American Football: Cowboys who just could not ride together: Jimmy Johnson left Dallas this week. Matt Tench explains a painful parting

Matt Tench
Friday 01 April 1994 23:02

EVEN coming from a place as renowned for its bizarre story-lines as Dallas, the recent news concerning the town's American football team takes some believing. An escalating plot, which contained enough intrigue and personal conflict to shame many a soap, reached a climax this week that was both extraordinary and sad: Jimmy Johnson was no longer head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

What set this apart from the normal sporting departure was that Johnson was neither unsuccessful nor unpopular. Quite the reverse. Nine weeks ago his team won the Super Bowl for the second year running, and he is held in the highest esteem by his players and the club's fans. No team has won the title in three successive years but, with the most talented roster in the league and Johnson's own coaching abilities at their height, the Cowboys were poised. History beckoned.

So why has he left? The answer lies in a friendship that went badly wrong, or perhaps in one that never really existed at all. Johnson was appointed five years ago by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner. The two had played on the same college football team and when, having made his fortune in oil and bought the Cowboys, Jones appointed his old team-mate as the Cowboys' head coach the vitriol flowed freely. This was the old- boy network gone mad, it was said, buying an NFL franchise as a plaything for a friend. To make matters worse, Jones had fired Tom Landry, an NFL legend, to create the vacancy.

In retrospect these caricatures were wrong on both counts. As the highly successful coach of Miami's college team Johnson was a worthy contender for any head coaching job in the NFL. Nor was there a real friendship. Between leaving the University of Arkansas and meeting up again in 1989, contact between the two was minimal. Then there were the personality differences. Jones was, and is, a brash businessman, brimful of confidence and ever ready to cut a deal. Johnson is a darker, more complex character, though one no less convinced of his own gifts. Room-mates but not soul mates.

Still, back in 1989 Jimmy and Jerry were a double act, and for a while the alliterative allure proved irresistible. Perhaps also there was a real kinship in those early days as these two outsiders flaunted NFL convention in trying to improve a woeful team - all the more so after their first season, when all they appeared to have done was make a bad team worse.

Soon progress was made and, though turning a side around is not unusual in the NFL, by any standards the transformation wrought in Dallas was remarkable. In three years they made the play-offs, in four they won the Super Bowl. In many ways Johnson's exit this week revolves around who got the credit for the achievement - and who thought they did not get enough credit.

Normally the bulk of it would be allocated to Johnson, and he was widely praised. But it was more complex than that. As well as being the owner, Jones is the general manager, ultimately responsible for all hiring and firing. One of the keys to the Cowboys' success was their rapid accrual of talent. Jones made it clear he was heavily involved in the process.

He went further. Whereas most owners leave playing matters to the professionals, Jones liked to think of himself as a 'football man', knowledgeable, involved and partially responsible for his club's rise. This infuriated Johnson, who felt his own astonishing accomplishments were being undermined by the posturing of his boss.

As the Cowboys became the best team in the league the relationship worsened. Dave Anderson, a columnist on the New York Times, likened it to a rocky marriage. It had all the ingredients: bust-ups over trivial incidents, mood swings, reconciliations, more bust-ups.

At the end of last year Johnson spoke openly of the attractions of coaching the league's expansion franchise in Jacksonville. In Atlanta this January, as the Cowboys prepared to defend their title, the divided couple had become the issue. Jones, sensing he risked losing his greatest asset, said he regarded Johnson as the best coach in football. Johnson responded drily that he thought Jones was 'the best I've ever known at making money'.

After winning their second title there was a brief rapprochement, but at the NFL owners' meeting in Orlando 10 days ago, hostilities resumed. The details remain shrouded in a late-night haze, but it seems the trouble started when Jones toasted the Cowboys and was offended when Johnson reciprocated but did not invite Jones to join his table. A few hours later, Johnson alleges, Jones told a group of reporters in a bar that he planned to fire Johnson and replace him with Barry Switzer, an old foe of Johnson's from his college coaching days.

Johnson was outraged. 'This particular incident makes me pull back and reassess things,' he said. Initially Jones tried to defuse matters, but by last weekend it was clear they had reached an all-time low. When Johnson arrived for work at the team's headquarters at 6.30am on Monday morning, a posse of reporters was waiting. Johnson was tight-lipped but it looked as though he wanted out.

Two days of 'full and frank' discussions followed, then a press conference was called. There it was announced that Johnson was leaving, with an undisclosed golden handshake and the freedom to coach elsewhere. In keeping with the marriage theme the two appeared more at ease with one another than for a long time.

'Personally it was a time I felt like I needed to pull back some,' Johnson said. 'I felt I had to be 100 per cent totally focused, or I'm not going to be into it like I need to be.' In rock music such gobbledygook is passed off as 'irreconcilable musical differences'. A rough translation might be, 'I can't stand working for Jerry Jones any longer'.

The players, who had a strong personal loyalty to Johnson, were upset and one or two talked of leaving. It is not clear how they will react to the appointment of Switzer, who was made head coach 24 hours later. (Switzer brings his own baggage, having resigned as a college coach five years ago amid allegations of rules violations.)

Johnson, meanwhile, is unlikely to be unemployed for long. Fox TV want him as an analyst but he has made it clear he intends to return to coaching. Perhaps in Jacksonville, where the team will play their first game in 1995, perhaps in Miami as Don Shula's long-term replacement. Just about every owner in the league would hire him.

Looking back over the whole melancholy drama the most poignant moment surely came towards the end of the farewell press conference. 'You've really missed the point,' Jones told the assembled media, 'if you don't know we're friends.' It sounded like an epitaph.

(Photograph omitted)

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