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Jimmy Johnson: The Coach That Almost Wasn't

The first coach hired by Jerry Jones was one of the great success stories in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. In a recent interview, he talks about how his time as a coach at any level could well have never happened.


Dawn Macelli reached out and got the unedited transcript of Fox Sports 1's interview with Jimmy Johnson's memories of his two Super Bowl victories as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, conducted by Curt Menefee. She wrote one of her excellent history pieces on this, which you should make sure you read if you haven't already. She also graciously shared the long and very interesting transcript with the rest of the BTB staff. And in it, I ran into a stunning fact.

Coming out of college, Jimmy Johnson never planned to be a football coach. He was looking to go a completely different direction with his life.

Curt Menefee: You recruited this high school kid out of Woodlawn High School, Terry Bradshaw. Did you have any inkling at that point that he could be the kind of guy who would go on...they didn't have Super Bowls then, but to win four championships and be a legend in the NFL?

Jimmy Johnson: Well, it was my first time to coach. It was just kind of a...probably a part-time job because I got my degree in psychology and I was going to be an industrial psychologist but they needed a coach for three months.

Curt Menefee: Wait, wait, wait. You were going to be an indust...that's what you were going to be? You didn't plan on coaching?

Jimmy Johnson: Oh, I had never planned on coaching. But the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech -George Dodder - he had a heart attack. They were running the same style of defense that I played at University of Arkansas. And so they had talked to our coach. They said you know Jimmy knows this defense inside and out. So they said maybe we can hire him just for three months--$1,000 a month, give me a car and an apartment. So, I said okay. So I never had recruited a player. You know, I was just getting into this coaching thing. I actually had planned on going back and getting my master's and going into psychology.

I was like Menefee. Wait, what? The man who turned the Miami Hurricanes into the bullies of the NCAA, who built one of the greatest NFL teams ever, was planning on being an industrial psychologist?

I wasn't even sure what an industrial psychologist is. Fortunately, this is the age of instant access, and I asked my friend Google. Here is a quick definition from Wikipedia:

Industrial and organizational psychology (also known as I-O psychology or work psychology) is the scientific study of employees, workplaces, and organizations. Industrial and organizational psychologists contribute to an organization's success by improving the performance, satisfaction, safety, health and well-being of its employees.

It is a stunner to realize that, if he hadn't gotten an offer to work as a fill-in coach when he needed to make some money, he would have likely wound up at some company helping them figure out how to get more out of their workforce.

Talk about having your life take an unexpected turn. And it is hard to imagine how the programs he headed, which also include the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, would have fared without his successful turns as their head coach. Bowl games and playoff appearances were part of his tenure at every head coaching stop in his career.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that his background in what motivates people and maximizes their performance was the key thing that made him so successful once he did meander his way into coaching. He was always a master at finding the right buttons to push to get his players to give their best. That is an invaluable skill when you are dealing with athletes who are the absolute best in their profession and whose salaries are sometimes exceeded in size only by their egos. Johnson always made sure that the players knew he was the boss and that he would control what happened on his teams.

But had he never become a coach, who knows what would have happened with the Cowboys after Jerry Jones bought the team? It is certainly likely that the team would not have have the tremendous success it did, winning two Super Bowls only three years after staggering through a 1-15 season. Not many coaches could have climbed from the absolute cellar of the NFL to the heights the way he did, nor as quickly. He was a unique talent.

And he almost never was a football coach. It is an amazing thing to consider.

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