Vain Glory

It’s his team and he can do what he wants. And what Jerry Jones wants to do most is prove he can win without Jimmy Johnson.

June 1994By Comments

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 involve myself in the football aspects of this business aren’t looking at the real world,” Jones told me. “Decisions about what happens on the field—between the white lines—are made by the coaches. I never second-guess those decisions. Then there is an area just outside the white lines, but one that is still perceived as football by media and fans. In this area I rely on our coaches and scouts. They make recommendations. I blend them in with the overall picture and decide what direction we will go. Thirdly, there is the financial area, which includes salaries and negotiations, the acquiring of players either through trades or draft decisions—injury risks, character, other things. These skills are not unique to football. Until 1989, neither Jimmy nor I had ever made a trade or a draft pick. But if I hadn’t been a pretty good trader, I wouldn’t have had the money to buy the Cowboys in the first place. Having said all that, if someone still wants to call it meddling, screw ‘em.”

The Dallas media, and the fans who live by the wisdom of that media, have subjected Jerry Jones to a curious double standard. Jimmy Johnson’s monstrous ego was greatly admired by the media and credited as the secret of his success, but the same trait in Jerry was ridiculed and regarded as detrimental to the team. This is partly Jones’s fault, but it can also be attributed to Jimmy’s skill in choreographing his own image—usually at Jerry’s expense. Jimmy always left the impression that Jerry was just along to carry the money. Unaccustomed to being in the spotlight, Jones came across in the beginning as clumsy and bungling. The media pictured him as an Arkansas hillbilly who probably peed off the front porch and ate goober peas with a knife. Or, alternatively, as a womanizer and cretin who used his fortune to buy acceptance. Jerry’s reputation as a nocturnal carouser with a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty women was not altogether undeserved, but the rumors that circulated in 1989 that his marriage was on the rocks were just that—rumors. Jerry has been married to his wife, Gene, a former Miss Arkansas, since 1963, when they were students at the University of Arkansas, and he is devoted to his three children, two of whom work for the Cowboys. Once the Cowboys started winning, Jerry’s hillbilly studmuffin image vanished, but it reappeared as though by magic the week that Jimmy Johnson was dismissed. “It’s no coincidence that all those rumors of family problems popped up again when the thing with Jimmy happened,” Jerry said, his voice more ironic than bitter. Jerry-bashing was back in style, at least for the moment.

Jimmy had always promoted his own image as a larger-than-life anti-hero, a maverick to be feared and respected, a gambler who would risk it all on one turn of pitch and toss. The media gobbled it up. Jimmy took all the credit for the landmark Herschel Walker trade, but what really sealed that deal was Jerry’s willingness to pay Walker $1 million to leave Dallas. Jerry ponied up another million to get Charles Haley and yet another million for Bernie Kosar, two reasons why Jimmy was able to win a first and then a second Super Bowl. Jimmy was up-front about his flaws and vices: He had no friends, except a small clique of trusted assistant coaches, nor did he need any; he had no interests outside of football; and though he had a wife while playing and coaching college football—because that was the convenient and socially acceptable thing to do—he divorced her when he reached the pros. Why couldn’t Jerry be more like Jimmy?

Almost from the beginning of the Jaybirds’ tenure in Dallas, Jimmy dropped hints that his boss was a lightweight, a whiner, and a pest. Jimmy let it be known to a Dallas Morning News sportswriter that Jones had come to him after the 1990 season and told him, “I want it to be Jerry and Jimmy . . . not just Jimmy.” In private and public conversations, Jimmy claimed that he—not Jerry—made all the football decisions. Jerry made the same claim about himself, though less adroitly. Jimmy and Jerry both courted the media shamelessly, but with different degrees of success. A perfect example of the double standard was a remark Jones made before the playoff game against Detroit in 1991. As an injured Aikman fretted that he was being shoved aside by fill-in Steve Beuerlein, Jones took it upon himself to tell Fort Worth Star-Telegram beat writer Mike Fisher what Johnson should have already make clear—that Aikman’s career in Dallas was safe and secure. When Johnson read Jones’s remark in the Star-Telegram, he was outraged. “Who is running the football team?” he roared. “Is Jerry the coach or am I the coach? To hell with it! If I’m not running things, maybe I should take my whole staff and we’ll move to Tampa Bay!”

