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Cowboy Owner Jones at Home on the Range : Dallas: An Arkansas wheeler-dealer brings back fans by investing himself.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After dealing with lengthy holdouts last year by running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Alexander Wright, his team’s top two draft picks, owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys was determined to have his 1991 choices in training camp on time.

That meant going on the offensive.

As the draft approached, Jones worked the phones, attempting to assess, as he put it, the “signability” of those players who probably would be available to the Cowboys.

On draft day, he sent a dozen operatives out with cellular phones and instructed them to stand ready near the homes of potential draft choices.

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Then he worked the phones again.

Jimmy Sexton, the Memphis-based agent for wide receiver Alvin Harper of Tennessee, remembers being asked by Jones whether Harper could be signed in the 15 minutes allotted teams to make first-round selections.

“I said, ‘I’ll never say never, but it sure is going to be hard to do a deal in 15 minutes,’ ” Sexton said.

Nevertheless, while the Cowboys were on the clock with the 12th pick in the first round, Jones and Sexton reached an agreement--three years, $2.1 million, plus incentive clauses.

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Harper was the Cowboy pick. Sexton was a believer.

“To his credit, he’s a deal-maker,” Sexton said of Jones. “Him, Al Davis, Eddie DeBartolo. Those are the (NFL owners) who come to mind when I think in those terms--Jerry and DeBartolo more so than Davis. When they want something, they’re going to get it.”

Few would have predicted a place for Jones among the NFL’s sharpies when, in February of 1989, he made the leap from obscure Little Rock (Ark.) businessman to owner of one of the most glamorous franchises in professional sports.

Jones appeared to have bounced in on a turnip truck, clumsily replacing Tom Landry, the only coach the franchise had known, with college chum Jimmy Johnson and vowing to deal with all aspects of the organization himself, even the “jocks and socks.”

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The change in ownership eventually would sweep out Tex Schramm, who had built the Cowboys as president and general manager, and most of Schramm’s people.

Jones was hammered. One writer referred to him as “a real oink.” In a telephone poll conducted by the Dallas Times Herald 10 weeks after Jones had bought the team, 60% of the callers said they disagreed with the way he was running it.

Two and a half years later, it may not be quite as Landry had predicted: “People will forget me pretty quick.” But the trauma has faded, and a franchise that had been spiraling downward in the final years of Landry and Schramm has found a new spark: Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys, 1-15 in 1989, improved to 7-9 in ’90, falling one victory short of making the playoffs. More important, their future has been enhanced by a stockpile of draft choices acquired through shrewd trading.

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Not only is Jones no longer the town villain, he was voted the best owner of a professional sports franchise in Dallas-Ft. Worth in a fan poll conducted by the Dallas Morning News last month.

Wrote one fan, J.A. Reznak of Dallas, of Jones: “He tries very hard to be the best.”

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the new regime better than Jones whipping through life at 78 r.p.m.

Since buying the team and the lease rights to Texas Stadium for a reported $140 million, Jones, who has the titles of president and general manager, has put his business interests--primarily oil and gas exploration--in the hands of others and devoted his energies to, as he describes it, “managing every aspect of the Dallas Cowboys.”

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He is ubiquitous--chatting up corporate vice presidents, sizing up college talent at the Senior Bowl, sharing pitchers of beer with reporters. Jocks and socks, indeed.

Said Jones: “I have always believed that, if I were a fan and could draw up the perfect owner, it would be someone who committed all of his time and resources, so that every time he made a decision, it was on the incentive plan.”

Player personnel decisions are, in Jones’ words, “a consensus with Jimmy and me.”

And if there was any thought that Jones and Johnson would be in over their heads, it was quickly dispelled when they traded running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota for a package of players and draft picks in October of 1989.

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Packaging picks obtained in the trade, the Cowboys moved up in the 1990 draft to select Smith, who rushed for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, and dealt for the No. 1 pick in the ’91 draft, which they used to select defensive tackle Russell Maryland. Walker has been mediocre at best for the Vikings.

In retrospect, Jones believes that public preoccupation with his friendship with Johnson, which dates back to their playing days at the University of Arkansas, tended to obscure the fact that Johnson, who won 52 games in five seasons at the University of Miami, was prime NFL coaching material.

“This was heart surgery for me,” Jones said. “You don’t have your friend operate on your heart unless he just happens to be the best there is. In making the commitment I made here, I tried to find the very best individual with whom I could go into the future (running the Cowboys).

“By the same token, my background is one of negotiating, trading, selling. That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.

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“Of course, I wasn’t in the football business. But, certainly, the advantages that (he and Johnson) gain from (having) no politics, our proximity to each other--being able to get right on the field (together)--in my view outweigh the disadvantages, so to speak, of not having a quote-unquote ‘seasoned football management person’ here.”

