Slightly more than 40 years ago, Jimmy Johnson concluded his first season as Oklahoma State’s head football coach. His 1979 Cowboys exceeded expectations by recording seven wins. He was voted the Big Eight Coach of the Year.
After getting the OSU job at the age of 35, Johnson’s first move was to hire Pat Jones as the Cowboys’ $30,000-a-year defensive coordinator.
“I always thought that Jimmy was marked for something real good,” Jones recalls. “He was smart and had very good people skills. When you think that someone might make it big time — he had it written all over him.”
Johnson did make it big time, having gone from OSU to Florida, where he coached the Miami Hurricanes to a 52-9 record and the 1987 national title; and from Florida to Dallas, where his first Cowboys team was 1-15 and his fourth and fifth Cowboys teams were Super Bowl champions.
On Sunday, it was announced that the 76-year-old Johnson will be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
Someone had the great idea to surprise former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and Johnson with live-television notifications that they had been selected for induction. On Saturday, Pro Football Hall of Fame President Dave Baker stunned Cowher on the “NFL on CBS” set in New York.
Baker then jetted to Los Angeles, where, during halftime of Sunday’s Seattle-Green Bay playoff game, he visited the “Fox NFL” set and jolted Johnson with the same good news.
Cowher’s reaction was beautiful. Johnson became more emotional than I would have expected. His voice broke. He was really touched.
Baker’s message: “Thank you for all you’ve done for the game. Thank you for all you’re going to do for the game. Thank you for the history that you’ve made and the lives that you’ve impacted. It’s my great honor to tell you that you’re going to be the 328th Hall of Famer, and that your legacy is going to be in Canton, Ohio, forever.”
Johnson: “The only thing I can think of is all the assistant coaches that have worked for me (and) all the great players that played for me — they’re the reason I’m here. I can’t talk. This is so special to me. When you put in the work that we put in, it’s nice to know people appreciate it.”
A Fox director made a smart play by cutting to a shot of Troy Aikman, who watched the Baker-Johnson exchange on a monitor in the Lambeau Field television booth. I was fine until Aikman wiped away tears, and then my eyes got wet.
Johnson’s most famous line was ‘How ’bout them Cowboys!” — his celebration of the 1992 Cowboys having prevailed at San Francisco in the NFC Championship game. That line could apply also to the ’80s OSU Cowboys, who now are represented by three men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Barry Sanders was inducted in 2004 and Thurman Thomas in 2007.
After achieving back-to-back championships, because of the meddling and overbearing presence of Dallas owner Jerry Jones, Johnson felt compelled to walk away from the best situation in football.
To this day, unbelievably, Johnson’s name still is not on the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor at AT&T Stadium, but his masterful coaching, trading and drafting in Dallas have resulted in the more meaningful Hall of Fame recognition.
Johnson and Jones agreed to part ways as the Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin Cowboys were at the height of their powers. Here are the first few paragraphs of the Tulsa World report I submitted from Irving, Texas, on March 29, 1994:
Part of Jimmy Johnson’s makeup is that when the calendar strikes five, he’s gone. Five years at Oklahoma State, then goodbye. Five years at the University of Miami, then goodbye.
And now, after a five-year ride that began with a 1-15 embarrassment and ascended to the glory of consecutive Super Bowl victories, Johnson is no longer coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He and team owner Jerry Jones, who had been involved in a back-and-forth media battle of barbs and threats, wore smiles Tuesday as they publicly discussed their stunning divorce and its impact on the Cowboys. It was neither a firing nor a resignation, Jones said.
Instead, after Jones and Johnson emerged from a 4½-hour meeting, they described the move as a mutual agreement that Johnson would not continue as coach.
Johnson had a chance to become the first coach to win three straight Super Bowls. Now, he’s unemployed.
What separated Johnson from most other coaches, Tony Casillas told the Tulsa World, was his “relentless way of paying attention to detail. Good wasn’t an option. Great was the only way.”
While at Oklahoma in 1983, Casillas was a sophomore defensive tackle who experienced a wild, 21-20 victory over Johnson’s final OSU team at Stillwater. After having been an Atlanta Falcon in 1986-90, Casillas played for Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys in 1991-93 and for Barry Switzer’s Dallas Cowboys in 1996-97.
While with Switzer’s Sooners in 1985, Casillas won a national championship ring. While with the Johnson Cowboys, Casillas got two more championship rings — for beating Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII and again in Super Bowl XXVIII.
“I was able to experience and play the best football of my life,” Casillas said. “(Johnson) gave me the opportunity to refresh my career by trading for me when I was in Atlanta.”
Johnson’s OSU run ended on New Year’s Eve of 1983, when the Cowboys beat Baylor 24-14 in the Bluebonnet Bowl. Five months and five days later, he succeeded Howard Schnellenberger as the head coach of the then-defending national champion Miami Hurricanes.
A Port Arthur, Texas, native, Johnson was a defensive lineman for Arkansas’ 1964 national championship team. Jones was his teammate and a 182-pound offensive lineman.
In 1970-72, Johnson and Switzer were on the Oklahoma football staff — Johnson as the defensive line coach and Switzer as the offensive coordinator. They were rivals in 1979-83, when Johnson was the Oklahoma State head man and Switzer coached the Sooners, and again in 1985-87. During those three seasons, Switzer was 33-3. All three losses were dealt by the Johnson-coached Miami Hurricanes.
Johnson retired from coaching in 1999, after a four-season run with the Miami Dolphins. Tom Landry coached the America’s Team Cowboys who captured two championships, but Johnson’s 1992 Cowboys were the best of all Cowboys and one of the 10 best teams in NFL history.
The coolest single room I’ve ever entered is the hall of busts at the Hall of Fame. With regard to actually resembling the honored player, Aikman’s bust is exceptionally well done. So are Irvin’s, Tony Dorsett’s and Bob Lilly’s.
When I next get a chance to be in Canton, I’ll walk in a straight line to Johnson’s monument. I’ll reminisce about an amazing chapter in the history of the Dallas Cowboys, and I’ll be astounded again that Jerry Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame three years before Jimmy Johnson.