Cowboys’ Owner, Coach Given Cold Reception : Jones, Johnson Defend Takeover, Vow to Return Team to Greatness

Times Staff Writer

Jimmy Johnson, the football coach from the University of Miami who has succeeded a Dallas legend named Tom Landry, is remembered in Port Arthur, Tex., as one of 365 members of the class of 1961 at Thomas Jefferson High School.

Then and there, Johnson, with the help of several other seniors, came up with a prophetic class slogan:

If we can’t do it, It can’t be done.

--The T.J. Class of ’61.


In Texas this week, Johnson, 45, and the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys, 46-year-old oilman Jerry Jones of Little Rock., Ark., have done what many Texans considered undoable, or at least improbable.

They have extended the national takeover fever to the Cowboys.

They have, in fact, taken over the Cowboys, sending Landry to the sideline, and shouldering out the team’s founder and veteran club president, Tex Schramm, who has been reduced to the role of an adviser.

And at a joint news conference Tuesday afternoon, Johnson and Jones first defended what they have done, then apologized, and finally pledged to restore the greatness of the Cowboys, who finished last in the 28-team National Football League last season.


“I believe in winning,” Johnson said when asked what he believes in.

A psychology major at Arkansas before he began his coaching career at Oklahoma State 10 years ago, he added: “The Dallas Cowboys deserve to be on top.

"(We’ll) get there (if) hard work, sincerity, and enthusiasm can do it. Enthusiasm creates more enthusiasm. Enthusiasm creates energy.”

And that was as precise as he got. He didn’t answer questions about his plans. He avoided questions on his assistants. He wouldn’t even say that he will draft UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman No. 1 this spring.

He did pledge to pour it on beaten NFL rivals, if possible, continuing a process he began long ago.

“I hope (other people) get on my case for running up a score every week,” he said. “I’ll take that heat.”

It has remained for new owner Jones to promise that the Cowboys will draft Aikman in preference to Steve Walsh, Johnson’s quarterback at Miami of Florida.

But on most matters, Jones wasn’t specific, either. The problem was that they were facing a roomful of hostile Texas reporters, who were questioning the handling of Landry’s dismissal.


Landry, who coached the Cowboys for 29 years and led them to five Super Bowls, learned of his dismissal in the newspapers last week, after Johnson had spent a day or two in town, slinking in and out, as some reporters had it, without notifying anyone but Jones.

The Dallas press in recent days has concentrated heavily on that angle, ignoring the possibility that the new regime will restore order to a team that finished 7-9, 7-8 and 3-13 in Landry’s last three years.

Some reporters are so angry at the new leadership that they want to rename Texas Stadium, calling it Tom Landry Stadium.

On Wednesday morning, as Johnson and Jones were heading for their first joint news conference here, the editorial writers of the Dallas Morning News got into the act with their version of the Landry snub, which coincides with almost everyone else’s.

It was the day’s lead editorial, bearing this headline: “Callous End to a Glorious Career.”

Thereafter, the writers flogged Johnson and Jones for their “unfeeling treatment of Landry,” who was officially fired Saturday--after the whole town knew it--only hours before Jones confirmed it in the media.

"(This) should stun and infuriate people who don’t even follow professional sports,” the News said.

The thing that bothered Texans the most was that, without calling Landry or anyone else at the Cowboy office, Johnson spent Friday in Dallas after obviously learning that he was the chosen one of the new owner.


Said Dallas Times Herald columnist Frank Luksa: “The impression Johnson gave was that of a vulture sitting on a high wire waiting for the body to quit twitching.”

So it was one of the strangest news conferences in NFL history, both at the beginning and at the end, as some 200 stone-faced Texas reporters, columnists, photographers and TV camera operators looked on moodily in the largest room of the Cowboys’ new headquarters--a team meeting room.

Hometown reporters, after covering a losing team for several years, are usually of a mind to give a new coach a chance.

As Schramm wryly noted afterward: “New coaches seldom run into any hostility at first, let alone this much hostility.”

