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.
“Nothing,” Schramm said.
“C’mon, Tex, I’m your guy.”
“There’s no story there, Dale. There’s nothing to it.”
“I’ll call you back after the report,” Hansen told him.
“I’ll wait for your call.”
Murray’s report at ten o’clock detailed that Jones was buying the team and that Landry was going to be fired.
Hansen called Schramm back.
“Our young boy in Fort Worth has just f—ed up his entire career,” Schramm said. “That stupid f—er has made the biggest mistake of his career. He’s f—ing dead.”
“The report sounded credible,” Hansen allowed.
Schramm shot back, “Do you really think they’d sell the Cowboys and I wouldn’t f—in’ know about it?”
But Bum Bright had done exactly that.
“Bright wanted Schramm and Landry to be stuck just like they were,” Hansen said later. “He reveled in it. He called me bragging about it: ‘Schramm spent more of my money buying goddamn houses for his girlfriends, and that son of a bitch Landry treated me like shit. To hell with both of them.’ ”
It wasn’t until the following morning, as Jones was flying into Dallas, that Schramm realized how wrong he was. His friend Don Shula, the coach of the Miami Dolphins, called to tell him that Johnson had contacted Shula to gauge his son David’s interest in coaching the Cowboys offense. Schramm finally understood what was about to happen, and he knew whom he needed to speak to first.
That afternoon, Tom Landry was at the Cowboys’ headquarters, Valley Ranch, watching game film with Jerry Rhome, a newly hired assistant coach, when Schramm stuck his head in the door and told the coach he needed to talk to him outside. Landry walked out, returned a few minutes later, and said nothing. He turned on the film again. A couple of minutes later, Rhome looked over at Landry and saw tears in his eyes. “You’re a fine young coach, and I’m sorry I got you into this,” Landry told him, “but they just fired me.” He wished Rhome well and left.
That night, Jones and Johnson and their spouses decided to have dinner at Mia’s Tex-Mex, a nearby restaurant (which also happened to be a frequent haunt of Tom and Alicia Landry’s). No sooner had the party arrived and ordered beers than Ivan Maisel, a sportswriter who covered college football for the Morning News, tapped Johnson on the shoulder. Maisel had spent part of the afternoon watching for the two men in the lobby of the Mansion. He never spotted them, but as luck would have it, he and his fiancée lived a few blocks from Mia’s and had gone there for dinner, where he stumbled upon the two men he had been staking out earlier that day.
“Oh, shit, what are you doing here?” said Johnson.
Maisel quickly called his editor, who sent a photographer. Fifteen minutes later, the shooter stood before Jones and Johnson’s table while Johnson begged him not to take their picture. Jones, however, told the photographer to go ahead and take all the shots he wanted. He was ready for the spotlight.
Jerry Jones was a born salesman who had been smiling and selling since he was a boy, when he dressed up in a black suit and bow tie, slicked his hair back, pasted a solicitous grin on his face, and stood at the entrance of Pat’s Supermarket, in North Little Rock, Arkansas, helping his daddy and the rest of his family sell their goods.
Jerry’s father, J. W. “Pat” Jones, was a bantam rooster, five feet six inches tall, who distinguished himself around his hometown of England, Arkansas, as a salesman, a respectable calling in the southern United States. He sold beans, because that’s what was grown around England. His beans were no different from other beans. He just sold his more effectively. Buyers who bought from him may not have been any better off than buyers who bought from a stand down the road, but they went away pleased that they had been persuaded and entertained by Pat Jones, who made each and every transaction seem special.
In the mid-forties, a few years after Jerral Wayne was born, the family opened a fruit stand in an area of North Little Rock known as Rose City, right by the train tracks and the feed store. It was a busy spot, since the roads from St. Louis and Memphis met there.
North Little Rock was the rough side of the river, flood prone and industrial, with the nickname of Dogtown because it was where people dumped their unwanted pets. The working-class community had one tavern for every six citizens.
