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25 years of Jerry Jones: The day that changed the Dallas Cowboys

By John Henry Fort Worth Star-Telegram (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:02 PM

FORT WORTH, Texas — Feb. 25, 1989, is one of those dates — if you were alive — you’ll always remember and where you were when you found out that “it” had happened.

Jerry Jones had bought the Dallas Cowboys in a deal sealed with a John Hancock-sized signature and notice that a new sheriff — not to mention, quite the character — had arrived in town.

Who else, after all, could fire the coach much of the fan base viewed with reverence reserved on a scale just below Jesus Christ but one notch ahead of John the Baptist?

And then he ran off Tex Schramm, the team’s only general manager, who was a master marketer and who not only made the Cowboys “America’s Team” but also put the game of football on the forefront of American pop culture.

Who exactly did this Arkansas oil wildcatter with the big boots think he was?

What it was, said Bum Bright, who sold the team to Jones, was a “a new generation of coaches and ownership.”

“This must evolve. It happens in every business.”

It evolved quickly, becoming immediately obvious to every mouth-dropped observer that Jones would live true to his word, with his hands in every facet of the organization, including the “jocks and socks.”

Twenty-five years later, it’s hard to argue with the totality of the results, even if today the most devoted Cowboys fans want to ship the “general manager” part of him back to the Ozarks.

The Cowboys are one of three franchises in the last 25 years with three Super Bowl championships, joining the Patriots and NFC East Division rival New York Giants. San Francisco, Green Bay, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Denver each have two.

The only problem is that the Cowboys today are nowhere in the same network of today’s NFL dynasties on the playing field.

With Jones as the team’s general manager and overseer of player personnel, the Dallas Cowboys are setting new standards in mediocrity.

The year 2013 marked the fourth consecutive season the Cowboys have missed the playoffs after a third straight 8-8 campaign.

Yet there’s a lot of value in being 8-8 year after year.

Jones and the Cowboys remain NFL power brokers by any standard.

Forbes rated the Cowboys the most valuable NFL franchise last year, worth an estimated $2.3 billion.

That’s value that ranks the team among the most valuable sports franchises in the world, behind only soccer’s Real Madrid, Manchester United and FC Barcelona and about even with the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball.

Forbes estimated that the team had $539 million in revenue in 2012 and $250.7 million in operating income.

Even the most clumsy bean counter can recognize that as success at any level of the big-business world.

Not a bad return on a team he purchased from Bright for $140 million — $255 million at today’s rate.

To see a complete return on his investment, he’d have to sell the team, which he’s made clear will happen only over his dead body.

A look at the first generation of the Jones Empire reveals 25 years of an emotional roller-coaster for the Cowboys fan.

A choice between rubber-necking a train wreck or the Cowboys is an easy one. No soap or reality TV drama can rival the spectacle continuously on display at Valley Ranch and AT&T Stadium.

There’s only one place to start when examining the Jones era.

And, for many, it’s still a kick in the gut.


Tom Landry’s future as coach of the Cowboys had been a source of speculation for a few years before Jerry Jones arrived in Texas.

Team owner Bum Bright reportedly had wanted to fire Landry during the team’s decline that ended with non-playoff seasons of 7-9, 7-8 and 3-13 from 1986-88. Only Tex Schramm, the team’s general manager, kept the guillotine from falling.

In fact, the Cowboys missed the playoffs in four of Landry’s last five seasons and hadn’t won a playoff game in six years.

Nonetheless, not many were ready to hear that Jones’ first order of business was to fire the only coach of the Dallas Cowboys and replace him with University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, Jones’ former teammate at Arkansas.

The entire affair was a public relations disaster for the new owner when news leaked that Johnson had been hired before Landry’s actual dismissal.

Schramm and Jones flew to Austin to meet with Landry and formally break the news.

It was the end of one of the NFL’s best coaching careers.


Two Super Bowl championships in five appearances.

A record of 270-178-6, including playoffs, in 29 years.

A record 20 consecutive winning seasons.

10 NFC championship games from 1970-82.

“Tom Landry is the Cowboys,” Jones said at a news conference formally announcing the sale.

Of the meeting, Jones said he told the coach, “I’m here and so is Jimmy. I was basically trying to say something you just can’t say.”

Jones said he never gave any thought to retaining Landry for even one season, adding that he only wanted to buy the team if Johnson came with him.

Schramm was visibly distraught at the news gathering. And the writing was on the wall for him, too. This was now Jerry Jones’ team. There was no room for the Cowboys’ first and only president and general manager.

Schramm resigned in April.

Though the team of Landry and Schramm left with the organization in turmoil, in place were key components of the Cowboys’ 1990s Super Bowl teams: Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton and Kevin Gogan — all crucial pieces to one of the NFL’s greatest offensive lines — and wide receiver Michael Irvin, the team’s top draft choice in 1988.