It was Schramm who organized the Cowboys in 1960, who hired Landry in the first place, who brought in their two preceding owners--first Clint Murchison and then Bum Bright--and who made the front-office decisions that made possible an NFL-record 20 consecutive winning seasons in Dallas before 1986.

The third time around, however, Bright sold the club without informing Schramm, who could have advised Jones on how to bring it off without antagonizing the many who remember Landry’s good years.

Jones will continue to make the club’s decisions, he insisted, though he added that he will consult Schramm, whose exact duties he did not specify.

Echoing generations of football club owners, most of whom became NFL losers, Jones said:

“I view football as similar to other businesses I’ve (succeeded) in. The important thing is for (the players) to play above their pay scale.”

Maybe that will do it. But he and Johnson are taking over a team that needs more than that.

“It’s mostly not Landry’s fault,” said Dallas writer Luksa. “It’s mostly the front office’s fault. There have been too many bad drafts and too much bad luck.”

According to Luksa, who has covered the Cowboys since the beginning, the slump began when the Cowboys failed to vigorously pursue United States Football League talent when that league collapsed, hiring only Herschel Walker.

It will be up to Jones and Johnson to rebuild a team that has some distinguished rivals in the NFC East, including the Washington Redskins.

It has been a quarter-century since Jones and Johnson were roommates and football teammates at Arkansas, after which Jones went into insurance and then, in 1970, oil, forming an exploration concern that he still heads.

He and his wife, parents of three children, are moving to Dallas along with Johnson and his wife, parents of two.

At the news conference, both men said they weren’t trying to insult Landry when Jones fired him without telling him. They said they merely overlooked that detail in the press of taking over a new company. And both apologized several times.

The new leaders are both about the same height, somewhat under 6 feet, although Johnson is stocky and round-faced and Jones slender and thin-faced. As a pair, they came across as a couple of city slickers, smooth, dapper and unnervingly energetic. Both were dressed in expensive business suits with similar blue shirts and carefully knotted ties.

And both, curiously, answered to the initials they share, J. J., though these are expected to be reserved hereafter for Jones.

Johnson will shortly be called something else, a bum if he loses, a genius if he can match Landry as a winner in Landry’s glory era.

The betting is that Johnson is not likely to be known as a bum. As he made it a point to mention, his Miami team, in the last three years, has either won the national championship or been a leading contender.

Having come into coaching on the defensive side, he learned pass offense at Miami and said he will be an overseer in Dallas, supervising offense, defense and special teams on a staff that has coordinators for the detail work plus a No. 1 assistant, David Shula, who is moving over from his father’s staff in Miami.

A coach who would appear to have his priorities straight, Johnson said he is spending his football time almost exclusively on the draft this spring.

As a native Texan, Johnson has always wanted to coach the Cowboys, he said. His goal is a string of Super Bowl appearances.

“One night last week as my wife Linda Kay and I lay in bed, she asked me: ‘Is this what you really want to do?’

“I said: ‘No, it’s what I have to do.’

“I have a burning desire to be the best, and this is the kind of opportunity to do it that you don’t often get.”

He said he felt the same way at Miami after five years at Oklahoma State, his first five years as a coach.

His Miami work habits were unreal, some assistants said privately after living through Johnson’s 100-hour work weeks.

“The only thing you do at home is sleep,” one assistant said.

The new Dallas coach isn’t remembered quite that way at Port Arthur, his hometown on the gulf coast near Houston, also the home of the late singer, Janis Joplin.

“He was a big, happy-go-lucky, smiling kid in a crew cut,” a Port Arthur townsman told Miami Herald writer Greg Cote.

Johnson’s father, C. W., who was in Dallas Tuesday, is a retired dairy worker who in other years has been resentful of his son’s neglectful tendencies.

Said C. W.: “I guess folks who are 65 or 70 aren’t too exciting to be around.”

Landry is in that bracket now, but Johnson swears he wasn’t being disrespectful to his former idol when he ignored him last week.

Asked how it feels to replace a legend, Johnson said: “You don’t replace a Landry. But, please, let me do my own thing.”

Can it be done in hostile Dallas?

If not, maybe, it can’t be done.

Times researcher Doug Conner assisted on this story.