The fruit stand proved so successful Jones borrowed money to turn it into the area’s first grocery store, Pat’s Supermarket, complete with a meat counter and a bakery. The family lived above the store until business improved, at which point they moved to a house next door.
Jones didn’t just sell food and other staples. He made retail memorable, transforming his store into a dance and entertainment center. The grand opening of Pat’s Supermarket attracted so many customers and onlookers that the fire department had to be called out to manage the crush. Jones regularly brought in musicians to play sets, among them the storied western swing band the Light Crust Doughboys. On weekends, he dressed in a white cowboy suit to welcome shoppers, and soon he was joined by his son, who learned every aspect of the business, from stocking shelves to managing employees.
Pat imparted a belief in the value of hard work to Jerry, along with a willingness to take on risk and debt. The elder Jones built more supermarkets before cashing out and engaging in some “creative leverage” to buy the Modern Security Life Insurance Company of Springfield, Missouri. He told his son, “I knew I was never going to be a millionaire, so I just decided to try to borrow a million.”
When Jerry Jones wasn’t working for his father honing his sales skills, he was falling in love with football. He quarterbacked the Fourth Street Junior High team to an undefeated season in ninth grade and started piling on carbs to bulk up enough to play fullback for North Little Rock High School. He liked the camaraderie and the hitting. He and his best friend, Jerry Sisk, enjoyed, as Jones later put it, “knocking the shit out of each other” as a form of practice.
Jones arrived at the University of Arkansas with a sculpted flattop and a fixed, friendly smile. A diamond pinkie ring adorned the hand steering his Cadillac Eldorado. Fellow students recognized his salesmanship, since he sold them shoes out of his trunk and tickets to football games. He was that rare soul who broadcast the fact that he was somebody when he walked into a room.
Jones’s freshman coach, Barry Switzer, sized him up as a player with a whole lot of “hustle and try-hard . . . who could look you in the eye and talk right through you.” At six feet and 190 pounds, Jones was a fine physical specimen, although slightly undersized for a guard, which was the position he ended up playing. With racial segregation still keeping blacks out of Southwest Conference football in 1960, scrappy and determined white boys like himself could not only earn full scholarships but also shine on the field.
His freshman year, Jones met Eugenia “Gene” Chambers, the 1960 Miss Arkansas USA and onetime Arkansas Poultry Princess from Danville. It was a blur of a romance. The gorgeous small-town banker’s daughter fell for the charismatic, moon-eyed son of the grocery-and-insurance empire builder. Dark-haired with riveting eyes and a wide smile, Gene was the most beautiful woman Jones had ever known. They dated, he proposed, she said yes, and they married at the end of their sophomore year.
Jones roomed on road games with Jimmy Johnson, a rough-and-tumble kid from Port Arthur. The two JJs weren’t close friends but rather two young men brought together by the fraternal bond of pigskin. As seniors, Jones at offensive guard and Johnson at defensive tackle were key players on the national champion Razorbacks. The Frank Broyles–coached team went undefeated, beating the Nebraska Cornhuskers 10–7 in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1965.
After graduation, Jones pursued a master’s degree in business, then sold insurance and recruited salesmen for Modern Security Life, where he was executive vice president. Following in his father’s footsteps, he took on as much debt as he could, borrowing $50,000 from his father-in-law to invest in Shakey’s Pizza Parlor franchises around Springfield and buy into Tyson Foods of Springdale, Arkansas. He was so overextended that he almost went broke before his calculated bets began to pay off.
But Jones’s eye was on a bigger prize. A year out of college, he tried to buy a small piece of the Miami Dolphins, then part of the upstart American Football League. The deal went nowhere, but Jones learned enough from the experience to make a serious run at the San Diego Chargers, who were put up for sale by owner Barron Hilton in early 1966 for $5.8 million. Jones rounded up a group of investors, but his father intervened and convinced him to put the brakes on the deal. The older Jones thought the financials his son had put together weren’t solid and worried that buying a football team was simply too risky. Months later, the Chargers sold for almost twice the original asking price. Jones’s skills may have needed polishing, and his ability to put together an investor group needed vetting, but his instincts were on target.
