BOB WEST — Jimmy Johnson went through Dallas hell to reach Hall of Fame

Published 12:11 am Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Editor’s note: Bob West usually writes a golf column each Wednesday in The News. In lieu of golf this week, given the recent news of Port Arthur native Jimmy Johnson’s election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, West, a former sports editor of The News, has written this column on Johnson.

“It ain’t gonna be easy, Jimmy Johnson. … In comparison, the University of Miami was a nap in a hammock. Just one skinny point kept you from three consecutive 11-0 seasons with the college kids. That’s like yacht time … You’re accustomed to being cock of the walk. In Dallas, you could be the pavement.” – Blackie Sherrod, Dallas Morning News.

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Those daunting 1989 words from one of Texas’ most iconic sportswriters underscored the challenge Port Arthur’s rising star was up against when Jerry Jones, the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys, indelicately shoved beloved coaching legend Tom Landry out the door.

Thirty years later, with the long overdue selection of Johnson to the NFL Hall of Fame, Sherrod’s warning is necessary to put the accomplishment in perspective. No coach has ever walked into nastier, more combative media and fan hostility than Hall of Fame inductee No. 328 did.

That’s not to mention the seemingly hopeless football situation he was inheriting. Landry had stayed too long, his final 3-13 team was loaded with aging veterans and they were totally outclassed in a beast of an NFC East that included future Hall of Fame coaches Bill Parcells with the Giants and Joe Gibbs with the Redskins.

It was into that hot mess that James William Johnson dove headfirst with an unrelenting conviction that he could be the fixer, that the coaching methods in which he unwaveringly believed would work at the highest level. And against the longest odds in the NFL’s toughest division.

As the sports editor of The Port Arthur News, I had a ringside seat to all of the good, bad and ugly that resulted from Jimmy’s remarkable transformation of America’s Team. I was there for a first press conference in Dallas that was more like an inquisition, for both Super Bowls and for most of what happened in between.

It really is necessary, then, to reflect on the bad and ugly to fully appreciate Johnson’s unbridled emotion over Sunday night’s HOF announcement.

Things were so vicious during a 1-15, 1989 season that Jimmy told his parents not to come to the games. The booing, the name calling, the media rip jobs and the talk show trashing was out of control. Looking back, about the only positive was that social media had not arrived as a cowardly way to lash out.

Jimmy’s parents — C.W. and Allene — lived a block over from me in Port Arthur and were on my daily walking route. I’d stop by a couple of times a week to check their pulse and often wished I hadn’t. Instead of joy at their son being head coach of the Cowboys, the Johnsons were in great pain.

All’s well that ends well, as we like to say, but we often don’t know or appreciate the price paid for that result.

From that 1-15 beginning, Johnson stood the NFL on its collective ear with his trades, his uncanny judgment of talent, his pushing, prodding and in-your-face motivation of players, and his aggressive approach in a basically conservative industry.

From 1-15, the Cowboys jumped to 7-9, 11-5 and 13-3 Super Bowl champs. For good measure, they repeated in 1993 after a 12-4 mark.

By the time of that first Super Bowl victory, the college coach whose methods so many knocked early on had made 46 trades, topped by the Herschel Walker blockbuster, signed 26 Plan B free agents and hit on 32 of 54 draft picks. Dallas was the youngest team in football and a budding dynasty.

“I didn’t know if my way was the right way, and I knew it wasn’t the only way,” Johnson once said. “But I didn’t think it had to be different at the pro level than it was at the college level or high school level. You have to do the things you believe in. I’ve never been concerned about getting everybody’s approval.”

Sadly, of course, the dynasty was cut short because owner Jones couldn’t stand not getting enough credit. We’ll never know how many Super Bowls those Cowboys might have won, but it’s not outrageous to think it could have been four or five.

What’s important, though, is Jimmy Johnson has finally gotten an honor he so clearly earned. When I retired four years ago, I went out kicking and screaming about his HOF snub. Only a few coaches have won more than two Super Bowls and none did it in such a short period while being required to move mountains.

Now that justice has been served, Port Arthurans have yet another reason to salute the guy we toasted with two Homecoming Roasts and a street that bears his name. Celebrate it by honking your horn the next time you drive down Jimmy Johnson Boulevard.

Oh, yes, and keep hoping old Jethro up in Dallas comes to the realization of how petty he looks for denying an NFL Hall of Famer entry into the Cowboys Ring of Honor,

By the way, Blackie Sherrod wound up becoming a big Jimmy Johnson fan. So did Randy Galloway, Dale Hansen, Denne Freeman and so many others in the Metroplex media who came to recognize and appreciate true genius.