Landry was a legend. He had been the Cowboys' only head coach, guiding them to consistent success for the best part of 20 years, including five Super Bowl appearances. In that time their widespread popularity fully earned the sobriquet 'America's Team'. However, by 1989, Landry, a quiet, dignified presence on the sideline, had grown old in the job and his teams were now producing losing seasons.
Jerry Jones, an oil tycoon, had just bought the franchise, and to general disgust, sacked the Legend. In his place Jones appointed Johnson, a highly successful college coach who had guided Miami to the national championship a couple of years earlier.
Johnson's welcome would have been chilly anyway, but to make matters worse, he and Jones were college football team-mates and the whole episode smacked of the high-rolling old pals act. (In truth, Jones and Johnson were never particularly good friends, and Johnson's coaching credentials made him a natural for the pros, but facts rarely intervene where there is prejudice to be indulged.)
'They wanted us to lose,' Hubbard Alexander, one of eight assistant coaches Johnson brought with him from Miami, said of the home fans in those early days. Johnson knew he had to change things and adopted the radical approach. The grid-iron game's strict rules on player registration - which are about to be heavily curtailed - meant that there was virtually no equivalent to football's transfer market. Moves - trades as they are called - were relatively scarce, and rarely involved top players, until Johnson came along, that is.
From the beginning he wheeled and dealed remorselessly. Reflecting on this recently, Johnson suggested his newness to the pros could actually have been an advantage. 'We really didn't have anybody around here telling us you can do it this way, but you can't do it that way, so we just did things that we felt were right. Every time there was an opportunity, we seized it.'
The biggest opportunity was Herschel Walker. While on a jog in the middle of his first season, Johnson decided to trade away his best player. Walker was one of the leading running backs in the land and the talent-laden Minnesota Vikings saw him as the final piece in their jigsaw, the man to take them to the Super Bowl.
A fiendishly complicated deal was struck, but the essence was that Walker became a Viking and Johnson grabbed a fistful of high draft picks. With the Cowboys struggling desperately, the move stunned Johnson's staff, outraged the Dallas fans even further and attracted scorn from around the League. Three years later it looks like his master stroke. It did send a team to the Super Bowl, the Cowboys. One great veteran was replaced by several highly talented youngsters, including Walker's long-term replacement Emmitt Smith. (The Vikings, incidentally, never recovered: Walker failed to live up to his reputation and Mike Lynn, the general manager who engineered the deal, left the team, his reputation in tatters.)
Of course, such a policy would not have worked unless the right young players were picked in the college draft, but here again Johnson outfoxed his contemporaries, selecting a franchise quarterback and running back (Troy Aikman and Smith) in successive drafts, and boldly enriching his roster with a welter of young players. He also made a habit of spotting older talents going to waste on rival rosters, then letting them flourish with the Cowboys - Atlanta's Tony Casillas being a good example.
Johnson's brinkmanship did not bring instant results. Imprisoned in the NFL's most bruising division, the NFC East, the new head coach and his increasingly inexperienced team learned their lessons the hard way: on the wrong end of a beating.
Gambling on the long term his team were even worse in the short, and in his first year they posted a lamentable 1-15 record. The pressure grew, but by the end of his second season it was already clear there was a renaissance going on in Dallas. By his third they were back in the play-offs, and now, in his fourth, they are at the Super Bowl again, where they face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
The Walker deal set the tone and Johnson, now 49, is in his element on draft day (when each new year of college talent is made available to the NFL).
If his buccaneering trading set him apart from many of his fellow head coaches, so too did Johnson's coaching style. Though as dedicated and driven as any in his profession, he is happy to delegate to a carefully chosen bevy of assistants. His coordinators call most of the plays in games. Johnson devises the game plan. In this he has a penchant for the bold call, and he is fearless in his reliance on youngsters. A degree in psychology and a strong interest in motivation have stood him in good stead.
Johnson's Cowboys are built to last; are favourites to win this year's Super Bowl; and, as the youngest team in the League, will surely be back to contest others. Dallas has long since forgiven Jimmy Johnson, and with good reason. It could soon have another legend on its hands.
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