More enthusiastic than articulate—especially when he has consumed a few beverages—Jerry isn’t always able to get his message across. In interviews, Jerry has led people to believe that he seriously thinks that he could coach the Cowboys. That’s not what he means—not exactly. He keeps trying to tell people that the opportunity to coach has passed him by, that “when they put me in my grave, my coaching record will be zero-zero.” But as he starts and stops and changes directions in mid-sentence—droning on about his motivation and his famous people skills—what one remembers is Jerry’s celebrated pronouncement in Vanity Fair: “I could coach the shit out of this team!” His meaning is fairly simple: Had he decided back in the sixties to be a football coach instead of a multimillionaire, he would have been a damn good one, just as he has been damn good at everything he has ever tried.

Jones did not misspeak, however, the night of that famous barroom incident following the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Florida, when he told a group of sportswriters that he intended to fire Johnson and hire Switzer. It wasn’t the whiskey talking in Orlando: Jerry knew exactly what he was saying, though on sober reflection he probably would have picked a better time to say it. But Jerry had been thinking about firing Jimmy for at least two months, since Johnson had remarked to the media—on the eve of the NFC title game with the New York Giants, no less—that, yeah, sure, he would be interested in a job with the new expansion franchise in Jacksonville, Florida. Jimmy was contractually committed to the Cowboys through the 1998 season, so it was obvious to everyone in football that he was just jerking Jerry’s chain again. Jerry had done some needling himself, but this was different. “What Jimmy said about being interested in another job, that was part of it,” Jerry told me. “But the other part, and this took me a little by surprise, was that I realized that it didn’t bother me. I could see by then that the Jimmy-Jerry issue wasn’t going to go away. The careless way we were handling our relationship, the way we were using the media to jab at each other, was taking its toll.”

What the writers in Orlando didn’t realize until later was that Jones had endured what would be his final insult from Johnson earlier that same evening. At a party for NFL executives, Jerry had approached a table where Jimmy and some of his former coaches and staff were having a private conversation. Jerry should have known better than to butt in: He had fired two of the people at the table. “As luck would have it, we were telling Jerry Jones stories when he walked up,” recalled Bob Ackles, who was the player-personnel director for the Cowboys before Jones canned him and is now the assistant general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. “We had just gotten to the one about the ESPN cameras on draft day of ‘92.” According to Jimmy, when the cameras turned in their direction, he had orders to pretend to be consulting with Jerry on which player to select. Jones probably didn’t hear them tell the story, but the cool reception that he received—particularly from Jimmy—set off the events that followed. Within a week Jimmy was history.

The one dig that Jerry Jones cannot tolerate is the insinuation that he used his fortune to buy his way into an exclusive club to which he had no place and no right. Randy Galloway in particular loves to push that button, as does fellow Dallas Morning News sports columnist Frank Luksa, both of whom have covered the Cowboys since the early sixties (and are old friends of mine). Over the years they have portrayed Jones as a buffoon, a hypocrite, a liar, and worst of all, a football wannabee. “More than anything,” Galloway has written, Jerry “wants to be known as a ‘football guy.’” This is the unkindest cut of all, like saying that while money can buy property, it can’t buy class. One cannot help but hear the echo of Jimmy Johnson in these sentiments.

The criticism is unfair but not altogether untrue. Jerry Jones does want to be a football guy. “I bought the Cowboys not for financial gain but basically because I’m a frustrated coach,” Jones told me. In his most formative years, between the ages of 10 and 22, the two most important things in Jerry Jones’s life were football and the family business. Jerry was a plugger-style fullback in high school—”that tough-assed Jones kid,” a coach on an all-star team called him—and later a guard and co-captain (and teammate of Jimmy Johnson’s) on the University of Arkansas’ national championship team in 1964.

