WATCHING JERRY JONES STRUT AND GABBLE DURING Super Bowl week, I thought back to a Super Bowl twenty years ago that also matched the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburgh Steelers and marveled at how far our culture has descended. I’m not talking about the games. Super Bowl XXX and Super Bowl X were among the best examples of great teams performing up to expectations. I’m talking about that collection of vultures who own the franchises, particularly Jerry Jones. At our present rate, Super Bowl L, pitting the Pizza Hut Cowboys against the True Value Hardware Steelers, will be played on the Big Board of Wall Street, where chauffeurs will deliver the players’ proxies.
Though the Cowboys remain the most popular sports franchise in America—the New York Yankees of our era—they have attracted more haters than admirers this past year. Jones has made it impossible to be indifferent. After the Cowboys won the NFC championship, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote that if Jerry Jones didn’t exist, Dan Jenkins would have invented him. Jones has gone out of his way to fracture the unity that made the NFL so successful. His megadeals with Nike, Pepsi, and American Express and his salary-cap dodge to sign Deion Sanders threaten the league’s marketing and revenue-sharing strategies and hence its financial security. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue appears powerless to stop the epidemic of avarice caused by Jones—and by owners like Houston’s Bud Adams and Cleveland’s Art Modell, who were willing to betray the loyalty of lifelong fans for a few pieces of silver.
Conventional wisdom holds that all successful teams take on the character of their head coach—think of Lombardi’s Packers or Walsh’s 49ers—but the Cowboys have traditionally inherited the character traits of their owners. Leaving out the short, uneventful tenure of Bum Bright, the Cowboys have been the property of two multimillionaires: Clint Murchison, Jr., the North Dallas aristocrat who built the team from scratch starting in 1960, and Jones, the Little Rock hustler who has owned the Cowboys since 1989. The Cowboy team that lost Super Bowl X was cool, efficient, and disciplined, much like Murchison. The Cowboy team that won Super Bowl XXX is arrogant, egocentric, shameless, and profane, much like Jones. That Jones has been able to win more Super Bowls in 7 years than Murchison won in 25 says more about greed than redemption. But it remains a fact.
Back in the seventies, no owner in pro football kept a lower profile than Murchison. Most Cowboy fans couldn’t have distinguished him from the towel boy. He possessed far too much savoir faire to be caught on the sidelines patting players’ fannies and was too modest to stick his nose in at press conferences or give television interviews. He left all football decisions to general manager Tex Schramm and Coach Tom Landry. He never took a dime out of the franchise or fired a coach. He was a shy man with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle recalls that when he presented the Cowboys owner with his first Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl VI in 1972, the Dallas owner flashed that wry smile and said this was nothing more than the successful conclusion of his twelve-year plan.
The Cowboy mystique started with Murchison. What I remember most about Super Bowl X was standing near the bar at the team’s media center and listening to Murchison and Senator John Tower break into a chorus of “Beautiful, Beautiful Texas.” The Cowboys’ beachfront hotel at Fort Lauderdale in 1976 was open to the public and was the scene of spontaneous pep rallies and much merriment and camaraderie. Twenty years later, security at the Cowboys’ mountainside hotel in Tempe was tighter than at a SAC base. Guards patrolled the perimeters while players slipped in and out back entrances. Thousands of loyal followers who had come from as far away as Seattle or Memphis or Orlando for this once-in-a-lifetime event, often with their children, never got a glimpse of America’s Team. The lucky ones might have seen the top of Michael Irvin’s derby bobbing above the heads of his five bodyguards or one of the $1,000-a-day limousines that some of the bigger stars hired to take them to practice. Deion Sanders appeared openly contemptuous of the public. “I don’t need the fans and fortune of the Super Bowl,” he boasted. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been in the spotlight.”
The difference between the Cowboys of ’75 and the team of ’95 is the difference between class and style. The ’75 Cowboys were a Cinderella team with a dozen rookies and few stars. They got to the play-offs on a wild card and to the Super Bowl largely on that miraculous Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson. They were a finesse team, and not a good matchup against the brute strength of the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. Though the Cowboys gave it their best, the Steelers prevailed, 21-17.
By 1995, the roles were reversed. Now the Steelers were the underdogs while the Cowboys were the intimidators, the masters of chop-blocking and hand-fighting, a relentless machine mowing down opponents like so many straw soldiers. The Triplets, as the media came to dub Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Irvin, were maybe the best trio of skill players ever assembled by one team. The offensive line was the best in the NFL and one of the best ever. No cornerback in history was any better than Sanders. Members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee acknowledged that five current Cowboys are potential candidates for the hall—Aikman, Smith, Irvin, Sanders, and Charles Haley. Staubach, Randy White, and Mel Renfro are the only players from the ’75 team to be inducted (Landry and Schramm are there too). But here’s the scary part. Jones is also a potential Hall of Famer. Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post made a case for the Cowboys’ owner: “The bottom line is he gets results and he wins. He’s put together great teams and he’s changed the face of the game. To me that’s a Hall of Fame member.”
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXX, the Cowboys offered no attempt at humility or sportsmanship. “We know we’re good, and we let you know about it,” chirped Deion. Nate Newton observed, “I do not make the money I make to be quiet. Money is power and I make a lot of power.” Jones made headlines by complaining that Arizona’s liquor laws interfered with his plans for a victory party—a week before the game was even played. There were thousands of cameras and microphones in evidence, and Jones seemed able to position himself in front of every one. To help reporters and camera people at media day, the NFL posted signs with players’ names. To our amazement the “Jones” sign, between “Newton” and “Woodson,” wasn’t for middle linebacker Robert, it was for Jerry. As Coach Barry Switzer waited in the wings to address a packed press conference—and as dozens of cameras focused in his direction—Jones sidled up to him and whispered in his ear, as though Jones were the coach sending in the play.