Landry and Schramm also said they knew who they would take with the top overall pick in June’s draft — the same guy Jones and Johnson took.

Jones and Johnson used the No. 1 pick in April’s draft to select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, who signed a six-year contract for $11.2 million.

Aikman — along with Daryl Johnston (second round), center Mark Stepnoski (third) and Tony Tolbert (fourth) — turned out to be worth every dime even after the Cowboys gave up their first pick in the 1990 draft to select quarterback Steve Walsh in July’s supplemental draft.

That pick would have been near the top after a 1-15 season in 1989.

The first game in the Jones Era was a 28-0 loss at New Orleans on Sept. 10. Aikman was 17 for 35 for 180 yards and two interceptions. Herschel Walker had 10 yards on eight carries.

Aikman took a beating in his first season and didn’t even play during the team’s only victory that season, a 13-3 win over Washington, a 14-point favorite at RFK Stadium.

Walsh was the quarterback that day, but running back Paul Palmer was the lodestar, rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Aikman finished his season 0-11 as a starter and passed for just 1,749 yards and nine touchdowns.


Clearly the best play the Cowboys ran that first season was the trade of running back Herschel Walker in October 1989.

Depending on perspective, it was one of the worst or best trades in sports history.

The Cowboys traded Walker and four draft picks to Minnesota for linebackers Jesse Solomon and David Howard, cornerback Issiac Holt, defensive end Alex Stewart and running back Darrin Nelson (who refused to report) and eight draft picks, including the Vikings’ first-round selection the next three years.

The Cowboys used the draft picks to select running back Emmitt Smith of Florida in 1990 with the 17th overall pick, defensive lineman Russell Maryland No. 1 overall the next season, cornerback Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson.

“We got our running back,” Johnson proclaimed with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas, and the Cowboys surely would have been overjoyed to simply get Smith for Walker straight up.

Smith was the second running back selected in the 1990 draft, 15 picks behind Blair Thomas.

But it was Smith who became one of two Hall of Famers from that draft (Cortez Kennedy was the other) while also becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with more than 18,000 yards.

More importantly for the Cowboys, he turned out to be the final piece of the team’s famed “Triplets,” which included Aikman and Michael Irvin.

All four, including Holt, became Super Bowl mainstays.

Jones and Johnson would ultimately make 46 trades between 1989 and the first Super Bowl after the 1992 season.


When Jerry Jones bought the team, he took over Tex Schramm’s duties as lone member of the committee that selects new members to the Ring of Honor.

His first order of business was to right the perceived wrong of former linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, who had been excluded from the team’s club of most heralded players by Schramm because of a grudge over a contract dispute in 1973.

Schramm and Jordan went 15 years without saying a word to one another.

“I kind of feel that Mr. Schramm had his criteria set,” Jordan said at one time. “It is a very select group, and I imagine he had one or two reasons why he thought I didn’t fit in.”

Jordan became the seventh member of the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

A reluctant Tom Landry became the eighth in 1993. Landry turned down an initial offer in 1990, saying the time wasn’t right. From Jones’ perspective, the timing was perfect in 1993 with the team coming off a Super Bowl victory.

“We get to pay the kind of respect to and honor him as a champion,” Jones said at the time.

Said former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett: “If Tom Landry did not go into the Ring of Honor, no other player should go into the Ring of Honor.”

Since Landry’s induction, Jones has selected 12 more to join him: Dorsett, Randy White, Bob Hayes, Schramm, Cliff Harris, Rayfield Wright, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Drew Pearson, Charles Haley and Larry Allen.


President Bill Clinton, only 11 days into the first of his two terms, called his Arkansas brethren on the occasion of the Cowboys’ first Super Bowl victory under Jerry Jones — and the franchise’s third — only four seasons removed from the 1-15 season, a 52-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

“I think you understand how much we put into this thing,” Jimmy Johnson said to the president. “You know a little bit about perseverance yourself, so I know you understand.”

Troy Aikman was the game’s MVP after completing 22 passes on 30 attempts for 273 yards and four touchdowns, including two to Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith had 108 yards.

“I can’t sit here, I promise you, and put into words how this feels,” Irvin said. “You dream about the moment.”

Emmitt Smith sat out the first two games of the 1993 season while in a contract dispute with Jones, who said he wouldn’t pay his star running back the more than $10 million he was demanding.

That was all before the Cowboys started 0-2.

By Week 3, Smith had a four-year contract worth $13.5 million.

By February, he was the Super Bowl XXVIII MVP after Cowboys seized a second consecutive NFL title, topping the Bills again, 30-13, in Atlanta. Aikman played despite a serious concussion suffered in the NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco at Texas Stadium.

Jones and Johnson had built a dynasty; that was evident for all to see.

