By late 1988, the Dallas Cowboys were no longer America’s Team—or if they were, America didn’t seem to care. The once high-flying franchise had suffered three consecutive losing years, including a humiliating 3-13 run during the season that had just ended. The days of Roger Staubach, Drew Pearson, and regular visits to the Super Bowl were long gone.
Tom Landry, who had steered the team since its lowly beginnings as an 0-11-1 expansion franchise in 1960, may have been a living legend, but that didn’t stop the fans from turning against him as the Cowboys’ fortunes sank. Reader polls in the Dallas Times Herald and the Dallas Morning News revealed that many, perhaps most, people who followed the team wanted Landry fired. Majority owner H. R. “Bum” Bright, who had bought the team in 1984, hated Landry, but his demands that the coach be canned were ignored by general manager Texas Earnest “Tex” Schramm Jr., the only GM the Cowboys had ever had and a Landry loyalist.
Soon enough, though, Bright was forced by circumstance to assert himself. When he bought the Cowboys, his various businesses were doing well enough that he could afford the $83 million price tag. But the mid-eighties savings and loan crisis that would cost taxpayers well over $100 billion took a bite out of Bright’s wallet too. His Bright Banc Savings Association was well on its way to becoming one of the largest bank failures in U.S. history, adding to the $29 million hit he’d taken when his majority holdings in First RepublicBank Corporation nose-dived after the feds took it over. A souring Texas real estate market and slumping oil prices left Bright with no choice but to unload the team.
Plenty of people assumed that the next owner of the Cowboys would be someone like Bright and his predecessor Clint Murchison Jr.: an old-line, old-money Dallasite who would abide by the storied franchise’s traditions. Instead, Bright settled on someone who didn’t fit that mold at all; someone who hailed from outside Texas; someone who, it turned out, didn’t care much about tradition. Someone who was ready to let heads roll and turn the Dallas Cowboys into America’s Team once again.
On February 24, 1989, one hundred and fifty years after John Neely Bryan arrived in Texas from Arkansas looking to set up a trading post where three forks of the Trinity River converged, Jerry Jones, yet another refugee from Arkansas, fidgeted in a plush leather chair while the pilot of his Learjet traced the trail Bryan had blazed on foot and horseback.
Jones’s mind was racing as fast as his jet. Though only a few people knew it with any certainty, Jones was about to pull off something he had so far only dreamed about: owning his own professional football club. And not just any club, but the Dallas Cowboys, the only NFL team that mattered in Arkansas and the classiest franchise in professional sports. He was betting everything on the deal. If he lost that bet, he could lose everything. But he knew that in the world of business, believing in yourself was half the game, and if anyone believed in himself, it was Jerral Wayne Jones.
After the jet broke through overcast skies to touch down at Love Field, Jones headed to the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the finest luxury hotel in Texas and, soon after, met with his partner in crime, Jimmy Johnson. The two men were old Razorback football buddies at the University of Arkansas who sat atop their respective fields—Jones as an oil and gas man, Johnson as a college football coach, most recently with the University of Miami Hurricanes, national champions in 1987 and the number two team in the country the following season. Together, they had big plans for the Dallas Cowboys.
Jones paced nervously back and forth in his suite, jumped on the telephone whenever it rang, and did what he could to contain himself, knowing he was about to make a big splash in Big D. For the moment, though, everything was being kept under wraps as much as possible. The evening before, KXAS, Channel 5 had run a promo during prime time promising that the 10 o’clock newscast would offer breaking news about the pending sale of the team. The Fort Worth station’s sports director, Scott Murray, and two of his colleagues had been working their sources for months and had finally gotten the goods.
Dale Hansen, the famed sports anchor for competing WFAA, Channel 8, was speaking at a banquet when the promo aired. WFAA’s news director saw it and called Hansen back to the station to try to nail down the story.
Hansen immediately called Schramm. “What’s going on?” he asked.