Switzer kept a low profile, as he has since joining the Cowboys. He is not comfortable with self-promotion and has turned down endorsement contracts and opportunities to appear with Leno and Letterman. He made no attempt to rein in any of the players’ off-field excesses or public comments, a coaching style that many have confused with dereliction of duty. “I don’t care what goes on on the periphery,” he said. “It’s what happens on the field that concerns me.” Instead, he wondered why the media were making such a big deal of stuff like limousines and derby hats. Only occasionally did Switzer lose patience and tell reporters what he truly believed. “It’s really incidental and irrelevant to me what you think or write,” he said during one media conference. “I don’t need to tell you how good a coach I am.”
In my judgment, Switzer was the real hero of Super Bowl XXX because he kept his cool and somehow managed to win in what everyone agreed was a no-win situation. Jerry Jones, you may recall, had said that any of five hundred coaches could take this team to the Super Bowl. From Switzer’s first day in the NFL, insiders had whispered that he was a college coach, in over his head—never mind that he had won three national championships at Oklahoma, two more than Jimmy Johnson had won at Miami. Even if Switzer did win a Super Bowl, insiders agreed, he would do it with Jimmy’s team. No less an authority than Bill Walsh observed during Super Bowl week: “Jimmy Johnson put together the team and the chemistry. He established a formula for winning. They’re still winning with that and will until the great players leave.”
Few people outside the Cowboys organization know what Switzer endured during the final weeks of the 1995 season or how well he endured it. Holdouts, injuries, drug suspensions, the hoopla over Deion’s contract, the death of the son of Super Bowl MVP-to-be Larry Brown—I doubt if any other coach, including the sainted Jimmy, could have held this team together. And yet Switzer’s reputation, intelligence, and coaching abilities were reviled from coast to coast. He was called a bozo, an idiot, and a hood ornament. After the fourth-and-one fiasco in Philadelphia, the New York Post ran a photo of Jerry and Barry captioned “Dumb and Dumber.” In his syndicated newspaper column Johnson wrote that that single call would permanently destroy Switzer’s reputation as an NFL coach.
There were rumors that Barry had lost Aikman’s respect, and we learned a few days before Super Bowl XXX that the rumors were true. In December, between consecutive losses to the Redskins and the Eagles, assistant coach John Blake, for reasons yet unknown, complained to Switzer that Aikman was singling out black players for criticism. The accusation was absurd. Still, Switzer was obligated to listen to Blake, a loyal assistant and a former Oklahoma player who is also black. Switzer’s mistake was taking the complaint to Aikman, who was outraged that an assistant coach would question his character. Troy is the ultimate team player, a fierce competitor, a perfectionist famous for berating teammates who screw up assignments. Since only 4 of Dallas’ 22 starting players are white, the object of Aikman’s wrath is likely to be black. When word of Blake’s accusations got out, every one of the black Cowboys rallied around Aikman—and around Switzer. Even Charles Haley, who has never knowingly said a kind word about any coach, called Barry “a good man.” After the NFC championship game, Irvin stood before the crowd at Texas Stadium and announced before a live camera, “Barry’s taken so much shit from people. We ain’t going to let that happen no more.” Blake was quietly shuttled out the back door and into the head coaching job at Oklahoma, maybe the only time on record that an assistant coach has been encouraged to desert a team bound for the Super Bowl.
In the locker room after the fourth-and-one embarrassment, Barry delivered what may have been the greatest inspirational talk since Knute Rockne implored the Fighting Irish to win one for the Gipper. He started by accepting all blame for the defeat, though everyone knew there was plenty to go around. But hell, he reminded them, this ain’t the end of the damn world. People have recovered from worse. Take his own upbringing, the son of a bootlegger who was murdered by his mistress and an alcoholic mother who committed suicide. Did he quit? Irvin said later that Barry’s speech galvanized them for the final great push to the Super Bowl.
During Super Bowl week, the Cowboys were effusive in their praise for Switzer—especially the black players—in a way they had never been for Johnson or even Landry. Nate called Barry an honest man and Deion professed to love him. Veteran Bill Bates, who had played for both Landry and Johnson, summed it up better than anyone: “How could you not like the guy? He’s nothing but positive. He has fought for players behind the scene. He has fought for players against the media.”
It’s my impression that a lot of journalists who came to Phoenix believing that Switzer was an arrogant, egocentric lightweight went home with a vastly altered opinion. Once you’re around Barry for any length of time, it’s almost impossible not to like him.
The game was much closer than the Cowboys or most anyone else had predicted, but Dallas’ superior talent ultimately won out. The difference was mistakes—Dallas suffered no interceptions, no fumbles, no coaching blunders. Barry’s emotions finally got away from him when the commissioner handed over the Lombardi Trophy. “We did it! We did it! We did it!” he blurted. In the media conference later he refused to gloat or to acknowledge that in the victory he had been vindicated. “There’s no redemption, no vindication,” he said. “That’s never been important to me. I’m going to stand on the curb when we have our parade, and I’m going to applaud as the players go by.”
As for Jerry Jones, he appeared somewhat humbled by the experience. Perhaps he was saying a silent prayer, thanking God for allowing him to be one of the five hundred owners capable of taking this team to the Super Bowl.