The evening was winding to a close on March 21, 1994, only two months after the Dallas Cowboys had won a second straight Super Bowl in dominating fashion over the Buffalo Bills, when owner Jerry Jones swept into the lobby bar of Orlando’s Hyatt Grand Cypress and buttonholed two reporters from the Dallas Morning News. “Why don’t you guys sit down awhile,” Jones said to Rick Gosselin and Ed Werder, who were in town to report on the annual NFL owners conference. “You sure as hell don’t want to go to bed and miss the biggest story of the year.”
Jones was tipsy, and he was fuming. Although his Cowboys were loaded with Hall of Famers in their prime and looked to be in the early stages of an unprecedented dynasty, he’d just had another run-in with his tempestuous head coach, Jimmy Johnson, who never seemed to stop pushing his buttons. At a different lobby bar in Orlando, Jones had come across Johnson drinking with some buddies and proposed a toast to celebrate Dallas’s back-to-back Super Bowls. The timing was unfortunate: a couple of Johnson’s friends were former Cowboys personnel who’d been fired by Jones, and they were trading war stories about their onetime boss when he walked up. The response to the toast was decidedly tepid, and Jones felt snubbed.“F— all of you,” he shouted, storming off in a rage. “I’ll toast and celebrate with my friends.”
What happened next is Cowboys lore: until 5 a.m., Jones sat perched at the Hyatt bar, ranting about his head coach to Gosselin and Werder. “I’m going to fire that sonofabitch,” Jones declared, insisting he could no longer tolerate Johnson’s insubordinate attitude. “There are five hundred people who could have coached this team to the Super Bowl. . . . S—, I could have coached the hell out of this team.” Johnson, meanwhile, as he describes in his new memoir, Swagger: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs, was enjoying Taco Bell in a hotel room with his girlfriend, Rhonda, blissfully unaware of what was transpiring down the road.
Johnson learned the full extent of the diatribe the next morning, when he met with Gosselin and heard the whole explosive story. His fury, he writes in Swagger, was like a “volcano.” Johnson and Jones had known each other since the sixties, when they were college teammates and road-game roommates on the 1964 national champion Arkansas Razorbacks, and over the years they’d experienced their fair share of dustups. But this time Jones had gone a step too far. Suggesting he could coach the Cowboys? “[Jones] didn’t appreciate how hard it was to build a champion,” Johnson muses in his book, still steaming about the incident thirty years later. “He didn’t understand the job I did.” Within eight days, Johnson was out the door, and with him went the Cowboys’ glory years.
Jones, it turned out, was only half right: his new coach, Barry Switzer, nobody’s idea of a mastermind, managed to secure the team a Johnson-less Super Bowl in 1995, its third in a four-year span. But Switzer accomplished it with a roster Johnson had painstakingly assembled after joining the Cowboys in 1989, when Jones purchased the storied yet struggling franchise from H. R. “Bum” Bright and gave his former teammate control of all football operations. Within five years, thanks to a flurry of shrewd trades and draft-day windfalls, Johnson had taken a team that had gone 1–15 at the beginning of his tenure to consecutive championships, one of the most legendary turnarounds in sports history. Unpacking how he did it—and, by implication, how Jones has failed to repeat his success ever since, with the Cowboys winning only three playoff games after the unraveling of Johnson’s roster in the mid-nineties—is the central thread of Swagger, which bills itself as a sort of guide to greatness, a chatty, motivational romp through a lifetime at the pinnacle of the coaching profession. The book is also, it seems, a chance to land a couple more potshots at Jones, whom Johnson can’t seem to stop ribbing after all these years.
Johnson has little doubt about what made him a winner: he was an obsessive, monomaniacal control freak who lived and died with every victory. Swagger details how Johnson spent his Cowboys years: waking up at 5 a.m., attending every positional meeting and every scouting event possible. He enjoyed his first Super Bowl victory for all of three days before getting back to the grind. “You hear other football coaches list their priorities as faith, family, and football,” Johnson writes. Therein lies their fatal flaw—Johnson never pretended to care about the first two. “Football was my faith.”
