The Hungriest Coach

Coach Jimmy Johnson wants the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl so badly he can taste it.

September 1992By Comments

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 Dallas. Jimmy lives alone, three blocks from the complex, in one of the subdivision’s high-dollar homes. Some of the players also live in the subdivision. Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys play their home games, is a few miles to the south of Valley Ranch. Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport is just to the southwest. In its own way, the fiefdom that Jimmy has created at Valley Ranch is as isolated and as autocratic as the one that Lombardi created at Green Bay.

Nobody really knows Jimmy Johnson. He has no close friends, no hobbies, no life apart from football. As a coach, he is the logical extreme of what football fans—especially those in Dallas—have come to require: an ascetic whose single-mindedness and devotion to winning give them hope and comfort. They don’t really care what he does with his private life. Johnson’s predecessor, Tom Landry, was devoted to winning, but not as devoted as he was to religion and family. In his early years as the Cowboys’ coach, Landry even maintained an insurance business in the off-season and was extremely active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Landry’s detractors called him “plastic man,” but at least they conceded that he had an image. Off the field, Johnson has no discernible personality. There’s nothing to like or dislike.

Johnson reads and reacts to everything written about the Dallas Cowboys. Sportswriters never knew if Landry read the paper—nobody can remember him ever mentioning a story, good or bad—but Johnson misses nothing. “He knows, for example, the difference between a beat writer and a columnist,” says Cowboys publicity man Rich Dalrymple. “He knows that Randy Galloway does five radio shows a week in addition to writing four columns for the Dallas Morning News.” When Galloway or one of his radio callers says something negative about the Cowboys, the hot line buzzes and Jimmy is on the phone with a rebuttal. The tiniest slight or misperception can raise his ire. He jumped Rick Gosselin of the Morning News for writing that luck was one of ten contributing factors for the Cowboys’ success in 1991. “Luck had nothing to do with it,” Jimmy told Gosselin. “I hate that word. Luck is something that happens only when you work to make it happen.”

Such football clichés fall easily from Johnson’s lips and sound convincing. Jones is right: Johnson’s positive attitude is infectious, even among media cynics. Questions about his plastered hair are fielded with just a trace of defensiveness. “I like to be organized and neat,” Johnson says. “I’ve got thin hair, but I’ve got a lot of it. To keep it from falling in my eyes I use a little hair spray.” Physically, he is stocky and prone to put on weight—not the specimen you might expect of someone who was once an All-Southwest Conference defensive lineman—but there is a formidable presence about him, a sort of embodiment of the will.

Jimmy’s office is as neat and as orderly as his hair, and yet it is somehow impersonal, like the display window of a furniture store. A few trophies decorate the shelves, testifying to the Cowboys as an institution, but there is hardly a visible trace of the occupant himself. Jimmy keeps personal things, like photographs of his sons, inside cabinets set unobtrusively in the walls. Team rosters and player information are printed on boards that hang on the walls. The office reflects his obsession with discipline and punctuality. “He is punctual to the second, and he expects the same out of everyone he deals with,” says Rich Dalrymple, who like many others on the staff, followed Johnson from the University of Miami. “You’ll see him running down the hall so that he can be at his desk at the exact moment a conference call comes in.” When he is not wearing coaching togs, Jimmy favors double-breasted suits and sport coats, perfectly tailored and faultlessly pressed.

The only time that Johnson is really comfortable is when he’s at Valley Ranch, or perhaps the Cowboys’ training camp in Austin. He hates to travel. He made no secret of the fact that he didn’t look forward to the Cowboys’ trip to Tokyo this summer to play the Houston Oilers. When Jimmy is at Valley Ranch, he goes to the office every day of the year, if only to job. ABout the only socializing he does is with his coaches, especially his two longtime assistants, Tony Wise and Dave Wannstedt, who were assistant coaches with Johnson at the University of Pittsburgh and followed him to Oklahoma State when he got his first head coaching job in 1979. Johnson’s coaches are like family, their loyalty built through adversity. When defensive coordinator Wannstedt was trying to get the head coaching job with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, Johnson supported him even though his loss to the Cowboys would have been substantial. Wannstedt didn’t get the job, but Johnson recognized him nonetheless by giving him the added title of assistant head coach. In the early evening, after a hard day at the complex, Jimmy and is coaches sometimes slip away to “drink a few cool ones” and talk about—what else?—football. “If I have to attend a social function, ” he says, “I go with my coaches, stat for cocktails, then take a bag of food and go home.”