Jerry grew up in an apartment over the family grocery store in the rough-and-tumble Rose City (a.k.a. Dogtown) section of North Little Rock. The store was the center of family life. “When Jerry was just a little boy,” his mother, Arminta Jones, told me, “we dressed him in a black suit and bow tie, and he stood by the front door, saying, ‘Can I help you find something, ma’am?’” Pat Jones remembered that his son worked and played football with equal ferocity. “I always told him there was nothing he couldn’t do if he wanted to do it,” he said. The store was open every night until midnight, and as a teenager, Jerry sometimes stayed up all night helping restock the shelves. “We’re not much for sleeping,” Pat Jones added.

Switzer, as assistant coach at Arkansas in the sixties, recalled Jerry Jones as “a try-hard guy . . . exactly as you see him today . . . a total extrovert, a promoter, a salesman who could look you in the eye and talk right through you.” Jones and Johnson both played for some of the finest coaches in America, including Switzer, Frank Broyles, Jim MacKenzie, Doug Dickie, Hayden Fry, and Johnny Majors. Jones told me, “The things I was exposed to and learned playing football were more fundamental to my makeup than all the things I have been exposed to or learned since that time. I am fundamentally sound in my business and my philosophy because of what I learned playing football.”

By the time Jerry had graduated from college, Pat Jones was in the insurance business and owned five companies. Jerry worked for one of the companies while he was in college, and after his graduation in 1965, he took over as executive vice president of his father’s flagship company, Modern Security Life Insurance. But Jerry still had football on his mind. A year later, at age 22, he almost bought the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League. He had the necessary financing—$5.8 million—but backed out at the last minute because the debt seemed so staggering. This turned out to be a costly mistake. A year later, when the AFL merged with the NFL, the Chargers franchise sold for $11 million.

By the mid-seventies, Jerry was a major player in oil and gas, banking, real estate, and various other businesses, a millionaire many times over and a behind-the-scenes power in Arkansas politics. He kept a low profile until the eighties, when the now infamous Arkla gas deal brought him both controversy and millions of bucks. In 1982 Jerry bought a half interest in some gas leases from Arkla, a utility then headed by an old friend, Sheffield Nelson. The contract obligated the utility to buy almost all the gas that Jones’s company produced—at $3 per thousand cubic feet, far above the market rates, which in the glut of the mid-eighties dropped as low as 16 cents. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the ratepayers by Fayetteville attorney Tom Mars charged that Jones and Nelson had cooked up a sweetheart deal. As part of a settlement, Arkla ended up refunding $13.7 million to ratepayers. The Arkla scandal became a bitter campaign issue in the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial race, in which Sheffield Nelson lost to Bill Clinton. Jones eventually sold his interest for a profit that Forbes estimated at $140 million—the same amount he paid for the Cowboys. Jones scoffs at the suggestion that he bought the team with his Arkla profits. “That $140 million figure isn’t close to being accurate,” he told me. “The profit I made on Arkla wouldn’t have paid for Troy Aikman’s contract, and I’m talking about the first one [for $11 million], not the $50 million he signed last year.” Tom Mars, who was Jerry’s bitter enemy during the lawsuit, is now a Cowboy’s fan and a Jones admirer. “We never claimed that Jones had done anything illegal or inappropriate,” Mars said. “He was legally and morally obligated to look out for Jerry Jones, not the ratepayers. In hindsight, I concede that he made a very shrewd business deal.”

In the five years that he has owned the franchise, Jones has recovered all but $25 million of his initial investment. Moreover, the Cowboys now are worth an estimated $190 million, making it the most valuable franchise in sports. When Jerry bought the team, only 6 of the 118 luxury suites at Texas Stadium were leased. Jones has expanded the number of suites to 368, and most of them are taken through the year 2008, at prices of up to $2 million. Local advertising revenue now totals $15 million to $20 million a year, about ten times what it was when he bought the team. The Cowboys have sold out every home game since the season opener of 1990.

