Arguably the greatest Cowboys team of all time is getting together for a 25-year reunion Saturday night. And the coach who never looked back is coming back.
When Troy Aikman hit upon the idea of gathering the ’92 Cowboys to celebrate what they accomplished in the Rose Bowl with a 52-17 destruction of the Buffalo Bills, he had one big challenge on his list.
Getting Jimmy Johnson to show up.
When the football season ends, Johnson retreats to his Islamorada home in the Florida Keys. He goes fishing. He goes shirtless. He doesn’t wear shoes for days at a time. Asking him to hop on a plane and fly anywhere to do anything is borderline impossible and generally requires money.
But the bond that Aikman and Johnson forged in winning back-to-back Super Bowls remains strong. Aikman is the only player Johnson sees with any regularity at all. And so when the players throw an overdue celebratory party here Saturday, Johnson will be the centerpiece.
“Most of the players I haven’t seen since the day I left. A lot of the coaches I have only seen once or twice,” Johnson said. “I think I’ve only talked to (Dave) Campo once and only talked to Butch (Davis) a time or two.”
He said Bruce Mays, the Cowboys’ longtime director of football operations who was with Johnson as far back as Oklahoma State, wants to get together for a jog. It was common back in the early ’90s to see Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Tony Wise and Mays jogging around Valley Ranch.
“It won’t be much of a jog,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty sure Tony just walks.”
Wise was Johnson’s longtime offensive line coach who left when Wannstedt got the Chicago job after that first Super Bowl win. He’s retired now while it seems like half the rest of the group works for Fox or some other TV outlet.
But, realistically, that’s just the stars and a few coaches. Most of the players are not that fortunate. And it’s strange to think about it, but what Johnson said is true. Since the moments after celebrating that second Super Bowl win over Buffalo in Atlanta, most players never saw Johnson again.
He had his Corvette driven by a friend from Dallas to Atlanta, so that when the Super Bowl was over, Johnson could drive straight to the new property he had purchased in the Keys. (This savvy beat writer was aware of Johnson having the car in Atlanta and the new Florida house, but couldn’t quite put two and two together to realize how far gone he already was).
Johnson spent only a few days back in Valley Ranch between that Super Bowl and the infamous Orlando owners’ meetings in March where it all came to a head. Johnson being replaced by Barry Switzer despite having won consecutive Super Bowls has to remain the strangest event in Cowboys’ history and right at the top of all-time bizarre NFL moves.
But Johnson played as big a part in his exit as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. With five years left on a $1 million-per-season contract, Johnson left Dallas and headed for a permanent stay in Florida with a $2 million check in his pocket.
When I called him this week, his only worry was the wind and rain that had ruled out fishing for the day. His wife, Rhonda, was baking cookies. I asked Johnson if, perhaps on a rainy day like this one, he had ever spent as much as 30 minutes thinking about staying to lead the Cowboys to that third straight Super Bowl.
“Oh, no, no, no. You know better than that. Not even for .01 of a second,” Johnson said. “I knew what I was doing when I did what I did. And I can say that I have never been happier than I am right now in my life.”
Happy enough that he expects to have a few laughs Saturday night with the former Arkansas teammate who let him go in 1994.
“Actually Jerry and I talked at the Super Bowl, and I congratulated him on the Hall of Fame,” Johnson said. “Jerry and I are fine.”
Life is good when you’re closing in on 20 years at Fox and your only commitment is flying in your private plane to the L.A. studio each weekend in the fall. Johnson said he is “in shock” that he has stayed at Fox this long, that he decides each summer whether or not he wants to give it one more year before going back.
I asked him if he didn’t have a contract with Fox.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got three more years on my contract,” he said, then started to laugh. “Contracts don’t mean a whole lot to me.”