The Dallas Cowboys are one of the NFL’s most popular teams thanks to the large amount of success they had in the ‘70s. However, midway through the ‘80s, it was clear that America’s Team was in trouble. Suddenly, this franchise known for winning had hit the cellar and had become the NFL’s worst team. But then, a savior arrived from the college ranks of Miami, and before we knew it, the Cowboys were on top again. And that savior was Jimmy Johnson.
Of course, before there was Jimmy, there was Jerry Jones, so we might want to mention him here. Jones bought the Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. He fired general manager Tex Schramm and assumed control of all football operations. He also fired legendary coach Tom Landry and replaced him with Johnson who had won a National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes a couple of years prior.
Most of us know the history of the relationship between Jerry and Jimmy. They were college teammates back in Arkansas and coincidentally roommates because their names were next to each other alphabetically. The two had developed a bond and when it came time for Jerry to hire the new head coach of the Cowboys, the decision wasn’t hard.
While the choice to go with Johnson was easy, the transition was far from it. Tom Landry was a Cowboys icon. Up until that point, he was the only coach in this team’s storied history. He was the innovator of so many different things. So, to see this oil tycoon owner show up and fire the only coach we ever loved did not sit well with Cowboys fans. At the same time, Landry’s Cowboys were hurting. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, Landry’s team had 20 straight winning seasons, but they were then coming off of three consecutive losing seasons, including a 3-13 season in 1988. It seemed apparent that change was needed and Jimmy Johnson was that change.
At the time, the Cowboys had an aging roster severely depleted of talent. Johnson recognized that right away and changes were immediate. Veterans we had come to love suddenly retired and the rebuild began. The team proceeded to wheel and deal, orchestrating 51 trades, more than all the other NFL teams combined during Johnson’s time with the Cowboys. The most notable being the Herschel Walker trade in October of 1989.
Johnson had a rocky start, only winning one game his first year as head coach, but he was relentless, doing everything within his means to build a championship football team. He collected draft picks, moved around to get the players he wanted, and coached them into top performers. In the blink of an eye, he had engineered one of the quickest turnarounds in NFL history.
Having an eye for talent was a strength of his, but he was also an elite motivator. Johnson had high expectations and if people weren’t giving their all, he would replace them with others that would. We’ve all heard the stories. He cut a player with asthma and he wasn’t afraid to leave players behind on the plane ride if they were late. Johnson had standards, and if you didn’t meet them, there were consequences.
Johnson’s coaching style created winners. He instilled a winning mindset into his players and the belief that if they worked hard enough, good things would come. His formula of PA + E = P focused on what they could control. A positive attitude plus effort equals performance.
By his third season, the Cowboys were back in the playoffs, and in seasons four and five, they were the NFL’s supreme franchise, winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
Johnson had returned the Cowboys to the top after over a decade of falling short which ended with the end of the Landry era. And just when they were at their highest high, we all received the bad news. On March 29th, 1994, the two JJ’s mutually decided that Johnson would no longer be the coach of the Cowboys. The owner took the brunt of the criticism for this divorce as his outspoken, big ego rubbed many the wrong way. The truth of the matter is that Jimmy wasn’t having fun anymore. It was only a matter of time before he left Dallas, but having a villainous owner in the spotlight gave him an easy out.
Johnson then joined the broadcast team at FOX while his replacement coach with the Cowboys, Barry Switzer, was able to win one more Super Bowl two years later. The dynasty in Dallas ended, but Johnson’s legacy will never be forgotten.
Jimmy returned to coaching a couple of years after leaving Dallas taking over for another NFL coaching legend, Don Shula. Johnson coached the Dolphins for four seasons (1996-1999), making the playoffs his final three seasons although they never advanced past the divisional round. Johnson returned to FOX where he remains part of the broadcasting team that we have all enjoyed for the last two decades.
Johnson’s induction into the Cowboys Ring of Honor is long overdue and it will finally happen at halftime of the Detroit Lions game. His mark on this organization is extraordinary. How he turned a fallen franchise into a perennial winner will never be lost on fans who experienced the pinnacle of their success in the ‘90s. Johnson was bold and he made no apologies for his stern approach to how he ran his football team. His “How ‘bout them Cowboys” locker room celebration will live in our minds forever and we will never forget what he meant to this team, and now his name in the ROH will serve as a constant reminder.