Jones has not just remade the Cowboys, he has become one of the most influential owners in the NFL, the leader of a clique of younger executives who are reshaping league policy. “Jerry Jones has brought a different mind-set to the league, in that he is not afraid to operate his team as a business,” said Lamar Hunt, the Dallas oilman who owns the Kansas City Chiefs and was one of the founders of the AFL. “His hands-on approach is unique, different from that of any other owner I know of. We need more of that and less of the owners who never come around or take an interest in their teams. I can name you several owners who haven’t been to a league meeting in years.” One of the revolutionary ideas that Jones has championed is the salary cap, which the owners got as a trade-off for free agency with the NFL Players Association. Though the $34.6 million cap kicked in only this year, it’s already apparent that the players got snookered. A few players are going to become very rich, at the expense of the vast majority.

Jones’s bottom-line philosophy probably has made more enemies than friends. He faces several lawsuits from fans, disgruntled by a variety of complaints, ranging from insufficient parking for the handicapped to the loss of seats by longtime season-ticket holders, who had to make way for the additional luxury suites. But the move that has established Jones as one of the most ruthless and dispassionate owners in sports was the lawsuit that he filed in January to recover money that sixteen former Cowboys had received for permanent disabilities from workers’ compensation settlements. In some cases, the funds were designated for future surgeries. For example, former receiver Mike Renfro received a settlement of $22,000 to be used for a plastic right knee joint and a new left shoulder. What makes this lawsuit seem particularly cold-blooded is that fifteen of the sixteen played before Jones owned the team: He never paid a penny of their salaries or insurance premiums. Moreover, the players that Jones picked on were, first of all, low-salaried journeymen—Hall of Famers Randy White and Tony Dorsett could have been included in the suit but were not—and second, players who were experiencing acute financial problems. When two of the former Cowboys were discovered to have filed for bankruptcy, Jones’s lawyers asked for injunctions to prevent settlement funds from being used to pay for “the necessities of life,” contending that Jerry Jones would otherwise suffer “irreparable injury.” This is a highly complicated lawsuit, reflecting change in insurance regulations and the Cowboys’ future obligations in permanent disability cases. Jones said that the purpose of the lawsuit isn’t to prevent former players from receiving new shoulders and knees but to establish a precedent. “In the future, these funds will have to come out of the salary cap,” he told me. Dallas attorney Steve Carlin, one of the lawyers representing the former players, sees it in a harsher light. “The money here is the value of Mike Renfro’s knee and shoulder. Jones is saying that he owns these players, or at least owns parts of their bodies.”

Saying that Jerry Jones is not a football guy makes as much sense as saying Tex Schramm was not a football guy. Neither of these Cowboys general managers was especially conversant with the X’s and O’s, but each had a pair of Lombardi Trophies on the shelf—and Jerry collected his in just five years. Jones isn’t destroying the Cowboys, he’s making them leaner and more fit to survive the rigors of the future. More than any other owner, Jones anticipated the salary cap. In the past year the Cowboys have re-signed Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Daryl Johnston to the largest contracts ever paid to their respective positions. Eight of Dallas’ eleven Pro Bowl players have been retained—the only exceptions being linebacker Ken Norton and safety Thomas Everett, who were deemed expendable, and center Mark Stepnoski, who hasn’t yet signed his 1994 contract but probably will remain in Dallas. The Cowboys have lost some players to free agency but so have the other 27 teams. “Don’t look at what we lost,” Jones said. “Look at what we kept.”

And look at what the Cowboys got. Barry Switzer, who won three national championships at Oklahoma, was at least as good of a college coach as Jimmy Johnson, who won one at Miami—probably even better. There is no reason to think he won’t do as well in the pros. The Cowboys retain the same system, the same assistant coaches, and essentially the same group of players. And don’t forget the owner and general manager. Jerry Jones counts too. As the world is quickly learning.

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