The winning trait Swagger emphasizes above all is Johnson’s elite ability to motivate people, to figure out what makes them tick and get them dancing to his tune. Johnson recognized this talent early and considered a career in “industrial psychology” before committing to football. Coaching, to Johnson, is the art of psychological manipulation: tricking players into sacrificing their interests for the team’s, into believing they’re more talented than they are, into internalizing the buccaneerish bravado of their head coach, who was famous for issuing wrestling-style threats to opposing teams before big games. Johnson says it’s a point of pride that two of his squads, the 1986 Miami Hurricanes and the 1992 Dallas Cowboys, landed in the top three of Sports Illustrated’s most-hated teams of all time. “All I know is it takes rare achievement and a different style to be disliked as much as my teams were,” he writes. Another of Swagger’s telling—and perhaps a bit disturbing—revelations is that Johnson’s favorite movie character is Hannibal Lecter: “He talked a fellow prisoner into killing himself. What a study in psychology.”
Cannibal admiration aside, many of the book’s most entertaining anecdotes about the Cowboys have been covered in other accounts, such as Jeff Pearlman’s salacious Boys Will Be Boys and Joe Nick Patoski’s sweeping franchise chronicle The Dallas Cowboys. Still, Johnson’s memoir, coauthored with sports columnist Dave Hyde, offers valuable insights into Johnson’s role in the Jimmy-Jerry ego clash—something Johnson doesn’t quite seem ready to put to bed, despite his insistence that he’s enjoying semiretirement on his “six acres of paradise” in the Florida Keys. For instance, after proclaiming he and Jones finally buried the hatchet—in 2021, Jones came on Johnson’s Fox NFL pregame show and promised to induct his onetime head coach into the Cowboys Ring of Honor (although he hasn’t followed through yet)—Johnson suddenly veers into invective, recounting a more recent interview in which Jones tried to minimize Johnson’s role in the team-building process. “All these years later,” Johnson grumbles, “Jerry is still portraying himself as having a role in football deals he wasn’t part of.”
This, of course, has always been the crux of their beef: who deserves credit. The moment the Cowboys started winning, Jones became resentful of how the media portrayed Johnson as the genius who made the deals while painting Jones as the dummy who signed the checks. Jones, after all, was not just the Cowboys’ owner but also the team’s “general manager,” a title he invented for himself when he put Johnson in charge of personnel decisions in 1989—a choice he immediately came to regret. “I want to have some of that fun,” he told Johnson at one point in 1991, according to Swagger. “I can make five million dollars, and no one gives a s—. You can trade for a backup offensive guard, and everyone [cheers].” Jones was referring to Johnson’s savvy trade for veteran tackle Tony Casillas, for which the owner had just impetuously gone on TV to claim responsibility. In Swagger, Johnson hints cattily that Jones didn’t even know who Casillas was.
This became a pattern—Jones issuing public hints that he was more involved in personnel decisions than anyone knew, even though Johnson’s contract clearly stipulated that he was in charge (Johnson even quotes the relevant passage from the contract at length in Swagger—again, the hatchet seems anything but buried). Jones couldn’t have picked a worse person to upstage. Johnson had zero interest in divvying up his hard-earned glory, especially if only to flatter the ego of his old teammate, someone he’d always regarded as a football dilettante. “I’ve never met a better businessman,” Johnson writes. It’s a sentiment he repeats multiple times in his memoir, a backhanded compliment if there ever was one. This too is a decades-old pattern—Johnson taking subtle swipes at Jones through the media, lofting passes to Jones’s detractors over the man’s head.
Swagger skips over certain incidents, such as when Johnson told reporters, “My girlfriend knows more about football,” and when he went on David Letterman and mocked Jones’s stinginess to a giggling studio audience. Schoolyard bullying wasn’t new to Johnson—in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, he’d given high school classmate and future rock legend Janis Joplin the mocking nickname “Beat Weeds,” although this goes unmentioned in Swagger. The book also omits the key detail that, when Jones approached Johnson’s table that explosive night in Orlando, Johnson was laughing with his friends about a time Jones pretended to be involved in draft-day decisions because ESPN cameras were nearby. Falling silent when the object of your ridicule approaches? It doesn’t get more high school cafeteria.
Jones, for his part, never repeated the mistake of letting someone else steal the spotlight. When Johnson departed, Jones turned his ceremonial “general manager” title into a genuine position, and he has presided over the personnel moves that have left the team mired in mediocrity for decades. Could Johnson have helped Dallas avoid this fate? Sure, he admits, expressing not-very-convincing remorse. “I’m not blameless here.” But as he writes in Swagger, “What’s the point of winning if you can’t gloat a little?” In his ego clash with Jones, history has resoundingly proven him the victor. The losers, unfortunately, are Cowboys fans.