July 19, 2024

Why Jerry Jones put Jimmy Johnson in Cowboys Ring of Honor


FRISCO, Texas — Jerry and Jimmy. Jimmy and Jerry.

In Dallas Cowboys history, maybe even NFL history, you don’t need their last names. You know them. You know their story. At least most of it.

They were teammates at Arkansas, winning a national championship in 1964. They roomed together on their road, more because of alphabetical order than a particularly close relationship. Numerically, they were next to each other, too. Jimmy wore No. 60. Jerry wore No. 61.

Jerry Jones became a success in the oil and gas industry. Jimmy Johnson became one of the best college football coaches in history, winning a national championship at the University of Miami.

In 1989, when Jones bought the Cowboys and Texas Stadium for $140 million, he immediately fired Tom Landry and named Johnson coach. After winning one game that first season, the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl in 1992. A year later, they won another.

And then it was over. Egos. Hurt feelings. Perceived disloyalty. A $2 million goodbye. Just like that.

Over the years, Johnson and Jones took their turns needling each other from afar. Their relationship would ride peaks and valleys, even as friends, coaches and former players tried to bring them back together. They appeared at different reunions of those Super Bowl teams, as well as Arkansas functions.

One physical barrier has remained between them: the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.

That changes Saturday at halftime of the Cowboys’ game against the Detroit Lions (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN).

Johnson will be inducted into the ring of honor — next to the players he coached: Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and Charles Haley. He will join the coach he replaced, Landry.

“Finally, that’s all I can say,” said Johnson’s longtime assistant and close friend Dave Wannstedt.


TO UNDERSTAND HOW the relationship between Jones and Johnson deteriorated, you have to understand the beginning. The Cowboys were a bad team at the end of the Landry era, including a 3-13 record in 1988. They were losing $1 million a month off the field.

At their old Valley Ranch offices, Wannstedt remembered Jones and Johnson being around 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everybody had their niche. Everybody had their role.

The catalyst of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl run was trading Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989. The deal was a surprise because the running back was the best player on the Cowboys, but the club had a long-term plan. In total, the trade involved 18 players and picks, and after more trades with other teams, the Cowboys used those selections to draft Smith, Woodson and Russell Maryland.

Was it a Johnson trade or a Jones trade? It depends on who you asked.

Johnson believed Jones was infringing on his role and often cited his contract, which he believed spelled out that he had control of football operations.

Jones has always reminded people he had the general manager title, and he helped finalize the deal by paying Walker a $1.25 million bonus. He believed he never got the respect he deserved for putting his financial wherewithal on the line to purchase the team, making the money work in the Walker deal and acquiring Haley from the San Francisco 49ers. Jones has often said the Cowboys could not spell “Super Bowl” before Haley’s arrival.

“If they didn’t have faith in each other and depend on each other, I’m convinced it couldn’t have happened,” Wannstedt said. “I’ve worked around enough situations where the owner didn’t want to hear it and would say, ‘We’re not doing that. I don’t care what you think.’

“This dynasty that was built there couldn’t have happened without Jimmy and Jerry being together and having that relationship and each doing their own deal. The [issue] was when the overlaps started to happen.”

NOT EVEN BACK-TO-BACK Super Bowls and parades in downtown Dallas could keep it together. The end of the working relationship came March 21, 1994, at the owners meetings in Orlando, Florida, two months after the Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.

One night, inside the Hyatt Grand Cypress, Jones saw Johnson, Wannstedt (coaching Chicago at the time), former Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner (coaching Washington at the time), former Dallas executive Bob Ackles and some others together.

Jones offered a toast to the Cowboys’ success, including those who no longer worked for the franchise.

Johnson did not like it, and Jones could sense it.

Jones stormed off and later that night told two Dallas Morning News reporters at the time, Ed Werder and Rick Gosselin, “There are 500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team.”

The next day, Johnson was livid.

“We sat together at league meetings, so I’m waiting for him in the lobby,” Wannstedt remembered. “He comes down and I said, ‘You ready to go?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go.’

“And I’m going to the door [to walk into the meetings] — and he’s storming off — and I look over and I saw his Corvette pull up. That was it.”

Johnson got in his car and drove to his home in the Florida Keys. Eight days later, he and Jones came to an agreement that Johnson would no longer be the coach of the Cowboys. Jones paid him a $2 million severance. Whether Johnson quit or was fired by Jones depended on who was telling the story.

“Every time I’m with Jerry, we tell old stories and laugh and cut up and have great, great memories because both of us are extremely proud of what we were able to do.”

Jimmy Johnson

The players were left in the lurch. Woodson was back home in Arizona at his mother’s house when a friend told him to turn on the television. That’s how he found out Johnson was no longer the coach. Woodson was stunned.

Thirty years later, the pain remains. As good as it was — three Vince Lombardi Trophies in a four-year span, a first in the Super Bowl era — the players were left wondering if it could have been even better.

“But that divorce — or he was fired or he left, I don’t know what it was — but I would say those wounds affected so many people,” Woodson said. “So many guys that were driven, that were bought into winning Super Bowls. Michael Irvin wanted to f—ing win. Myself. Emmitt. Troy, of course. It affected us.

“Those wounds never heal because we don’t know the possibilities. So many possibilities that were there that we’ll never know. People say, ‘You got three,’ but, f—, you don’t play the game to limit yourself to three. You want more. You always want more and we couldn’t get more because egos got in the way.”

DESPITE THE DECADES that passed, it was always a matter of when, not if, Johnson would enter the ring of honor.

Before Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, Jones said the coach would go into the ring of honor — he just never said when. Just about every year since, Jones would be asked if this is the year Johnson would go in. And each time, Jones would say there is no timetable. After all, he is a committee of one when it comes to who is inducted.