Jones eventually shifted his business focus to oil and gas, starting as an independent operator by leasing land from major oil companies in the Red Fork sand northwest of Oklahoma City and drilling between existing wells in fields no longer being explored. His first well yielded more than $4 million in oil, and in less than ten years, Jones made $50 million from the Red Fork fields. Life was good. But he wasn’t satisfied. “I’ve never gone to sleep a night yet without wanting something more to drink,” Jones liked to say, explaining his unquenchable thirst for the next deal.
And the deals got bigger. A play in southeast Oklahoma brought $40 million in revenue. Gas plays in the San Joaquin Valley of central California brought in another $40 million. By the end of the eighties, Jones was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, though just how many hundreds is a point of some conjecture.
The oil and gas business gave Jones a growing familiarity with Dallas, because that’s where the banks were. It was also where the Dallas Cowboys reigned, which Jones couldn’t help but notice. He began toying with the idea of buying the team, and when the opportunity arose in 1988, he knew whom he wanted by his side: his old Razorback teammate Jimmy Johnson, who had worked his way up the college coaching ladder to the head job at the University of Miami.
In Florida, Johnson had developed a reputation for aggressive defenses that went after quarterbacks. He encouraged his players to taunt and strut and be cocky like he was. “I like to gloat,” he admitted. He fidgeted and chafed at fundraisers, alumni dinners, and other ceremonial duties college coaches were expected to endure, and he fumed and fussed in front of his players effectively enough to earn their fear and respect and take them to the 1987 national championship.
But little more than a year later, he was ready for a new challenge. He loved Miami. Like his old friend, though, he wanted something more to drink.
Jones and Johnson showed up at Bum Bright’s office in the Bright Banc building on Stemmons Expressway at six on Saturday morning, accompanied by a team of lawyers and secretaries. The price they had agreed on was a reported $140 million for the football club and the stadium lease—the most that had ever been paid for an NFL franchise. A $300,000 difference in the price was settled by a coin toss. Jones flipped the coin, which hit the ceiling and a wall before landing in an ashtray. Jones, who had called tails, rushed to see the coin, while Bright remained at his desk. Heads was up. (Bright would later buy a two-headed quarter from a magic shop and send it to Jones with a note that read, “You’ll never know.”)
Bright was happy to be relieved of ownership. He had effectively doubled his money in five years, blunting his other losses. Jones, by contrast, had gone all in, risking his accumulated wealth while inheriting a $30 million debt—for a team that had been losing money for years.
Once the ink was dry, a visibly irritated Tex Schramm was called into Bright’s inner sanctum. Seeing Johnson, he blustered, “You need to get your ass out of town. You people have embarrassed Tom Landry enough already.”
Jones wasn’t impressed by Schramm, no matter how powerful he was. If he was so great, Jones thought, the Cowboys wouldn’t be in the dumpster. Hell, Jones could do what Schramm was doing and do it better. He knew how to sell. Schramm had gotten lazy and fat and had lost his edge.
Jones didn’t beat around the bush. “To tell you the truth, you’ve got my job,” he informed Schramm. “But based on what Bum has told me, I want you to stay on as an adviser.”
Brash meets brasher. Schramm had gotten used to being the commanding presence in a room. Jones made a point of showing him up. If being a successful, self-made man of means made him come off as arrogant, so be it. Arkansas Big Rich was about to become Dallas Big Rich by taking the reins of the biggest show in town.
Bright suggested to Jones that Schramm should be the one to officially tell Landry what was going on. The coach had already seen the photograph of Jones and Johnson dining at Mia’s on the front page of Saturday’s Morning News and had left Dallas, piloting his family in their Cessna 210 from Love Field to their golf-course home by the Lakeway resort, west of Austin.
