When I visited the Dallas Cowboys’ Valley Ranch complex in mid-February, a month after the Cowboys had won their second consecutive Super Bowl, I should have guessed what was up, but the obvious somehow escaped me. Jerry Jones was in one of “peak-on-peak” modes, a phrase that the effervescent Cowboys owner had coined to describe his determination to take “America’s greatest sports franchise to the next level.” He was fairly bouncing off the walls, juggling a dozen decisions at once, that trademark grin frozen to his lips and his hungry eyes glistening like those of a cat locked in canary heaven. He has just come from a meeting in which he browbeat the sales representatives from several jewelry manufacturers while inspecting designs for a second Super Bowl ring. This turned out to be an omen: A year ago Jimmy Johnson had taken credit for designing the ring, but on this day Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. Now Jerry was scurrying to an allotted ninety-minute interview, after which he had to rush off on a personal errand before catching a plane for Mexico City to arrange a pre-season game with the Houston Oilers. Peak-on-peak was the beginnings of a master plan bubbling in the back of Jerry’s brain, not yet fully articulated but almost certain to be noteworthy, if not revolutionary.
“I just read a poll that revealed that the Dallas Cowboys are the favorite sports franchise of seventeen percent of the people in this country, which means that we’ve surpassed the New York Yankees!” Jones gushed as I followed him along a corridor. “Sure, we could sit back and smell the roses. But I’ve never worked harder in my life. We’re fueled by my own energy and enthusiasm.” Jerry recalled for me the celebrated salary negotiations with running back Emmitt Smith—Emmitt had held out for two league games, both of which the Cowboys lost—and made the astonishing revelation that the real holdout wasn’t Emmitt but Jerry. “By structuring the contract the way I did, I saved the Cowboys one million dollars for each year that Emmitt plays,” Jerry beamed. “That means that under the salary cap, we have an extra million dollars to pay a Nate Newton or a Daryl Johnston who does the blocking that makes Emmitt the great ball carrier that he is.” As Jerry rambled on, talking so fast that his words became jumbled, using the pronouns “we” and “I” interchangeably to refer to himself, a larger question kept nudging me: What the hell is going on here?
Five weeks later—when Jerry gave Jimmy the hook—I got my answer. Shedding Johnson was part of what he meant by taking it to a new level. Sure, there would be a fire storm of protest, no doubt worse than the protests sparked by the firing of Tom Landry in 1989, but Jones knew that the Cowboys would ride it out. Jones had predicted more than a year ago that when the salary cap became effective in 1994, the league would be playing with a new deck, and he had made his plans accordingly. Everyone knew that Jimmy Johnson was relentless and ruthless, but so was Jerry. His conclusion that Jimmy was expendable showed a Machiavellian cunning that took the sports world by surprise.
The blinding speed with which Jones changed coaches during that incredible three-day drama in March knocked the wind out of everyone, friends and foes alike. “I’ve been writing sports for twenty-eight years, and I thought I had seen everything,” said Randy Galloway, the Dallas Morning News ‘ sports columnist and a frequent Jerry-basher. “But that scene at Valley Ranch was history unfolding before your eyes, the sports equivalent of the Waco compound. People in sports will be talking about this fifty or a hundred years from now.” Jones wasn’t just replacing a coach, he was issuing a manifesto. Jerry Jones is the Dallas Cowboys. He had said that before, but nobody believed him. And incredibly, by day four, the man on the street was speculating not how far the Cowboys would fall without Johnson but how far they would go with his successor, Barry Switzer. Troy Aikman, who had played briefly for Switzer at Oklahoma before transferring to UCLA, went before the media and described the new Cowboys coach as “the best motivator” he had ever played for. Jimmy who?
“Everyone is saying that I’ve put my neck on the chopping block, that if we don’t go back to the Super Bowl, then I’ll get the blame,” Jerry told me when I interviewed him again on April 26, the day after the National Football League draft. “It’s true that I’ve made myself an easy target. But if Jimmy had returned for another season, with everyone knowing of the problems between us, and if we had failed to go back to the Super Bowl, I would be targeted anyway.”
“Jimmy would have made sure of that,” I joked, hoping Jerry would take the bait. When things had gone badly for the team in past seasons, Jimmy had been the first to point a finger at Jerry.
Jerry’s smile got a little wider, then he said, “If you’re asking will it take more of an effort to return to the Super Bowl without Jimmy, the answer is yes. But that may be just the thing that causes it to happen.”
Unlike baseball’s New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who is not above telephoning his manager during a game and ordering him to change pitchers, Jerry Jones has proven over and over that he is nobody’s fool. Only in an enterprise as narcissistic as professional football could a man be accused of “meddling” in his own business. Jones told us that he was a meddler back in 1989, when he bought the franchise. He wasn’t trying to be cute when he said that he was going to handle everything from socks to jocks. He meant jocks like Jimmy Johnson too.
“People who think that it’s meddling when I