The Shutdown Corner Interview: Jimmy Johnson

Doug Farrar

Jimmy Johnson has always been a winner -- predominantly because he will accept nothing less from himself or those around him. After helping the Arkansas Razorbacks win the 1964 national championship as an all-conference defensive lineman, Johnson switched to the coaching game. He won another national championship as a coach for the Miami Hurricanes, after which Johnson took a gamble in 1989 with Jerry Jones, his old Razorbacks teammate. Jones had just bought the Dallas Cowboys and needed someone to replace Tom Landry and rebuild a roster that was among the league's worst.

Safe to say, it worked out. After a 1-15 opening season, Johnson built one of the more amazing turnaround teams in NFL history. His Cowboys won Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, and were on target for more before Johnson quit after his second Super Bowl win. Jones and new head coach Barry Switzer won Super Bowl XXX two years later with much of the team Johnson built. After four less-successful seasons heading up the Miami Dolphins, Johnson turned his attention to NFL analysis. In a wide-ranging interview, we talked about his coaching career, life outside the sidelines, his connection to Janis Joplin, why Rex Ryan's profanity doesn't bother him at all, and what he's been doing on TV lately.

Shutdown Corner: You were the first of two coaches to win a national championship and a Super Bowl (Barry Switzer is the other). The road is littered with college coaches who thought they could make their bones in the pros as well, but you were one of very few to make a very successful transition. What do you think are the common denominators of that success?

Jimmy Johnson: I think the biggest thing was that when I was in college, I really concentrated on personnel. That was my strength, and I was, in essence, my own recruiting coordinator. And when I went to the pros, I did the same thing. I handled the draft, I drafted the players, and I was able to get the personnel. The other thing was that when I was at the University of Miami, we ran a pro-style offense and defense. I started each year by going to a pro training camp, I visited with various pro coaches, and I did this for five years. I want to Cowboys camp, Raiders camp, Atlanta Falcons camp - throughout the league. I visited a lot with John Robinson of the Los Angeles Rams at that time. And I think that really helped prepare me and my staff to go into pro football.

SC: In a general sense, how were the experiences different, and how did you have to adjust when you went to the NFL?

JJ: The biggest difference is the lack of players. In talking to Steve Spurrier when he left Florida [for the Washington Redskins in 2002], I said that as opposed to a defense field and an offensive field, there's just one field -- because you've only got 50-60 players instead of 100, you don't need two fields. The lower numbers of players holds your practices and limits the things you're able to do -- you have to protect your people. You can't practice as physically and for as long.

SC: The early 1990s Cowboys were one of the most successful team makeovers in NFL history. Who was in the room to make all those successful decisions, and who ran the show from a personnel standpoint? Did Jerry Jones ‘consult' from the beginning, or did that change over time?

JJ: When we first went to the Cowboys, Jerry was really concentrating on the business aspect of the team. He had bought the team for $140 million, and he had to pay the bills. So, that was the main thing. And we were bringing his son Stephen along. We really started with everybody in the draft room, and I spent time with all the scouts and coaches. Most of the coaches weren't involved in the draft at all, but I used my coaches because most of them were college guys and they had some really good input for me about these individuals. So, it was just a matter of everybody getting their information together and consolidating and getting everything to me. And there's always one guy making the final decisions. We worked off of our board and off of our preparation for the draft, but I ended up making the final call.

SC: So, you were the de facto general manager when the Cowboys were rebuilt.

JJ: Yeah - that's how we worked it, and that's what was in my contract with Jerry; that I would be in charge of all personnel decisions, all draft decisions, and my coaching staff.

SC: Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil are two coaches who left their Super Bowl teams on top and later regretted it. Did you ever look back at the Cowboys and think, "Boy, I should have stayed a couple more years - we could have won two or three more Super Bowls."

JJ: You know, Troy Aikman and a bunch of other players have talked to me about that -- that we could have been a real dynasty even more then we were. But I was always a bit of a gypsy, anyway. I spent five years at Oklahoma State, five years at Miami and moved on after winning the national championship, and five years with the Cowboys. So, I was ready to move on. We won back-to-back Super Bowls, and I felt that I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. And the main thing was that I wanted to live in south Florida. That's why I left the Cowboys; to live in south Florida.