Jones disagreed. “I have to face him,” he said firmly. “I can’t do this unless I face him personally.” He couldn’t do business without manning up. Anyway, the public relations firms that he had consulted recommended he do the deed.
That afternoon, Jones and Schramm flew in Jones’s Lear 35A to Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, in Austin, where they rented a car and drove to Lakeway. Schramm had called ahead to give Landry a heads-up: they needed to talk about the future. They found coach and son practicing their putts at the Hidden Hills golf course in the waning light. The group retreated to an empty sales office.
Jones introduced himself to Landry, informing him, “I’m here and so is Jimmy.” It was Jones’s clumsy way of saying Johnson was in and Landry was out.
“You could have saved your plane trip down here,” Landry replied. “You could have handled this whole thing a lot better. This whole thing is just a bunch of grandstand tactics. You could have saved your gas.” His blue eyes burned holes into the Arkansan’s skull. “You’ve taken my team away from me,” he said.
It was over. No recourse, no appeal, no nada. Landry and Schramm shook hands, both with tears streaming down their cheeks. The dynasty they had built was no longer theirs. Jones later acknowledged that the meeting had not gone the way he had imagined. “I was basically just trying to say something you just can’t say,” he admitted. And he hadn’t said anything very well. He claimed it was the first time he’d ever fired a key employee face-to-face. Before, he’d let others do it for him.
A press conference was scheduled that evening back at Valley Ranch. Beforehand, publicist Doug Todd spoke to Jones while he was shaving and putting on a fresh shirt in Schramm’s private restroom. Todd offered some advice, but Jones waved him off. “I can handle it,” he replied confidently.
The three major local news stations, Channels 4, 5, and 8, interrupted regular network programming to carry the press conference live. Ed Smith, a minority owner under Bright who had held on to his stake, took Schramm’s chair at the press conference, leaving the GM standing as he fought back tears.
“It was a very difficult meeting,” Schramm said of the Jones-Landry encounter. “It’s very, very sad. It’s tough when you break a relationship you’ve had for twenty-nine years. That’s an awful long time.”
Landry took it hard, Schramm told the reporters. “For Tom, he was emotional.”
“I just met [Landry] today,” Jones said. Then he practically crowed, “This is like Christmas to me.” He rambled for several minutes and praised Landry, declaring, “Tom Landry is the Cowboys.”
Or was. Jones liked his new guy better. “I have so much respect for Jimmy Johnson,” Jones said. “He doesn’t fish much, and he doesn’t play golf much. He footballs. Coaching is so fortunate to have him.”
Jones made plain he was committed. “I will sell my house in Little Rock and move to Dallas,” he vowed. “My entire office and my entire business will be at the [Cowboys] complex. I want to know everything there is to know, from player contracts to socks and jocks and television contracts. This is my company, and I will be making all the decisions. The Cowboys will be my life!”
When he was asked where Schramm stood, Jones put the man in his place once again. “Tex is used to standing out front, but he’s a little behind right now. He’s still going to be an important part of the Cowboys, but it’s my vote. I’m the owner.”
Schramm looked like all the air had gone out of him. After the press conference, he invited reporters into his office for a scotch wake. “I have a lot of work to do with this son of a bitch,” he said determinedly. “Goddammit, I can’t believe he’d say those things.”
Landry returned to Dallas on Sunday and emptied his office that afternoon. “It hurts, but I don’t feel bitterness right now,” he told a reporter. “I try not to feel bad when things happen that I have no control over. I always accept things as they are, so I don’t worry.”
The local media were less sanguine. “Shock. Disbelief. Anger” began the Morning News editorial. Times Herald sportswriter Frank Luksa railed about “the undignified, thoughtless manner [in which Landry] was fired Saturday.” The Morning News’s David Casstevens called Jones “dumber than a box of rocks, public relations–wise.”
Bob Lilly, the former defensive tackle fondly known as Mr. Cowboy, weighed in, admitting, “A lot of old Cowboys are crying tonight.”