The only others who are welcome into Johnson’s inner circle are his two grown sons, Chad and Brent, and a female companion named Rhonda Rookmaker. Jimmy’s relationship with Rhonda is one of the mysteries of his private life, one that he doesn’t willing discuss with outsiders. She is an attractive woman who appears to be in her late thirties, and lately she has appeared more frequently in Jimmy’s company—at his home, at training camp in Austin, with him in the Bahamas where he goes once or twice a year to play blackjack. Occasionally they are seen together around Dallas, usually at some quiet place having beer and nachos. Jimmy is always careful to sit a the bar because he believes that fans are more likely to disturb a celebrity seated at a table.

Three of four nights a week, Jimmy has his meals delivered to the complex. At home, he eats mostly from Mexican dinners, which he has delivered a dozen at a time. “I know how to use the microwave, ” he says. “That’s the extend of my cooking ability.” Besides Mexican dinners, the only other items regularly stocked in his refrigerator are diet cola, beer, and Blue Bell ice cream. Johnson spends his time at home reading and watching satellite TV. “He basically built that house so he’d have a place to put his satellite dish,” say Dalrymple. “Jimmy is an information junkie.” This remark is curious because the only subject that really interests him is football. Randy Galloway says, “If Jimmy has a clue that anything else is going on the world—the Gulf War, the presidential election, name it—he’s got me fooled.” Johnson dislikes dogs and cats—too messy—but he keeps two large tanks of saltwater fish in his den. “Fish are my pets,” he says. “I’ll wake up at four in the morning and sit there for an hour, watching them and thinking.” And what does he think about? Football, naturally.

Galloway says that Johnson is addicted to action. “The higher the stakes, the bigger his eyes and ego,” Galloway has written. “Even when it goes against all basic instincts, Jimmy is likely to double the bet. Is he bluffing? You never know.” A staff member who watched Jimmy win a pile of chips playing blackjack—and lose them just as quickly—remembers that as they walked out of the casino, Johnson shrugged and said, “Easy come, easy go.” The staffer adds, “I’ve seen that same look in his eyes on the sideline. He’s always ready to calculate the risk.”

Jimmy Johnson had the best coaching job in college football at the University of Miami when Jerry Jones began negotiations to buy the Cowboys in the fall of 1988. Cowboys president Tex Schramm, who had been appointed by owner Bum Bright to find a buyer for the franchise, was an admirer of Jimmy Johnson’s and had thought about hiring him if Landry ever decided to retire. Throughout the secret negotiations, Johnson was at Jones’s side—advising, evaluating, analyzing—and though Jones never actually asked Jimmy if he was interested in coaching the team, both men assumed that would be the case.

In late February, just before Jones announced the deal and personally fired Tom Landry, Jimmy made a momentous career and personal decision. Himy and his wife, Linda Kay, had dinner the eve of the official announcement of the sale at Mia’s with Jerry and his wife. That was the night that a Morning News photographer snapped their picture, thus letting the cat out of the bag that the team was changing owners and coaches. After they returned to their hotel room later that night, Jimmy told Linda Kay that there wasn’t room in his life for both her and the Dallas Cowboys. “Is this something you really want to do?” she asked. He told her that it was something he had to do.a “It really wasn’t up for discussion,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t taken the job, I’d have always wondered if I’d made the right decision.” Their lengthy marriage was already strained and probably would have ended anyway, but it was effectively terminated the night Johnson decided he wanted to coach the Cowboys.

The Cowboys job was a unique situation, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was taking over one of the most successful franchises in modern sports, a team that he had followed since shortly after leaving Jefferson High School in Port Arthur for the University of Arkansas. The Cowboys had gone to five Super Bowls and had had a winning record for an amazing twenty consecutive years, a streak that was finally broken in 1986. The team was the creation of a certified football legend: Landry had coached the Cowboys from their inception in 1960, was the second-winningest coach in history, and was destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Following a legend was exactly the sort of challenge that Jimmy Johnson couldn’t resist.