SC: Your time in Miami made me wonder - is it easier to build a team from scratch as you did in Dallas, than to take a team that was halfway there and try to take it over the top?

JJ: In some ways, it is easier to bring in your own people and start from scratch, because everyone's on the same page. When I went to the Dolphins, we retained most of their coaching staff, and of course, we had a few veteran players. So, I just tried to add a few pieces here and there. We went to the playoffs three straight years, and we got to the second round of the playoffs the last two years -- we won two playoff games - but we didn't have the level of success we wanted. I was disappointed that we didn't win it all, but we did get to the playoffs. We just weren't the best team in the league.

SC: After Miami, how many offers did you get to come back into the game? Do you ever get the itch to coach again, and how do you scratch it?

JJ: No, I'm really happy doing FOX NFL Sunday with [Terry] Bradshaw and Howie Long and [Michael] Strahan and [Curt] Menefee. We have a ball doing the show, and that gives me my football fix.

SC: You went to school with two very famous people with the initials "J.J." - Janis Joplin in high school, and Jerry Jones in college. Who had the more mercurial personality?

JJ: (Laughs) Well, we gave Janis Joplin all kinds of flak. She was the beatnik who wore the black leotards. Back then, we wouldn't even let our players smoke a cigarette - we really looked down on that - so all the conversation was about her smoking weed! She was an outcast, and we gave her all kinds of hell ... she didn't like the jocks.

SC: How is your relationship with Jerry Jones now?

JJ: Jerry and I are really good friends. Jerry's flown his jet down the Florida Keys, and I sat with him for the opening of Cowboys Stadium at the George Strait/Reba McEntire concert. And then, sat with him for the [Manny] Pacquiao fight [that took place at Cowboys Stadium]. So, we're great friends.

SC: You still talk to other coaches like Bill Belichick - who are your favorite coaches today, and how do you think the game has changed in the short time since you stopped coaching?

JJ: Of the coaches today, Belichick and I are probably the closest, but a coach I really, really like -- I like his approach and the way he works with his team - is Rex Ryan. I like his bravado, and his positive approach. He really has that self-fulfilling prophecy; that ‘Pygmalion Effect' with his players. And I like the defensive aspect of his team. So, Rex is one that I admire what he's doing right now.

SC: You said that being on Survivor was tougher than three-a-days, and you hadn't made the cut once before due to health issues. What was the appeal of doing it, and did the experience live up to your expectations?

JJ: I'm glad I did it, but it was not fun - it was so much more difficult than I ever thought it would be. I compared it to three-a-days in this way: It was physically demanding, but when you go through three-a-day practices a s a player, you've got a soft bed to sleep in. You've got plenty of water in your stomach and plenty of food in your stomach. But with Survivor -- I didn't get any sleep, there was no food, we had to boil our water ... plus, it was physically taxing during the day. That's what made it more difficult than three-a-day practices.

SC: And how did you hook up with the ExtenZe people?

JJ: Well, they came to me, and I said, ‘I have to test your product.' I liked it, they wanted me to endorse it, and I said, ‘Hey -- I'm 67 years old -- I need all the help I can get, so I'm ready for it!'

SC: So ... without going into too much detail, it really does work?

JJ: Oh, I wouldn't endorse it if it didn't work.

SC: Can you talk a bit about what you're doing with Crown Royal and the Jimmy Bowl?

JJ: In the Crown Royal Jimmy Bowl, I'm going to go back to Dallas and coach another game. You can go to watch the videos - some of them are really funny - and the winners will be one adult and four friends playing another adult and four friends in a flag football game, just days after the Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium. It's an all-expenses-paid trip to Dallas. People can enter the contest by entering a short essay or a short video. And just one last thing for everyone - when you're tailgating or partying, be sure to drink responsibly and have a designated driver.