A few people, including some NFL franchise owners, were not sad to see the old guard unseated. “The other owners respected and admired [Tex], but they also resented him because he was so successful,” observed Russ Russell, the former Dallas Cowboys Weekly publisher. “The Rooneys and Maras had been in the league forever, and Tex and them come in, and in fifteen years the Cowboys are America’s Team. That grated on them.
“But eventually everybody had gotten caught up, everybody was now doing the same thing the Cowboys did,” Russell explained. “Our drafts weren’t super-spectacular anymore because everyone knew the same things our guys did. The Cowboys became just another team. And Tom had diminished capacities in his coaching; he was not the coach he was earlier. People that were brought in to help, like Paul Hackett, he shoved aside. He still did everything himself. He still only had the three main assistants. And he was still calling goal-line plays.”
Landry had been like “a bankrupt baron sitting in a castle,” wrote Casstevens. “The electricity was off. The furniture covered. The servants gone. But he still dressed for dinner every night.”
On Monday, Landry spoke for the last time to his team, who had gathered at Valley Ranch for an off-season training session. “You’re a great bunch of football players,” he said. “This is a pretty tough moment for me.” He got through half of his prepared remarks before he broke down sobbing.
For the first forty days, Jerry Jones lived at the DFW Airport Marriott while he scrambled to fix the organization he’d just purchased. Jimmy Johnson moved into a condo three blocks from the Cowboys’ headquarters, but he wasn’t there much. His de facto full-time residence was Valley Ranch, where he rejiggered the coaching staff: he brought in seven of his assistants from the University of Miami, hired David Shula as offensive coordinator, and kept Jerry Rhome on board as quarterback coach. A refrigerator was stocked with green bottles of Heineken, Johnson’s favorite drink.
On the Thursday after Black Saturday, Jones called the department heads together to offer reassurance. There wasn’t a finer management team in the NFL than the one standing in front of him, he said. “The key thing is that I need you more than you need me,” he told them. “There will not be any more changes in this office. I really don’t know how to run a football team. I need all of you.”
Then he moved into Schramm’s office and cleared the decks. Treasurer Don Wilson was fired. Schramm’s number two man, Joe Bailey, left before he could be fired. Director of photographic services Bob Friedman, Pat Miller in payroll, and Ann Lloyd, a 22-year veteran in the ticket office, all left. Publicist Doug Todd, who had 18 years of experience, was called in and told by Jones, “This is not going to be a good meeting,” before he was whacked; it would take a call from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to get Todd his severance pay. The band was axed; the seats they occupied in the end zone could be sold to customers.
Trumpeter Tommy Loy, whose solo rendition of the National Anthem had been a constant since the opening of Texas Stadium, was let go. Travel agency head Dan Werner, who oversaw the construction of Valley Ranch, got the Ted Mack hook. Carlton Stowers resigned as editor of the Dallas Cowboys Weekly. His replacement, Jarrett Bell, was canned shortly thereafter. Vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt, who along with Schramm and Landry had been there since day one, was shown the door once the 1989 NFL draft was finished.
Suzanne Mitchell quit as director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Her replacement, Debbie Bond, lasted a handful of weeks. She, as well as fourteen of her cheerleaders, resigned after Jones tried to do away with Mitchell’s rules forbidding club employees from fraternizing with cheerleaders. The cheerleaders returned when Jones insisted the proposal was a misunderstanding.
The new management threw out the extras that Jones thought made the organization too fat. The location of training camp was reconsidered because holding it in Thousand Oaks, California, was costing the team $500,000 a year. The scouting budget was slashed from $3 million to $1 million.
Jones saw Texas Stadium as an underutilized cash cow. Only 6 of the 118 luxury suites added to the top of the stadium by Bright had been purchased or leased. Jones’s salespeople went out and leased 28 more, adding $18 million to the positive cash flow, revenue that belonged solely to the Cowboys and was not shared with the league the way ticket sales were. He also added seats—more than a thousand—wherever he could, including behind obstructions. He recalled complimentary season tickets provided to former players, personnel, and friends of the family. He created a company called ProSeat to compel season-ticket holders to spend an additional $1,500 to $15,000 on top of the actual cost of a ticket to claim prime seats. All of these moves brought in over $10 million annually.
