johnson told The Washington Post last week, Williams was, “a hard-nosed player. He played the game hard.”
So did Johnson, who made four All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, four pennants and two World Series during his 13 seasons compared to Williams’ five All-Star teams, four Gold Gloves, three pennant and one championship ring during his 17 seasons.
But back to the Redskins and Terps for a moment.
When Gibbs came to Washington, he had never been in command of a team, serving as the offensive coordinator in San Diego for an offensive genius, Don Coryell.
However, Gibbs didn’t take over a talent-less Redskins team. Quarterback Joe Theismann and running back John Riggins – whom the new coach had to coax out of a year-long retirement – were established stars and receiver Art Monk was on the rise. The Redskins were also only a year removed from a 10-6 season under coach Jack Pardee. In his second season, Gibbs guided them to their first Super Bowl victory.
When Williams, who had played at Maryland in the 1960s, returned to College Park in 1989, the Terps were only a year removed from an NCAA Tournament appearance. However, predecessor Bob Wade’s shenanigans had cost them talent and landed them on probation, a burden which took Williams, a proven winner at American, Boston College and Ohio State, four years to overcome and launch Maryland back towards title contention.
For the 2014 Nats, like the 1981 Redskins and the 1989-90 Terps, excellence won’t be a distant memory. And with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in the rotation, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano in the bullpen, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman in the infield, and Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the outfield, Washington has nine players who were All-Stars at some point during the past five seasons. That’s a pretty strong foundation.
“I know [Williams] hasn’t managed, but a lot of guys that haven’t managed have been successful,” Johnson told The Post. “They all came into a good situation. He’s coming into a good situation.”
Like Mike Matheny, who had never managed before directing St. Louis past Washington and into the National League Championship Series in his 2012 debut and into the World Series this October.
Part of the 2013 Nats’ problem was dealing with the sky-high expectations that included Johnson’s “World Series or Bust” boast. Those won’t be so monstrous in 2014.
Hiring neophyte head coach Gibbs certainly worked for the Redskins in 1981. Hiring the untested Wade when longtime winner Lefty Driesell was forced out in 1986 backfired on Maryland, which then turned to Williams to rescue the program.
Will Matt Williams be a Gibbs or a Wade? We’ll begin to learn the answer come April.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.