The unceremonious firing of Landry, followed by the resignation of Schramm, outraged Cowboys fans. They ere slow to forgive Jones and Johnson, especially when the team won just one game in 1989. In Johnson’s second season, the team had a 7-9 record and probably would have gone to the play-offs if Aikan hadn’t been injured late in the year: The result of that bitter lesson was the subsequent acquisition of a truly top-quality backup, Steve Beuerlein. One of the wire services voted Johnson coach of the year after the 1990 season. That same week, a poll of readers by the Forth Worth Star-Telegram showed that 57 percent still favored Landry. “Tom had class,” said one reader. “Jimmy only has hair.”

Johnson seems to have gone out of his way to demonstrate that he is not Tom Landry. One of his first major moves was to trade running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings, something Landry never would have done. Landry regarded Walker as a franchise player, a talent that comes along maybe once or twice in a coach’s career. And yet three years later the trade is clearly the watershed event in the rebuilding of the Cowboys: Eleven current players, including running back Emmitt Smith, defensive lineman Russell maryland, and corner-back Kevin Smith, all first-round draft choices, are linked to the trade. In Landry’s overly sophisticated system for evaluation players, Emmitt Smith would have been seen as too slow to warrant risking a first-round draft choice. Nevertheless, Emmitt led the league in rushing last season, even as Herschel Walker was on his way to being given his outright release by the Vikings. Landry would have judged Russell Maryland too short to be a great defensive tackle. Johnson believes Maryland is a future all-pro. Unlike Landry, who judged potential draftees by a computerized standards—and by what he saw on files or in scouting reports—Johnson personally eyeballs every top prospect in the country and makes his decision on gut feeling more than hard evidence. “The first think Jimmy asks about a prospect is, Can he play?” says offensive line coach Tony Wise.

Maybe, as some have suggested, the game had passed Landry by. Not the technical aspects of football but the motivation factor: Today’s players aren’t as hungry or as eager to play for the pure enjoyment of playing or as willing to risk life and limb as they were in the years when Landry had the Cowboys on top. Even allowing for inflation, salaries have gone through the roof. Until 1968, there was no players union. Hardly anyone used agents or business managers—or hair spray, for that matter. Johnson likes to tell his players and staff that the game is not about money—a point he once illustrated by taking off his Rolex and giving it to a penny-pinching (and suddenly flabbergasted) accountant at the University of Miami—but of course it is about money. In 1990 Johnson’s salary was $1.45 million, which mad him the highest-paid coach in the league. True, his wages were inflated by a one-time-only payment of $1 million for future TV and radio work, but his base salary is still $450,000, a sum not to be confused with peanuts.

But different times do require different approaches. Players today don’t need coaching as much as they need manipulating. Landry was an engineer by training; Johnson majored in psychology. Landry never gave a pep talk in his life. He believed that professional football players should motivate themselves. Johnson’s chief asset is his ability to motivate. He practices his Pygmalion technique on everyone around him. “Treat a person as he is and he will remain as he is,” Johnson preaches. “Treat that person as if he were what he could be and should be and he will become what he could be and should be.”

Landry was methodical; Johnson is devious. Johnson wears an easy smile that suggest that he knows something you don’t. When he coached at Miami, Johnson kept a copy of a book titled What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School on the corner of his desk, positioned so that visitor’s couldn’t help but notice it.

Johnson has a way to go to equal Landry’s record, but his teams are more interesting to watch. They’re faster, more physical, and strange to say, more like the old-timey football of Landry’s generation. “Jimmy is vocal, excitable, prone to show his emotions,” says defensive back Bill Bates, one of a handful of players still around from the Landry era. “The team has taken on his personality, I guess you’s say.” Landry’s Cowboys were a fitness team, a cool connection of highly skilled athletes who baffled opponents with multiple formations, and exotic defenses that only Landry fully understood. But they had a flaw, and everyone in the league knew it. Even in their glory years, the Cowboys could be intimidated: Ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat them in two Super Bowls. Under Johnson, the Cowboys are intimidators. They are not the bad boys that his Miami teams were reputed to be—unjustly, in Johnson’s opinion—but nobody in the league looks forward to a Sunday afternoon of knocking heads with the Cowboys.