Texas Stadium had always been devoid of corporate logos, advertising being a potential revenue stream that Schramm considered beneath the dignity of the franchise. Jones, however, welcomed advertising inside and outside the stadium. He also pushed the Irving City Council to grant the stadium a license to sell beer and wine, arguing that individual sales on-site would cut down on drunk driving. That added another $1.5 million in annual revenue. He placed a blue-and-white party tent in the parking lot outside the stadium, named it the Corral, and sold $6 frozen “wine margaritas” to fans, creating a whole other revenue stream. Then he threatened to move the Cowboys’ headquarters from Valley Ranch to Texas Stadium until the mortgage company holding the note agreed to discount Jones’s monthly payments by 40 percent.
Johnson joined the wrecking crew, tracking down former employees who were still tooling around Big D in company cars, sending out letters reminding ex-staffers that only current employees could use the Brookhaven Country Club golf course, and reducing his scouting staff to four.
Schramm hated what he was seeing. “You could tell right from the beginning that he didn’t give a damn about history,” he said of Jones. “You can tell this man has absolutely no feeling for the past. You almost expected him to take the stars off the helmets.”
He would later admit, “When a man buys a team, certainly that man has a right to surround himself with the people he wants. I don’t begrudge him that at all.” But he did begrudge the way it was done. Instead of leaving everyone with a good feeling, Jones “was very, very cold,” Schramm said. “I felt very strongly about creating a heritage, tradition, style, and class. We were very conscious that our team was a team, not only in Texas but everywhere, that people could relate to.” He had run the team like a family. Jones ran it like a business.
Russ Russell, who had also been Schramm’s partner in several investment deals, saw the sharp contrast in philosophies up close. “[Jerry] says, ‘I don’t understand. Why do we have empty suites? Somebody should be selling those suites. They’re worth a fortune.’ Tex would not promote the Cowboys for money, would not use them to endorse beer or sponsor grocery stores or brick companies. That was beneath it all. That wasn’t the league he saw. He wouldn’t let the cheerleaders appear anywhere alcohol was served. It’s like [how] he’d make us all fly first-class. I told him I could fly coach. He’d say, ‘No, no, we don’t do that. Everybody goes first-class.’ [But Jerry] said, ‘We need to be watching the paper clips.’ What? That’s not the Cowboy way. They wanted everything run through their sponsorship. That’s good business, but it’s a different way of doing business.”
Jones had his own doubts to contend with; he endured sleepless nights, tossing and turning over what had to be done, staving off nightmares in which Schramm would persuade the NFL owners to rescind the deal. Those fears vanished once the sale received official approval from the NFL owners on April 18, two months after Jones and Johnson stormed into Dallas. Later that day, Schramm quietly resigned from the Dallas Cowboys. He would no longer stand in Jones’s way, and he would no longer have a front-row seat to the demolition of the team he had given three decades of his life to building.
The Cowboys were one of the few institutions that a broad cross section of Dallas followed faithfully. The idea of this Arkie blowing into town and tearing apart an organization that was the pride of the town did not sit well with them. Jones seemed utterly clueless about his latest purchase.
People started calling him Jethro, after the hayseed in the sixties-era television comedy The Beverly Hillbillies. Outside linebacker Jeff Rohrer was videotaped singing the show’s theme song with his own improvised lyrics: “The first thing you know ol’ Jer’s a millionaire / The kinfolks said, ‘Jer, move away from here’ / They said, ‘Dallas, Texas, is the place you wanna be’ / So he hopped in his Lear and bought America’s Team.” (Rohrer was cut from the roster at training camp, six months later.)