And the core was young. Aikman was 27, Smith 24 and Irvin 28.

Aikman, too, was locked up contractually that December, signing the then-biggest contract in NFL history, $50 million over eight years, including $11 million guaranteed.

But as all appeared rosy, in reality the party was nearing its end.


Somewhere along the way, someone said wisely that there are some fires that simply can’t be extinguished.

It should have been obvious that a clash of personalities was inevitable between Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson.

And clash they did. The relationship between the two became increasingly strained throughout the 1993 season.

It all came to a head at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla., when Jones stopped by a table to offer a toast to Johnson and several former Cowboys coaches and officials, who were gossiping about the boss.

Furthermore, the table reportedly mostly blew off Jones, sending the owner into a rage, enhanced by booze.

According to the coach, he was telling the table the now well-documented story about the 1992 draft when Jones asked Johnson to play to the cameras and make it appear that the owner was a big player in the draft war room.

That, as history has explained, was merely one of a number of close confrontations.

Jones was said to be enraged when Johnson suggested during the 1993 season that he would be receptive about talking to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars about their coaching job. In turn, Jones told the news media that only he — the owner — had the power to decide Johnson’s coaching future. Johnson reportedly told Jones tartly that that was hardly the case.

“Any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls,” Jones fumed to reporters after the encounter in Florida.

Jones and Johnson met in March to resolve what troubled them. They mutually agreed that a firing and a decision to simply quit were not viable options, and neither was continuing to work under his existing contract.

So it was either settle the contract and quit or go for it one more year. Johnson said he’d even be willing to “change the language in the contract that specified that he had control over all personnel.”

After that year, Johnson would be free to leave.

The two settled on divorce. The remaining five years of his contract were torn up, and he received a $2 million parting gift.

“In retrospect, it was those things that started me thinking about a change,” Jones said at the time, recalling the Jaguars situation. “My reaction to that, my lack of enthusiasm about (patching things up) told me where our relationship was headed.”


Among those 500 coaches who could have led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, Jones said, was Barry Switzer. And the owner sent NFL observers into a frenzy when he indeed brought in the former Oklahoma coach to seemingly settle the feud with Jimmy Johnson.

An unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory proved elusive when the Cowboys fell behind 21-0 in the first seven minutes of the 1995 NFC Championship Game.

Switzer, though, did win a Super Bowl the next season, 27-17 over the Steelers.

“We did it our way, baby,” he shouted to Jones during the Super Bowl XXX trophy presentation in Tempe, Ariz.

He wanted to quit afterward, he later admitted. The pressure of proving Jones right was draining.

Switzer stayed on and was at the helm as the dynasty went into decline. Injuries and age forced the retirements of Charles Haley and Jay Novacek.

Personal fouls off the field became scandalous. There was also a perception that, fair or not, Johnson never would have tolerated the tawdry behavior of players that led to embarrassment to the franchise.

Switzer resigned after the 1997 season, having compiled a 45-26 record, including playoffs, with three NFC East Division championships.

His 40-15 victory over Minnesota in the 1996 NFC wild-card round was the Cowboys’ last in the postseason until 2009.

Switzer’s dismissal also began a trend of instability at the head coaching position.

After only two coaches in the team’s first 34 years, Jones has brought on six coaches since hiring Jimmy Johnson in 1989.

The list of those since Switzer:

Chan Gailey, 1998-99, 18-16: Gailey won one NFC East title and lost two wild-card games.

Dave Campo, 2000-02, 15-33: The longtime Cowboys assistant was promoted from defensive coordinator only to go 5-11 three straight seasons.

Bill Parcells, 2003-06, 34-32: Jones talked the Tuna into returning to the sidelines, and Parcells left the team better than he found it though he never won a division title and lost two wild-card games.

Wade Phillips, 2007-10, 35-24: Phillips won two division crowns after seasons of 13-3 and 11-5, but he went 1-2 in the playoffs and was fired after starting the 2010 season 1-7.

Jason Garrett, 2010-present, 29-27: Jones appears committed to Garrett, at least for now, despite three straight 8-8 seasons and no playoff appearances.


Jerry Jones also has confronted criticism of enabling loose behavior among his players.

The verdict last month finding Josh Brent guilty of intoxication manslaughter in the death of teammate Jerry Brown was merely the most recent example of the team’s various brushes with law enforcement and bad behavior.

Defensive back Dwayne Goodrich was sentenced to 7 1/2 years after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the deaths of two people killed in a hit-and-run accident.

Prosecutors, who couldn’t prove Goodrich was drunk, said the victims were trying to rescue a man from a burning car.

The face of the Cowboys’ excess at one time was Michael Irvin, whose preoccupation with cocaine and strippers led to shame and humiliation for Jones and the organization.