Jones has not been timid about spending money. He gave quarterback Troy Aikman, the first pick in the 1989 draft, a six-year, $11-million contract; shelled out $1 million in signing bonuses for 16 Plan B free agents last year and paid Walker $1.2 million to accept the trade to Minnesota.

And the Cowboys have become profitable, according to Jones, after losing what he would describe only as a “considerable” amount of money in 1988, the last year of the old regime.

He cites increased attendance and cuts in front office personnel as key reasons for the financial turnaround.

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“Basically, we’ve got less people doing more things,” he said. “The policy is to direct the dollars toward the playing field.”

Jones has also been well served by several off-field maneuvers.

His decision a year ago to move training camp from Thousand Oaks to Austin, Tex., has been a huge success.

Camp expenses, about half of what they were in California, have been offset, according to Jones, by corporate sponsors whose privileges include the right to advertise on the fence surrounding the team’s practice fields at St. Edward’s University. And the camp has become a major marketing tool, attracting hordes of fans and reporters.

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Jones recorded his latest coup Aug. 10, when Irving residents voted to exempt Texas Stadium from a city ordinance banning alcohol sales in establishments that don’t generate at least 60% of their revenue from food sales. The vote was spurred by a lawsuit filed by Jones that sought to strike down the ordinance as a violation of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission regulations.

Selling beer and wine in the stadium could net Jones an additional $1 million a year. Perhaps more important, it should open up the stadium, which had been dry for 20 years, as a source of revenue from alcohol advertisers as well as from events that, because of the alcohol ban, previously had to be staged elsewhere.

Many see Jones as simply a businessman running the team in a manner in which it was never run before: as a business.

“Tex Schramm had (original Cowboy owner) Clint Murchison’s money to spend and use to promote the Cowboys to the point where we became America’s Team,” said former Cowboy safety Cliff Harris, now a Dallas businessman. “And Tex had no qualms about spending and promoting. Sure, our success on the field contributed. But, without Tex’s involvement, we wouldn’t have become America’s Team.

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“Jerry Jones is a very good, intelligent businessman, and he’s spending Jerry Jones’ money. He’s spending money, but he’s spending it on players and spending it a lot more efficiently.”

To his critics, however, Jones remains a shark, hunting dollars without tact or regard for tradition.

Of Jones’ alcohol lawsuit, Joe Putnam, former Irving city councilman, said: “It was just legal blackmail: ‘Give me what I want or we’ll get your ordinance declared invalid.’ ”

Jones’ methods have left some scars.

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Four former Cowboy employees who were fired after Jones bought the team, including former public relations director Doug Todd, have filed suit against Jones and the team in U.S. District Court in Dallas, contending that they were victims of age discrimination. They are seeking lost wages and $10 million in damages.

Hal (Rattlesnake) Gillespie, attorney for the four, said he expects the case to go to trial, where he will show that Jones has “changed reasons two or three times” in trying to justify the dismissals.

He said his research shows that the Cowboys’ front office under Jones has roughly the same number of personnel as it did under Schramm.

Said Gillespie: "(Jones) wanted young people. He was afraid someone older wouldn’t jump through hoops. He has the same policy for the front office that he has for his football team.”

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Landry remains something of a thorn for the new regime, having declined a request from Jones a year ago to join the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

In the book “Tom and the ‘Boys” by Newark Star-Ledger writer Dave Klein, Landry was quoted as saying: “I’m not bitter. I’m just indifferent. . . . But I don’t think I’d accept if they wanted to put me in that Ring of Honor. I just believe we have the right, if we don’t want to associate with somebody, we don’t have to associate with them.”

Jones has not indicated how he will deal with the matter this year, but he claims to be unconcerned by the prospect of further public rejection by Landry.

“I have removed from my mind the personal aspect of the thing,” he said. “I would like to (put Landry in the Ring of Honor) for him and the fans, have him there for everything he has done. That’s why I have just said, ‘I want him in.’ Not ‘I’m putting him in’ or ‘Come in and let’s go together.’

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“If he would just approach it from the standpoint of all that was done here for 29 years. . . .”

But could it be that Landry’s feelings are a mere sidelight compared with draft picks and beer sales? Could it be that Dallas is now as much Jones’ town as it is Landry’s?

Jerry Jones, the people’s choice?

“I’ll say this. The initial reception--the criticism and controversy regarding all the changes--certainly took away any honeymoon you might enjoy,” he said. “To now be getting some confidence (from the public) and what have you, it makes you want to work harder and keep going in the direction we’re going.”

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