WATCHING JERRY JONES STRUT AND GABBLE DURING Super Bowl week, I thought back to a Super Bowl twenty years ago that also matched the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers and marveled at how far our culture has descended. I’m not talking about the games. Super Bowl XXX and Super Bowl X were among the best examples of great teams performing up to expectations. I’m talking about that collection of vultures who own the franchises, particularly Jerry Jones. At our present rate, Super Bowl L, pitting the Pizza Hut Cowboys against the True Value Hardware Steelers, will be played on the Big Board of Wall Street, where chauffeurs will deliver the players’ proxies.
Though the Cowboys remain the most popular sports franchise in America—the New York Yankees of our era—they have attracted more haters than admirers this past year. Jones has made it impossible to be indifferent. After the Cowboys won the NFC championship, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote that if Jerry Jones didn’t exist, Dan Jenkins would have invented him. Jones has gone out of his way to fracture the unity that made the NFL so successful. His megadeals with Nike, Pepsi, and American Express and his salary-cap dodge to sign Deion Sanders threaten the league’s marketing and revenue-sharing strategies and hence its financial security. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue appears powerless to stop the epidemic of avarice caused by Jones—and by owners like Houston’s Bud Adams and Cleveland’s Art Modell, who were willing to betray the loyalty of lifelong fans for a few pieces of silver.
Conventional wisdom holds that all successful teams take on the character of their head coach—think of Lombardi’s Packers or Walsh’s 49ers—but the Cowboys have traditionally inherited the character traits of their owners. Leaving out the short, uneventful tenure of Bum Bright, the Cowboys have been the property of two multimillionaires: Clint Murchison, Jr., the North Dallas aristocrat who built the team from scratch starting in 1960, and Jones, the Little Rock hustler who has owned the Cowboys since 1989. The Cowboy team that lost Super Bowl X was cool, efficient, and disciplined, much like Murchison. The Cowboy team that won Super Bowl XXX is arrogant, egocentric, shameless, and profane, much like Jones. That Jones has been able to win more Super Bowls in 7 years than Murchison won in 25 says more about greed than redemption. But it remains a fact.
Back in the seventies, no owner in pro football kept a lower profile than Murchison. Most Cowboy fans couldn’t have distinguished him from the towel boy. He possessed far too much savoir faire to be caught on the sidelines patting players’ fannies and was too modest to stick his nose in at press conferences or give television interviews. He left all football decisions to general manager Tex Schramm and Coach Tom Landry. He never took a dime out of the franchise or fired a coach. He was a shy man with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle recalls that when he presented the Cowboys owner with his first Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl VI in 1972, the Dallas owner flashed that wry smile and said this was nothing more than the successful conclusion of his twelve-year plan.
The Cowboy mystique started with Murchison. What I remember most about Super Bowl X was standing near the bar at the team’s media center and listening to Murchison and Senator John Tower break into a chorus of “Beautiful, Beautiful Texas.” The Cowboys’ beachfront hotel at Fort Lauderdale in 1976 was open to the public and was the scene of spontaneous pep rallies and much merriment and camaraderie. Twenty years later, security at the Cowboys’ mountainside hotel in Tempe was tighter than at a SAC base. Guards patrolled the perimeters while players slipped in and out back entrances. Thousands of loyal followers who had come from as far away as Seattle or Memphis or Orlando for this once-in-a-lifetime event, often with their children, never got a glimpse of America’s Team. The lucky ones might have seen the top of Michael Irvin’s derby bobbing above the heads of his five bodyguards or one of the $1,000-a-day limousines that some of the bigger stars hired to take them to practice. Deion Sanders appeared openly contemptuous of the public. “I don’t need the fans and fortune of the Super Bowl,” he boasted. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the spotlight.”
The difference between the Cowboys of ’75 and the team of ’95 is the difference between class and style. The ’75 Cowboys were a Cinderella team with a dozen rookies and few stars. They got to the play-offs on a wild card and to the Super Bowl largely on that miraculous Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson. They were a finesse team, and not a good matchup against the brute strength of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. Though the Cowboys gave it their best, the Steelers prevailed, 21-17.
By 1995, the roles were reversed. Now the Steelers were the underdogs while the Cowboys were the intimidators, the masters of chop-blocking and hand-fighting, a relentless machine mowing down opponents like so many straw soldiers. The Triplets, as the media came to dub Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Irvin, were maybe the best trio of skill players ever assembled by one team. The offensive line was the best in the NFL and one of the best ever. No cornerback in history was any better than Sanders. Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee acknowledged that five current Cowboys are potential candidates for the hall—Aikman, Smith, Irvin, Sanders, and Charles Haley. Staubach, Randy White, and Mel Renfro are the only players from the ’75 team to be inducted (Landry and Schramm are there too). But here’s the scary part. Jones is also a potential Hall of Famer. Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post made a case for the Cowboys’ owner: “The bottom line is he gets