Irvin was found in a hotel room with two women, teammate Alfredo Roberts and, police said, 3 ounces of marijuana, almost 2 ounces of cocaine, a tube to snort it, rolling papers and razors, among some other things.

The case took an even more bizarre turn when a Dallas police officer, Johnnie Hernandez, was charged with plotting to kill Irvin after the receiver allegedly threatened his wife after her testimony in the court case.

The case was resolved when Irvin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation, community service and a $10,000 fine. The league slapped him with a five-game suspension to start the 1996 season.

It was during the investigation that the public learned of the infamous White House, a two-story abode in Valley Ranch on Dorsett Drive. Rented in Cowboys receiver Alvin Harper’s name, the house was used by players, including Irvin, who liked to let their hair down by entertaining and being entertained by women of all sorts.

Various accounts over the years, though, assert that that’s just the way it was. Many of the Cowboys enjoyed living in the fast lane, no matter how reckless.

Several other Cowboys of that era, including Shante Carver and Clayton Holmes, failed drug tests over the years.

Offensive tackle Erik Williams almost lost his life in a 1994 accident in which his alcohol blood level registered twice the legal limit. Many agree that the accident in all likelihood cost Williams a place in the Hall of Fame; he was never the same after returning the next season.

Many other observers contend that going without Williams also probably cost the Cowboys a third consecutive Super Bowl.

Williams’ teammate on that line, Nate Newton, later spent time in the state penitentiary after being caught twice in a period of two months in 2001 transporting hundreds of pounds of marijuana.

Irvin was also at the center of an alleged incident at training camp in 1998 at Midwestern State in Wichita Falls.

According to an account in the tell-all Boys Will Be Boys and citing several players, Irvin became upset when offensive lineman Everett McIver took a barber’s chair before him even though it was McIver’s turn.

A fight between the two broke out with McIver getting the best of it, culminating with a landed punch to Irvin’s mouth.

Irvin then grabbed a pair of scissors and swiped at McIver, leaving a gash in the lineman’s neck.

McIver needed only stitches to repair the damage and reportedly received a six-figure settlement from the Cowboys not to go public with the incident or press charges against Irvin.

It was in this environment that Jones made one of his biggest blunders as general manager: passing on wide receiver Randy Moss.

With the eighth pick in the 1998 Draft, the Cowboys selected defensive end Greg Ellis, passing on Moss, who purportedly had “character issues” that Jones didn’t feel the team could take on in the wake of the Irvin scandals.


Though Jones didn’t take Moss, the Cowboys owner and general manager has been more than willing to take a chance on “problem” players.

The list includes Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood, both of whom had diagnosed mental disorders, and Adam “Pacman” Jones, who probably could have been.

Spellman had a relatively smooth stay, but Underwood, who had once escaped from a psychiatric care facility after trying to commit suicide, tried to kill himself again by running into a busy Florida highway.

And then there was the story of Terrell Owens, the temperamental wide receiver signed by Jones against the wishes of his coach, Bill Parcells.

Owens spent three seasons with the team, amassing 235 receptions, more than 3,500 yards, 38 touchdowns and a hospital stay after overdosing on pain medication one evening during his one season playing for Parcells.

The incident was described through various accounts as a suicide attempt, an accidental overdose and by Owens himself as an “allergic reaction.”

The flamboyant Owens had been nursing a broken hand.

Owens certainly wasn’t the worst deal Jones made involving a wide receiver.

Cowboys fans could have used some pain medication in 2000 after Jones gave up two first-round draft picks to Seattle for Joey Galloway, who missed the entire season after tearing an ACL in the team’s season opener. He never met expectations.

Then there was Roy Williams, the wide receiver. The Cowboys traded first-, third- and sixth-round picks to Detroit for the former Texas wideout and a seventh-round pick and then signed Williams to a $54 million contract.

Williams never made it to the end of the deal. He was released less than three years later after 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns on 94 catches in 40 games.


Jones always believed that the NFL’s most prestigious franchise should play in a palace fit for kings.

In addition to the three Super Bowl championships, Jerry Jones’ crowning achievement through the past 25 years is construction of AT&T Stadium, a $1.3 billion enterprise with more than 25,000 square feet of bigger-than-life video screens.

It has become perhaps the world’s most visible sports and entertainment venue, hosting Super Bowl XLV, the NBA All-Star Game with the NCAA Final Four coming in April and the College Football Playoff championship game set for January 2015.

Irving turned down Jones’ proposal to renovate Texas Stadium, and Dallas rejected overtures to help pay for a new stadium and return professional football to that city.

Instead, Arlington said yes. Voters approved supplementing construction of the 80,000-seat stadium with $325 million in bonds.

More than 105,000 attended the regular-season opener, a 33-31 loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 21, 2009.

The NFL’s biggest game came to the stadium in 2011. Green Bay upset Pittsburgh 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.

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