March 15, 2014
Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones (US Presswire)
It was 20 years ago this week.
At 5 in the morning on Tuesday, March 22.
Ed Werder and I walked out of a hotel lobby bar in Orlando following an all-night session with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. As we headed back to our rooms, we knew the end of the Cowboys dynasty was near.
Seven days later, Jimmy Johnson was out as head coach of the Cowboys after winning back-to-back Super Bowl championships.
The Cowboys would win one more Lombardi Trophy on the fumes of the Johnson era in the 1995 season. The last hurrah came on Dec. 28, 1996. The Cowboys rolled over the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs that day, 40-15, with Troy Aikman completing 19 passes and both Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin turning in 100-yard games.
The Hall of Fame Triplets would never win another playoff game.
And Jones has managed to win only one more playoff game in the last 17 seasons since becoming the undisputed face and voice of the Cowboys.
I was still fairly new to the Cowboys back then. The Dallas Morning News hired me in 1990 to cover the beat in large part because I knew Johnson and his coaching staff from their Big Eight days at Oklahoma State. I had friends on that staff.
In the summer of 1991, the editors at The Morning News decided the theme for our football preview section would be “Power.” Total power. I would write the cover story about how Johnson was transforming the Cowboys into contenders by exercising his total control over the personnel — drafting, trading, signing and waiver claims.
But the first time I sat down with Johnson to interview him on the topic at training camp in Austin, he told me, “This is going to be a problem.”
Now keep in mind, the Cowboys were coming off a 7-9 season. There wasn’t any glory to be passed around yet. But Jones wanted some.
That was understandable. He shouldered all the blame when the Cowboys went 1-15 in 1989 and then watched as Johnson received all the credit for the 7-9 turnaround in 1990.
With the Cowboys looming as not only a contender but a possible championship contender with so many dynamic young pieces in place in 1991, Jones wanted to make sure he received some of the credit.
Johnson told me that Jones would have a problem with the “total power” theme because the owner wanted it to appear he had as much say in the personnel decisions as the coach. Even though it was written into Johnson’s contract that the coach would have final say in all football matters, Jones wanted his GM title to be taken seriously.
I spent hours with Jones for a few evenings in camp crafting the few quotes that would appear from the owner in that story to make it appear he was more involved than he was. But from personal experience, I knew the details of some Cowboys trades before the team owner did.
One morning before practice in training camp, Johnson approached me and said, “I wish you’d get that story done because I’m tired of spending my evenings with Jerry talking about it.”
I knew there was a rift between owner and coach then — before the Jones-Johnson Cowboys had even won a playoff game. I knew it would only be a matter of time that there’d be a problem if this team ever did win big. Valley Ranch wasn’t going to be big enough for these two egos.
Which brings me back to Orlando. Werder was my colleague at The Morning News then before moving on to ESPN. He and I hooked up with Jones at closing time in the lobby bar that night at the NFL owners meetings. Jones was ready to explode.
At a social gathering hours earlier, Jones approached a table with Johnson and several former Cowboys employees — some of whom had moved on to other jobs in the league and others who had been fired by Jones.
The owner proposed a toast to the two-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys, but there was such a chilly response from the table, including Johnson, that Jones cursed and stormed off.
And found the two Morning News writers hours later in the lobby bar.
We sat there well past closing time. The bar was dark. The hotel lobby was empty. Everyone had gone to bed. But we discussed the Cowboys and what it takes to win Super Bowls deep into the night.
Jones asked us how important was it to have a franchise quarterback such as Troy Aikman in the championship equation. He asked us how important it was to have a franchise running back such as Emmitt Smith in the equation. He asked us how important it was to have a franchise wide receiver such as Michael Irvin in winning titles.
We discussed the merits of all three of those positions. Then Jones asked us what turned out to be his $2 million question: How important was the head coach in a championship equation?
That’s when Jones dropped the now infamous line, “There are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team.”
We knew then Johnson was done as head coach of the Cowboys.
Neither Werder nor I slept upon leaving the bar at 5 a.m. Before we left, Jones assured us that everything he said was on the record — and would stay on the record the following day. Ed went to work writing what we had heard and I went to work reporting it, discovering the Jones tirade stemmed from his failed toast, then chasing down the men who were at the table.
By 9 a.m., I got word from another writer that Johnson was looking for me. He needed to talk. Actually, he needed to listen. He needed to hear with his own ears what Jones had said about him at the bar. Inside of an hour, Johnson had loaded up his car and was heading home.
Johnson wanted out as much as Jones wanted him out. Seven days later, when all the legal haggling was done and Johnson had his $2 million go-away present, the two men held a news conference to announce they were parting ways.
And the dynasty had run its course. Johnson’s power over personnel reverted back to the owner — and all that remains now are the dreams of what might have been.
“I don’t know that we would’ve won more Super Bowls,” Aikman said. “I say that with the understanding and appreciation of how difficult it is to win a Super Bowl.
“But regardless of that, I strongly believe we would’ve remained competitive for a longer period of time with an opportunity to achieve greatness at the conclusion of each season had Jimmy remained our coach.”
Listen to Rick Gosselin at 10:50 a.m. Tuesdays on Sportsradio 1310 AM/96.7 FM The Ticket with Norm Hitzges.