In early September, Jones surprised recently inducted Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware with the news he would be going into the Ring of Honor. At the Ware news conference, Jones was asked nearly as much about Johnson as Ware.

“Certainly there was some little awkwardness that was happening for not doing it that I guess I anticipated, but I really didn’t anticipate it,” Jones said last month. “So I wouldn’t have wanted that to linger any longer at all.”

“I never had a time when I didn’t have an appreciation for [Jimmy’s] confidence and skill level. Ever. I’ve always had that appreciation.”

Jerry Jones

It took one final meeting for it to all come together. In late October, Cowboys executive vice president Charlotte Jones, Jerry’s daughter, and Aikman, who has known Johnson since he was 14 years old, helped facilitate the two-hour conversation between Johnson and Jones at The Star.

Aikman did not want to discuss the private meeting, but the ring of honor secret remained until Nov. 19, when Jones and Johnson walked onto the Bank of America Stadium field before the Cowboys played the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

A Netflix crew working on a documentary about the Dallas owner and general manager followed the pair. Johnson and Jones waved to the crowd behind the Cowboys’ bench in a moment that was supposed to look unscripted.

About 30 minutes before kickoff, Jones announced on the Fox pregame show, Johnson’s television home as an analyst for three decades, that the coach would be inducted into the Cowboys’ ring of honor at halftime against the Lions, which meant Aikman, who will call the game for ESPN, would be at AT&T Stadium.

“This kind of closes the circle for all of us,” Aikman said.

Johnson was back in the Cowboys’ fold. Jones was doing what so many wanted to be done a lot sooner.

“Terry Bradshaw made mention to me when we were together at the Hall of Fame, every time I’m with Jerry, we tell old stories and laugh and cut up and have great, great memories because both of us are extremely proud of what we were able to do,” Johnson said.

“And Bradshaw told me, ‘Geez, you two guys when you get together, it’s like two brothers. There’s a strong feeling between the two of you.’ That’s why people have never really understood the relationship.”

IN SOME WAYS, friends say Jones and Johnson are the same. Johnson said they are both “extremely competitive” and “want to be the very best.” All these years later, the ironic part is the two were better together than apart.

In 1996, a season after his replacement, Barry Switzer, won a Super Bowl, Johnson would get back into coaching with the Miami Dolphins, replacing another legend. This time it was Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach.

He would go 36-28 in four seasons and not get past the divisional round of the playoffs.

While the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX, the perception remains that it came with Johnson’s players, not Jones’. Since then, Dallas has not gotten past the divisional round.

“We weren’t good the first year. We were the worst team in football, but three years after that we were winning Super Bowls and it happened, obviously, pretty quickly,” Aikman said. “I think had the struggles lasted longer, maybe there would have been more appreciation of how hard it is to do what we did and they’d be able to hold it together longer. But they were a good team for a lot of reasons and I think both would tell you they took for granted what they have.

“I don’t place blame on either one of them. I know a lot of people have opinions on it, but I think both were at fault and both were equally at fault. But I also know they were really good together in how they complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

FANS WONDER if there has been a curse on the franchise because Johnson was not in the ring of honor. When a Super Bowl drought stretches to 27 years, anything can be questioned.

As the Cowboys were kicking off against the Panthers last month, Jones and Johnson were asked in a news conference whether they realized how much they needed each other.

It was as if the past disagreements — whether as real and deep as perceived — never happened. They talked about never having a cross word with each other. Jones, however, referenced “beautiful scars.”

“I never had a time when I didn’t have an appreciation for his confidence and skill level. Ever. I’ve always had that appreciation when we parted. I did that at that particular time. So that has never been an issue,” Jones said.

“But, frankly, we were so tight and so strong, and when you use the word, saying ‘competitive,’ we didn’t have a lot of time to talk about the old times when we first got involved. In our first four years, this thing, every day was Pearl Harbor on and off the field. But it was a great atmosphere. Great. Again, his being in our ring of honor does, in my mind, say that.”

As Jones spoke, Johnson looked directly at his friend, teammate and colleague.

“We’re both extremely proud,” Johnson said. “The way the Cowboys are today and the way the Cowboys were back then, we are very proud of what we were able to do.”

SOME TWO HOURS before kickoff Saturday, there will be a reception inside the Murchison Room at AT&T Stadium for Johnson and the ring of honor members expected to attend. More than 50 former players, coaches and staff from that era are expected, along with Johnson’s current teammates at Fox.

The 13-minute halftime ceremony will be broadcast live on ESPN and ABC, another sign of the power Jones and Johnson wield all these years later.

As the second quarter ends, Aikman will hustle from his perch in the announcers’ booth and don a blue ring-of-honor blazer to be on the field for the ceremony. Even if he hadn’t been on the broadcast, he said he would not have missed this moment.

As he watches Jimmy and Jerry — or Jerry and Jimmy — speak, his mind will go back to the Rose Bowl and his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Alvin Harper that clinched Super Bowl XXVII against the Bills. He will remember the faces of the players who lived through the end of the Landry era and the 1-15 record in 1989 to become champions.

“It sounds strange, but it’s not a play or particular game. It’s that moment that I remember most when, gosh, we’d been kicked around so long, and then to be on the top of the mountain there at the Rose Bowl, it was a magical moment,” Aikman said.

“It was so long ago that happened, and we’ve all aged, but I think part of me will be watching Jimmy and Jerry at halftime and probably see them as the 46-year-olds they were when Jerry bought the team, and how unified they were in their purpose and what it was they were going to achieve.”

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