Living up to this caricature seemed to come naturally to Jones. “I’ve done most of my business and most of my speaking outside the state of Arkansas,” he told the New York Times in an attempt to establish his big-league bona fides. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve spoken in Kansas City and St. Louis.” Jones was oblivious to how much more like a hick he seemed with each sound bite. Kansas City and St. Louis were pissant cities. Dallas was on a whole other level, or so its boosters liked to think.
The television sportscasters, the newspaper sportswriters, and the sports-radio talk show hosts did their part by dog-piling on Jones, describing him as the dime-store antithesis of Clint Murchison Jr. He didn’t appreciate the Cowboys’ legacy, and he didn’t understand the city’s way of doing things.
What so many of his detractors failed to recognize was that Dallas never revered tradition. Dallas was all about tearing down the past and whatever else stood in the way of the next big thing. Dallas was all about opportunity. History mattered not a whit. What did matter was winning. And pretty soon, the Cowboys would be winning again. A lot.
In the first draft of the Jones-Johnson era, the team selected UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, Syracuse fullback Daryl Johnston, Pittsburgh guard Mark Stepnoski, and UT–El Paso defensive end Tony Tolbert, all of whom played key roles in the new version of the Cowboys. The team suffered through a 1–15 season in its initial go-round and shocked fans by unloading the franchise’s most popular player, Herschel Walker, in a complicated trade with Minnesota that involved multiple players and a number of draft picks. Two years later the wisdom of that trade (which remains the largest in NFL history) was proved when the Cowboys, led by Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, returned to the playoffs. They lost to Detroit in the divisional round, but the stage was set for what would be the team’s greatest dynasty ever—one that almost made the fans forget all about the Landry glory years. Aikman put up numbers that matched—many would argue surpassed—Roger Staubach’s and grew into the kind of leader Staubach had been, while Irvin and Smith, who was on his way to becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, rounded out the punishing offensive game. In 1993 the Cowboys, led by these so-called Triplets, routed the Buffalo Bills 52–17 in Super Bowl XXVII. Johnson became the first coach to win a national championship and a Super Bowl. A year later his ’Boys defeated the Bills again at the Bowl, by an only slightly less impressive 30–13.
Yet two months later, Johnson stunned Dallas and the sports world by resigning from the winningest team in football. It was no secret that he and Jones had been clashing; Johnson wasn’t shy about complaining to the press that Jones was meddling in his business. Jones, for his part, was insulted by what he perceived as Johnson’s disrespect. Still, no one expected that the duo that had brought the Cowboys so far so fast would split up just as swiftly. Once Johnson was gone, though, Jones barely blinked and replaced him with another Razorback alum—their freshman football coach Barry Switzer, who took the team to another Super Bowl victory, in 1996, with Johnson’s players.
That was the last time the Cowboys reached the big game. In the sixteen years since, the team has been guided by six different coaches and racked up a middling 130–126 record. And Jones has remained a roundly disliked figure, lampooned and mocked for his ego and for giving himself the title of general manager, despite having no prior experience in the NFL. But the same indefatigable enthusiasm that drove him to buy the Cowboys in the first place has never flagged. He and Gene long ago became fixtures on the Dallas social scene, and he has never stayed out of the spotlight for long. His face, altered by a much-commented-on bout of plastic surgery, has appeared in commercials for Diet Pepsi and Papa John’s and in episodes of Entourage and the revived Dallas. He spearheaded the creation of Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, the extravagantly appointed $1.3 billion structure that opened in 2009 and is the largest domed stadium in the world.
The Cowboys, for all their mediocre play, remain the most popular team in the NFL and one of the most valuable teams in American sports. If Jerry Jones’s Cowboys today look more like those of Tex Schramm’s final years than Jones ever could have imagined back when he was scheming to replace his predecessor, he doesn’t seem to have noticed. The great salesman has never stopped selling. And he has never stopped believing in himself.
Adapted from the book The Dallas Cowboys, by Joe Nick Patoski. Copyright 2012 by Joe Nick Patoski. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.