FLASHBACK: Press hostility greets Jimmy at Dallas press conference

Published 12:06 am Saturday, August 7, 2021

Editor’s note: This was a column from former sports editor Bob West from March 1, 1989. What would eventually become a Hall of Fame career for, then, Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson, had a rocky start with Dallas press.

 

DALLAS — Midway through his first press conference as Dallas Cowboys head coach, Jimmy Johnson looked around, shook his head and remarked to nobody in particular, “This has been a grind.”

If anything, the Port Arthur native was understating the case. Press conference is actually a bit of a misnomer for what Johnson faced Thursday at Valley Ranch. This was more of an inquisition.

South Bend was a day at the beach compared to the feeding frenzy at Cowboy headquarters. An outsider who wandered in might have wondered if JJ was J.R. (Ewing) at the podium. Come to think of it, this gathering probably should have been held at South Fork Ranch.

How tough was it? So tough writers who’ve been coming to these things for years used words like vicious, hostile and brutal to describe what they witnessed.

“I’m sure there have been more hostile press conferences, but I’ve never been to one,” said veteran Dallas columnist Blackie Sherrod. “The funny thing is most of the hostility came from people who wanted to string up Tom Landry a few months ago.”

Talk about a three-ring circus, this was it. Radio and television stations cut into regular programming to go live. An overflow crowd estimated at 200 packed the room. There was even an Elvis Presley sighting and a rumor Jack Ruby was lurking in the hallway.

“It was the largest turnout I’ve ever seen for a Cowboy press conference,” said Denne Freeman of the Associated Press. “I’ve never seen a coach put through the ringer like that either. It was a little unfair.”

Johnson was asked just about everything but whether he beats his wife. It’s possible somebody asked that, too, and had it drowned out by the roar of voices seeking to be heard. One guy even asked whether Jimmy failed a polygraph test involving a recruit when he was at Arkansas.

The only really positive part of what transpired was that Johnson never got rattled, never lost his cool, never let on that he was even irritated by the frontal assault. Matter of fact, he probably gained some admirers with his demeanor.

“I thought he handled it about as good as he possibly could,” said Sherrod. “He came across sincere in what he said and he came across as being so totally confident in himself. I really like that quality in him.”

“Given the lynch-mob mood in there, I thought he did an incredible job of voicing the right answers,” said Houston Post columnist Dale Robertson. “I just can’t believe he had to go through that. I thought these people wanted to get rid of Tom Landry.”

Whatever the mood toward Landry during the season, he’s now a martyr. Most of the Dallas media and many of the Cowboys fans are boiling over how his dismissal was handled. It’s a feeling only time is going to overcome.

“This is the most incredibly negative situation I’ve ever seen in this town,” said Dallas Morning News columnist Randy Galloway. “If Jimmy thinks the press was tough on him, he should be thankful the fans weren’t in there. But I sure like the way he handled himself.”

Johnson did his best to defuse the situation. He explained that he came to Dallas last Friday because new owner Jerry Jones wanted to talk to him face to face about the Cowboys job. He repeatedly apologized if anything he’d done showed disrespect toward Landry.

It was not enough. This was Watergate and everybody was Woodward or Bernstein. Every so often somebody asked a football question. Then the interrogation resumed. John Tower should feel thankful he only had to be scrutinized by the FBI and a partisan committee.

Johnson even got hit with a running-up-the score question on Notre Dame. After a while you wondered if he was going to be coaching the Cowboys or applying for sainthood.

“It was absolutely brutal,” said David Casstevens of the Dallas Morning News. “I’ve never attended anything like it. Here’s the greatest day in his life and he’s practically having to beg the fans for support. I really admire him for how he handled it.”

“The only press conference I’ve ever seen that compares to this was Jackie Sherrill’s last one at Texas A&M,” said San Antonio Express News columnist Kevin O’Keefe. “But that was an entirely different situation.

“This should have been laudatory, full of hope and promise for the future of the Cowboys. I thought Jimmy did a very good job of maintaining his composure. If he’d gotten upset, it would have been understandable.”

The height of absurdity was a question playing off what is considered a public relations disaster in the Landry matter. The questioner wanted to know if the new regime now feels compelled from a public relations standpoint to take Troy Aikman with the No. 1 pick in the draft.

“It was as close as Johnson came to showing exasperation.

“We’re here to do what’s best to put this organization back on top,” he said. “We can’t let public relations dictate what’s right in the draft.”

Johnson, when his 90-minute ordeal came to an end, quickly fled to the inner sanctum with Cowboys GM Tex Schramm. He paused only long enough to answer a single question from a hometown writer.

“Hey, Jimmy, were Notre Dame fans as tough on you as these guys?”

“No, he said with a grin. No they weren’t.”