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He Makes Old Boys Take a New Look : Cowboys: Jimmy Johnson was scoffed at when a longtime friend made him the coach in Dallas. Now his team is 8-1.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They repeated Buddy Ryan’s line about the absence of East Carolinas--that is, pushovers--in the pros. Then they laughed and poked each other in the NFL-good-old-boy ribs. They even made fun of Jimmy Johnson’s hair.

And when Johnson suffered through “the most miserable year of my life, both personally and professionally” as the Cowboys went 1-15 during his first year as head coach, the league’s old guard exchanged told-you-so snickers.

But who’s crying now? Not the former University of Miami coach who was so naive he believed he could rebuild from the rubble of an ancient dynasty in Dallas. His team is 8-1.

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Ryan? Well, his team consists of a producer, a camera crew and a couple of guys who use more hair spray than Johnson.

The Cowboys improved to 7-9 in 1990, Johnson’s second year. At a media gathering during training camp last summer, Johnson said he not only expected to make the playoffs in his third year, but expected “to have some success in the playoffs.” Many in the room could not refrain from laughing out loud.

But who’s laughing now? Only Cowboy fans. Dallas won its final five regular-season games last season to finish 11-5, the club’s best record since 1983. They beat the Bears in Chicago in a wild-card playoff game before losing to Detroit.

And now, having won 14 of their last 16 games, the Cowboys seem to be taking the high road to Pasadena for the Super Bowl. They have the best defense in the league and only four teams have scored more points. They are America’s Team again. The team of the ‘90s.

Clearly, Johnson has performed a worst-to-first miracle in Texas. And he did it in such a frenzy of player transactions that they used more tape to change the names over the lockers during the last 3 1/2 seasons than they did on players’ ankles.

“I guess when you’re at the bottom and you don’t see a bright light at the end of the tunnel, you’re going to do something, even if it’s wrong,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been doing. Up to this point, we’ve made 46 trades. We’ve been very active in Plan B. We’ve been very aggressive in the draft. And we were able to upgrade the talent.

“(Owner) Jerry Jones and myself made a commitment when we first got here to do everything possible to upgrade the talent. We really didn’t have anybody around here telling us you can do it this way, but you can’t do it that way. Jerry hadn’t been in football before, other than playing back in college, and I hadn’t been in the NFL before. So we just did things that we felt like were right. The thing that we did do was every time there was an opportunity, we seized it.”

It’s not unusual to see a coach install a revolving door at the training facility if a team is floundering. That’s hardly the case with the Cowboys anymore, but Johnson continues to make moves and not just minor ones. Since breaking camp in late August, Dallas has:

--Traded for All-Pro defensive end Charles Haley.

--Waived former No. 1 draft pick Danny Noonan, who was a starting defensive tackle on opening day.

--Changed the defensive style to better suit a rookie linebacker.

--Traded for safety Thomas Everett.

--Changed the starting safeties three weeks in a row.

Obviously, Johnson doesn’t believe in pat hands. He thinks the downfall of many former NFL powerhouses can be traced to a period where the front office stopped trying to improve the team.

The determination to get better in any way possible has driven Johnson. The belief he would eventually succeed has allowed him to stay the course, even through a stormy 1-15 NFL debut.

“I didn’t expect that bad of a year,” he said. “But we knew we were going to have a very difficult year. In fact, we were able to survive it simply for the reason that we went into it with that thought.

“For instance, if we would have been trying to do everything we could to win games that year, we wouldn’t have traded Herschel Walker. We released a couple of older players who probably still had some value and could have helped the team win a couple of games. And I started Troy Aikman as a rookie.

“We pretty well sacrificed some things that year so that we could reap some dividends in the future. We never really had a timetable. I just knew we were going to win and were going to do everything we possibly could to win just as fast as we could. And however fast it was going to happen, it wasn’t going to be soon enough, considering what we were going through.”

Aikman says he doubts anyone seriously could have believed the Cowboys would make this kind of a turnaround in less than three seasons. After the debacle of ’89, most Dallas players sought only a measure of respect and a chance to watch tape of a victory once in a while.

But receiver Michael Irvin, who had trudged through a 3-13 season in ’88, says he always harbored Johnson-like hopes.

“In the NFL, you know how close each team is, how small of a gap there is from the bottom team to the top team,” Irvin said. “I knew Coach Johnson would get the players in here. I knew it would take him a year or two to get the guys around him, the kind of guys he wanted around him, but I knew he would get it done.”

Optimism about the future is one thing, but the memory of that dark past is a force that still motivates Irvin today.

“We’ve got a few guys who still have that hangover from that 1-15 season and that 3-13 season,” he said. “So it’s real hard to get too giddy about what’s going on because we know how quick everything can turn around in the NFL. There’s no doubt we’re focused.”

The Cowboys have blinked just once this season--losing 31-7 at Philadelphia--but they have since avenged that defeat with a 20-10 victory over the Eagles in Texas Stadium.

Given the Cowboys’ ever-changing roster, however, Johnson is beginning to worry about over-confidence. After all, a lot of these guys have never seen the view from the outhouse. But they’re fast becoming accustomed to a penthouse lifestyle.

“I think we have to guard against it more than anything else because of the youth on this team,” Johnson said. “If we had a veteran team that had been in the playoffs year in and year out, I wouldn’t be concerned about it. But this is a situation that if you aren’t careful, they could really kind of start patting themselves on the back.”

It’s the insidious nature of the coaching profession: Now Johnson must deal with the perils of winning. He has All-Pro players at almost every skill position on offense and a defense that gives up yards as readily as a dachshund relinquishes a table scrap.

Johnson has crawled up out of the tunnel into the bright light and now he’s worried about stepping on a trap door that will surely lead back into the depths.

“I think we have a good football team but we still have the youngest team in the league,” he said. “When you have a young football team, it tends to be inconsistent and that’s something we have to guard against, especially with some of them having this new-found success.

“In a town like Dallas, where there is such a rampant following behind the Cowboys, there are so many demands on their time and so many distractions, I’m always concerned about young guys being able to handle those things. One of them missed the plane last week, but other than that, they’ve really been pretty good.”

Irvin, who said he awoke before his alarm and then went into the living room to watch TV, fell asleep again and missed the flight, was fined $1,000 and benched for the first offensive series last week in Detroit. He arose in time to catch five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.

Later, Emmitt Smith admitted that he too almost missed the team flight.

“It would have been the end of the world,” Smith told reporters after the game, “(Johnson’s) hair would have been standing on end for the first time ever.”

Smith knows comedy relies on timing and, if you want to make a Jimmy Johnson joke these days, you’d better stick to the hair.


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