Johnson’s critics (they are fewer every season) warn of burnout and insist that a coach can’t drive a team as hard as Johnson drives the Cowboys and expect them to endure an NFL schedule. But Johnson has increased the work load each season, and each season has been more successful than the one before. During Johnson’s first training camp four years ago, veteran players bellyached that there was too much physical contact and whispered that Johnson was basically a Joe College type who didn’t understand how things were done in the NFL. “I think Jimmy wanted to make a point that first year, maybe weed out players who didn’t want to do it his way,” says Bill Bates. “There was a lot of bitching, but if you’ll notice, most of the bitchers aren’t here anymore.”

To say that Johnson has high expectations for the 1992 season is putting it mildly: He has predicted that the Cowboys will go at least as far as the conference championship game. “I’m impatient,” he says. “Sometimes my expectations are more than they should be, but at least we’re driving to be better.” In 1991, when most people believed that the Cowboys would be lucky to win half of their games Jimmy predicted that they would go to the play-offs; in fact, they went to the second round of the play-offs.

The team’s successful stretch run at the close of last season proved exquisitely the very points that Johnson had been expounding—about conditioning, preparedness, discipline (the Cowboys were the least-penalized team in the National Football Conference), and willingness to take calculated risks. When Aikman was injured for the third consecutive season, Beuerlein, acquired for a piddling forth-round draft choice, stepped in brilliantly. The victory over Washington in the critical twelfth game of the season was an example of Johnson at his high-rolling best. The Redskins were undefeated, playing at home, and raring toward a Super Bowl championship. Dallas had lost three of its last four games and was falling out of the running for a play-off spot. Johnson shocked Jerry Jones and everyone else connected with the team when he confided to them shortly before game time that he intended to use the onside kick, a tactic normally reserved as a last resort when a game is otherwise lost. Not only did the Cowboys use the onside kick successfully, but they also ran on fourth down, threw a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown just before the half, and blitzed the Redskins unmercifully. Taken completely by surprise, the Redskins fell behind early and never caught up. For the Cowboys, that game was the turning point of the season (and perhaps for seasons to come_ because it made believers out of every man on the team. They had felt the whip; now they tasted the sugar. Suddenly revitalized, the Cowboys finished the year with a string of victories over Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago before finally losing to the Lions in Detroit.

The Lions didn’t merely beat the Cowboys, they embarrassed them, 38-6, exposing an Achilles’ heel that Johnson knew would eventually be exposed. The Cowboys didn’t have enough good defensive backs to defend against the run-and-shoot offense used by the Lions and a growing number of other NFL teams. Walking off the field that day last January, Johnson was already thinking about 1992. “If we’re going to be successful next season,” he told an interviewer, “we’ve got to figure out how to defend against the run-and-shoot.” At the NFL draft three months later, he used seven of his fifteen choices on defensive blocks.

And now next season is here. The minicamp in early May is the first time Johnson has seen the entire cast on the same field at the same time. He glows with anticipation, his rosy cheeks even redder than usual.

As though to emphasize their own dedication to excellence, Johnson and his coaches have endured a seven-week diet and exercise program, each man putting up $500 to be forfeited if he fails to meet the goal set by a professional nutritionist. The first day of minicamp is also weigh-in day for the dieters. Every man makes his goal with something to spare. Johnson’s personal goal was 20 pounds. Overachiever that he is, he lost 22.1, notwithstanding his known appetite for beer and Mexican food.

“In the whole seven weeks,” he brags to reporters, running a thumb along the waistband of his newly downsized coach’s shorts, “I only transgressed three times.”

“Was that three twelve-ounce transgressions?” a reporter enquires.

“Three sittings,” Johnson snaps, impatient with the questions that didn’t pertain to football and ready to get on with the business at hand.

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