Wade Phillips, Damon West sing praises of new Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson

Published 3:28 pm Monday, January 13, 2020

Considered one of the brightest defensive minds in football, Wade Phillips faced his share of battles against the Jimmy Johnson-coached Miami Dolphins in the late 1990s.

Museum of the Gulf Coast director Tom Neal pats the granite block where a bust of coach Jimmy Johnson rests Monday after posting a sign commemorating Johnson’s upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (I.C. Murrell/The News)

Phillips’ Buffalo Bills lost two of three games to Miami in 1998, including a 24-17 wild-card decision.

“I don’t know about outsmarting him,” Phillips said Monday morning from his Los Angeles-area home, less than a day after Johnson was announced as a 2020 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “When I was in Buffalo, he was in Miami, so we were in the same division (AFC East) and we played twice a year. I played against him before.

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“I think the great thing about Jimmy is that he has so much energy, it rubbed off on his team. It was fantastic; he energized his team.”

A Port Arthur native, Johnson took a Dallas Cowboys team that went 1-15 in his first season, 1989, and built it into a Super Bowl-winning franchise, winning world championships in the 1992 and 1993 seasons. After a stunning resignation shortly after the 1993 season, Johnson returned to the sideline as the Miami Dolphins coach (1996-99).

Johnson’s success — which followed a national championship at the University of Miami in the 1987 season, no less — earned him impending induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Museum of the Gulf Coast director Tom Neal noted Johnson’s selection for the hall Monday morning by posting a flier that reads: “Coach, Jimmy Johnson Class of 2020” with the Hall of Fame logo on the left on a granite stone where a bust of Johnson rests. Neal is looking into how to make a permanent inscription honoring the upcoming induction.

Neal said Sunday he was looking forward to updating Johnson’s display.

David Baker, the hall’s executive director, paid on-air visits to the CBS Sports and Fox Sports studios over the weekend to extend invitations to Bill Cowher and Johnson. Cowher, a CBS analyst, coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl win in the 2005 season. Johnson is a long-running analyst for Fox.

Before his Fox days, Johnson became the first head coach to win major-college national and Super Bowl championships. Barry Switzer, Johnson’s successor in Dallas and former University of Oklahoma coach, and Pete Carroll (University of Southern California and New England Patriots) have done it since.

Johnson, a 1961 Thomas Jefferson High School graduate and national championship defensive lineman at the University of Arkansas, also was head coach at Oklahoma State University from 1979-83.

Phillips graduated from Port Neches-Groves High in 1965, but was not living in Jefferson County when Johnson played at Thomas Jefferson, whose teams were known as the Port Arthur Yellowjackets.

Phillips’ father, Bum, coached at Nederland High in the 1950s and at PNG in the 1960s before building an NFL coaching career of his own.

“Besides X’s and O’s and teaching and coaching, his overall demeanor … he’s still that way,” Wade Phillips said of Johnson. “He gets people excited. I’m excited for him because he’s from my hometown area but also because he’s a great coach.

“He was a player’s coach. Some people can be, and some people can’t. He definitely could. The players want to play for you, but they want to respect you. That’s very hard to do.”

Author Damon West echoed those sentiments.

“The reason I knew that is that Jimmy has a coaching style that players want to perform for him and they want to do their best because they respect him, love him and trust him,” West said. “When I saw how [then-Cowboys receiver] Michael Irvin responded to Jimmy Johnson, you knew Jimmy had the ‘it’ factor because Michael treated Jimmy as if Jimmy were his father.”

West was a Thomas Jefferson quarterback in the 1990s and held Johnson’s headphone cord on the sidelines for games in which his father Bob covered the Cowboys. West said he knew then Johnson was a Hall of Fame coach.

“Absolutely,” West said. “There was something different about him. He’s one of the best. When I’m on that sideline, even at a young age, you could feel something different.

“I knew I was standing next to greatness.”

Phillips, who most recently served as the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator, was the Buffalo Bills’ head coach from 1998-2000. His Bills gained revenge against Johnson’s Dolphins, winning both meetings in the 1999 season, after which Johnson resigned.

“Any of them, I know, was always a battle because you knew his team was going to give their best,” Phillips said. “He had a knack for getting the most out of his team. He’s an example of what my dad said: There are two kinds of coaches, ‘Them that’s been fired and them that’s going to be fired.’ That just proves, no matter what, nobody knows what’ll happen, even if you do a great job.”

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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