It is only the first weekend in May—just a minicamp in preparation for more minicamps in preparation for training camp in preparation for the Dallas Cowboys’ 1992 season—but the look of urgency on Coach Jimmy Johnson’s face couldn’t be more intense if this was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. “Let’s go, hurry, hurry, hurry!” he yells impatiently, clapping his hands while his offense scampers into position without benefit of a huddle. As quarterback Troy Aikman barks signals, Johnson studies the way the defensive players realign themselves. They are a little tentative, a little unsure. “You’ve got to do better than that,” he shouts at a cornerback who is slow to find the man he is supposed to cover. The purpose of this drill is to give the defense experience against the no-huddle offense that Johnson expects the Washington Redskins to run when the two old rivals face off in the season opener September 7. The game is four months away, but Johnson—don’t you see?—believes in being prepared.
A month later the Cowboys are at it again. After a two-hour practice, Johnson puts his team through a torturous set of wind sprints—ten consecutive 110-yard dashes, each of them timed and measured against a minimum standard that each man is required to meet. “Hey, Big Frank,” the coach yells at 295-pound Frank Cornish, a Cowboys newcomer who played last season with the San Diego Chargers, “did they do this out West?” Cornish shakes his head, spraying an arc of sweat across the Valley Ranch practice field near Irving. No, they didn’t do this at San Diego or anywhere else in the National Football League. Nobody works his team or his staff in the off-season—or for that matter, during the season—as hard as Jimmy Johnson. Most of these players had been running, lifting weights, and studying football four days a week since a month after the 1991 season ended.
Football is an eleven-month-a-year job when you work for Jimmy Johnson, and he would make it twelve or thirteen if he could figure out a way. Even certifiable workaholics like Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs permit themselves some type of off-season activity; indeed, as one of the Cowboys’ minicamps was under way in the spring, Gibbs was in Dallas promoting his new investment in stock car racing. Johnson is unique among NFL coaches in that he holds four minicamps—three of them “voluntary.” Players who do not volunteer do not play for Johnson, not for long. The only player absent from the minicamps is linebacker Ken Norton. One of nine starters who has not yet signed a new contract, Norton is nevertheless the only one who didn’t “volunteer” for the extra work. “Norton has damaged himself by not being here,” Johnson says after practice. “I tell our players that off-season workouts are voluntary, but, hey, if you’re not here, it eventually catches up with you. Sooner or later I’m going to have to make a decision between you and another player with similar skills. When that happens, I’m going to remember which one made that extra effort.” Cowboys insiders already speak of Norton in the past tense.
Not since Vince Lombardi was molding the Green Bay Packers into his own granite image in the sixties has the NFL had a coach as focused or as single-minded—or as egotistical—as Jimmy Johnson. “In Jimmy’s book, winning is everything and everything relates to winning,” says line coach Tony Wise. “Everything—the color of the uniform, the length of the socks, the size of the weight room, what hotel you stay at, what players you pick in the draft.”
Because of his personal relationship with team owner Jerry Jones, Johnson has become one of the two or three most powerful coaches. Johnson and Jones—Dallas Morning News sports columnist Blackie Sherrod has dubbed them the Jaybirds—were teammates on the University of Arkansas’ 1964 national championship team, and though Jones was a starting guard and co-captain, Johnson was the player who coaches, fans, and media venerated and remembered (he was named to Arkansas’ all-decade team of the sixties as a defensive lineman). Like everyone else on the team, Jones looked up to Johnson. “He was intelligent and focused,” Jones remembers. “Even in college, you could see that he had what I call ‘people skills.’ His positive attitude was infectious. He had the ability to make hard work seem pleasant.” Their longtime “friendship” (they were roommates when the Arkansas team traveled only because their names fell in alphabetical order) has been largely exaggerated by the media. “I think Jerry was a better friend of Jimmy’s than Jimmy was of Jerry’s,” says a man who knows them both. The Cowboys are one of the few teams in the league in which the owner and the coach share equal responsibility for all team decisions—Jones says there has never been a dispute they haven’t been able to settle between themselves—but everyone knows which one of the Jaybirds is boss. At one of the minicamps last year, as players and staff were introducing themselves, a newcomer asked—jokingly—who Jimmy Johnson was. “I’m the guy who decides whether or not you get a paycheck every week,” Johnson said, no trace of humor shading his face. “I’m the guy who decides whether or not you have a career in this league.”
How badly did Jimmy want the Cowboys job? Well, he divorced his wife to devote full time to it. He confessed not long ago, “I’ve put myself into a position where I have very few things that are important to me. My priorities are winning football games first and my two sons second.” If there was a third, he didn’t mention it.
Johnson’s world is remarkably compact. Essentially, it is a few square miles surrounding the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch complex. The complex, named for a subdivision, resembles a small, modern junior college with its array of offices, classrooms, film libraries, training facilities, and practice fields, fenced off and tucked away in the gently rolling hills west of