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In Chan Gailey, Cowboys Got a Coach With No Strings Attached

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terry Donahue was going to be the Dallas Cowboys’ coach this season. Donahue, the former UCLA coach, went to owner Jerry Jones’ home, a news conference was scheduled, and then someone suggested it might be a good idea to determine what Donahue would be paid.

Jones offered $500,000, tip money for many of the players that Donahue would be called on to coach, and then Donahue read the fine print.

The Cowboys had included an “insubordination” clause in Donahue’s contract, making it clear he would be docked $25,000 every time he said anything that might throw a poor light on the Cowboys, or in particular, Mr. Jones, who would be a billionaire 10 times over if the same clause had been in place for Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson.

Donahue walked.

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“We never thought that the insubordination clause, and certainly the money, would be the things that turned it one way or the other,” Jones said. “He was offered the job. . . . I did feel he’d come in as a coordinator on an entry-level basis [pay scale] into the NFL as opposed to coming in as a Super Bowl coach.

“At the same time, we were not on the same page of how we were going to do things on offense; I was on the page whether he could do it or not, but when the issues on the contract came up, I talked with my son Stephen and we realized we were trying to put a larger foot in a small shoe here. We’re trying to make something happen, and we’re not a team that needs years to make something happen.”

Enter Chan Gailey.

Donahue was expecting more money, but also more responsibility, while the Cowboys were looking primarily for an offensive coordinator, who would also work as head coach. The Cowboys felt secure with defensive coordinator Dave Campo and his staff, and if there was any coaching that really needed to be done, Jones could do that.

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“We needed someone to come in who could make it clear to everyone, including the players, that Jerry does not call the plays,” Jerry Jones said. “Would Jerry Jones have brought Chan Gailey in if he wanted to call the plays?”

Across the nation, that’s what everyone thought when Jones named the no-name former Steeler offensive coordinator as his head coach, his puppet, so to speak.

Even Jones probably figured he was hiring a front man to eventually be bullied and propped before the public, while he dictated the good fortunes of the Cowboys.

Instead Jones struck it rich, maybe making the NFL blunder of all time, and as a result, hiring one of the game’s great future coaches. Gailey has been so impressive so far that Jones has yet to step on the practice fields--what’s there to say when everything has already been said?

Gailey is an updated version of Dan Reeves. In fact, Reeves coached him in Little League in Americus, Ga., which now can claim to be the early home of two of the NFL’s 30 head coaches. Reeves hired him as a special teams coach in Denver in 1985 after Gailey won the NCAA Division II title as head coach at Troy State.

“I know there’s some Reeves in me and probably more than I even know,” Gailey said. “He handles everything really well, and I have a great admiration for him, as well as being indebted to him. Think about the guts it took for him to take a Division II coach that had never been a pro player or coached at that level and bring him in.”

Like Reeves, he is all business on the football field. Like Reeves, anyone making a mistake in practice runs penalty laps afterward. Anyone. Like Reeves, players find him intimidating.

“They are highly organized, and as competitive as Dan Reeves has always been, you don’t want to challenge Chan,” said Jim Hightower, who coached them both at Americus High. “Chan played on a state championship golf team, baseball team and a football team that went to the semifinals. I’d hate to have to make a living having to beat both those guys.”

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After a few weeks in training camp, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked center Dale Hellestrae if anyone had challenged Gailey’s authority yet.

“They haven’t,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone wants to test him. You get the feeling you don’t want to. He has an aura about him. One reason is he knows everything, which is a good thing for a head coach.”

A nice change too, from last year when Switzer was running the show.

But of course the Cowboys remain the Cowboys, and when Michael Irvin stabbed teammate Everett McIver with scissors, Dallas went into denial, everyone was ordered to shut up and maybe nothing had changed.

But Gailey stayed the course, sincere in his position that it was a team matter and it would be taken care of by the team, and when it was all over, Irvin remained on the roster and not in jail. Score one for Gailey.

But who is this guy? He coached special teams, tight ends and receivers, then quarterbacks, and that would have been John Elway, and then became offensive coordinator in Denver under Reeves’ tutelage. He took a career gamble to become head coach of the Birmingham Fire in the World League for two years, found himself working at Samford University after that, and then bounced back to become offensive coordinator with the Steelers.

This is the guy who coached Kordell Stewart as a receiver, and then trained him as a professional quarterback.

“Coach Gailey knows exactly what to do,” said wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, who played for Gailey in Pittsburgh before moving to the Oilers. “He knows how to get his point across no matter what the situation is. Coach Gailey built a strong corps of receivers in Pittsburgh, and he made a great quarterback out of Kordell. He had great athletes in Pittsburgh, and he made sure every player knew his role. When he had to, he simplified the offense to make it easier for us. He didn’t ask guys to do something they weren’t capable of doing.”

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But can he get the Cowboys to score touchdowns, something they haven’t seemed capable of the past few years? Can he capture the old magic with Troy Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt Smith? Can he survive under Jones’ strong command?

“Before I talked to Jerry, sure I had concerns,” Gailey said. “Anybody who was listening to the perception and what was being said on the streets would have had questions. But after three or four sessions with the man, I had those questions answered.

“We don’t have to be chummy buddies to work together. But we have to have a mutual respect, and that’s what has developed. Jerry has lots of businesses, and obviously this is the biggest with the highest profile, but I’m here to run this business. When he wants to step in and say ‘I want this done,’ OK, he owns the business. I understand that.”

Jones will step in as sure as it’s going to be hot in Texas today, tomorrow and the next day. But that’s not all bad, based on results, winning Super Bowls with Johnson and Switzer, and now looking like a man who has struck oil again.

“I thought I had a good one in Chan,” Jones said. “I was wrong. He was better than I could have ever imagined.”


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