Jimmy Johnson is finally smelling the roses.
And he can’t get enough of them.
The euphoria he feels today is greater than all of the championships he won put together.
He’s happy, living freely and expresses no regrets as he walks into football immortality Saturday looking nothing like the hell-bent, maniacally-driven cuss who shunned family and friends and lost relationships en route to building the Dallas Cowboys into a football dynasty in the 1990s, providing the foundation of his induction to the hallowed Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are those still wondering “what if” about his departure from the Cowboys following a dispute with owner Jerry Jones after back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1993 and 1994.
Troy Aikman, who quarterbacked those title teams and is Johnson’s Hall of Fame presenter, openly laments not being able to have a coach-quarterback run like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had with the New England Patriots.
He believes the Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls in the 1990s with Aikman at helm, could have reeled off six or seven if Johnson would have stayed. The final one came in 1996 with Barry Switzer as head coach.
Michael Irvin, who won national titles with Johnson at Miami and was the go-to receiver and locker room leader on the title teams with the Cowboys, is still upset about not being able to finish a history-making Super Bowl run with the best coach he’s ever had.
“No, not what could’ve been. What the [expletive] could have been,” Irvin says. “Don’t say it so easily. Not a day go by that we don’t think about it.”
And even Jones recently admitted that he [expletive] it up with Johnson and should have found a way to make it work.
Johnson, however, refuses to look back and believes his departure from the Cowboys was the best thing that ever happened to him and his family.
“Every move that I have made in my life is to be the happiest that I can be,” Johnson said. “And the thing about it is that I started to realize that I shortchanged my family tremendously. My two sons, I never saw either one of them play football. And looking back, I am extremely happy that I did what I did. Both of my sons are very successful and our relationship is better than anybody could have imagined.
“Looking back, I made the right decision.”
Troy Aikman and the Fish Tank
Let’s be clear.
Nothing ever happens to Johnson, as he said so himself.
Johnson, who majored in psychology at Arkansas, built his career on being a master manipulator and a great coach with a keen eye for talent.
He is always in control and is always pulling the strings for the best possible outcome for himself and, by proxy, his team.
Consider his relationship with Aikman, who is one of his closest friends, but at one point thought of leaving the Cowboys because of his dislike for Johnson or, rather, his feeling that Johnson didn’t like him.
In hindsight it seems crazy, considering that Johnson picked Aikman No. 1 overall in 1989 and he went on to win three Super Bowls with the Cowboys and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame himself.
But it wasn’t always so pretty.
Aikman turned Johnson down twice before coming to the Cowboys. The first time was as high school senior when he picked Oklahoma over Oklahoma State, which was coached by Johnson at the time. Aikman had gone to Johnson’s football camp and really liked the school.
The second time came when Aikman transferred from Oklahoma and chose UCLA over Miami, where Johnson was coaching at the time.
And then, after experiencing the high of being taken first overall in the 1989 NFL Draft, Aikman started to get suspicious when Johnson picked Steve Walsh, his Miami quarterback, in the first round of the 1990 NFL Supplemental Draft.
“If you had anything to do with the University of Miami, I was not a fan,” Aikman said. “Didn’t want anything to do with it. Staff, players, anyone from Miami, I didn’t want anything to do with it. And I didn’t. So it got Jimmy and I off to a pretty tough start. And it lasted for a while. Jimmy and I really didn’t really start talking till my fourth year. There was a stretch there where we didn’t talk at all.”
Johnson says Aikman was always his guy. But he had the bigger picture in mind, even though he knew the tenuous situation he was putting his starting quarterback in.
“Troy was going to be our franchise quarterback the whole time I was there. I knew that,” Johnson said. But I couldn’t anoint him as our guy because I would devalue the trade value for Steve Walsh. I had to walk a tightrope. We weren’t winning any games anyway. I had to balance it with the two quarterbacks. So it was tight there with Troy. After I made the trade and moved Steve out, I was able to build my relationship with Troy.”
The Cowboys traded Walsh to the New Orleans Saints for the Saints’ first and third round picks in the 1991 NFL Draft and a second round pick (that could become a first round pick based on performance) in the 1992 NFL Draft.
But getting on the same page with Aikman wasn’t so easy.
He incurred the wrath of Aikman again when he started Steve Beuerlein over him in the 1991 playoffs after Aikman missed the last four games of the regular season.
“He had let me believe I’d play when we went into the playoffs,” Aikman said. “It wasn’t handled well.”
Said Johnson: “Sometimes as a head coach you have to make tough decisions.”
Still, Johnson knew it was time to make amends and repair the relationship.
So he helped Aikman build a fish tank in his house and filled it with tropical fish.
“I was looking for a way we can bond a little bit,” Johnson said. “We got a couple of beers, set up his tank and we had time to visit. That kind of started repairing our relationship.”
The Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993 and a lifetime friendship was formed.
Aikman says being Johnson’s presenter at the Hall of Fame is the highest honor he could have received.
“It’s a relationship I am really proud of,” Johnson said. “It goes back a long way. There were tough moments for him and I. The fish tank helped. But winning helped more.”
Johnson says relationship is good with Jones
The Cowboys have won just four playoff games since winning the Super Bowl in 1996.
In discussing Johnson’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a teary-eyed Jones used an expletive to say he was the one who “[bleeped] up” the situation.
“It was my responsibility to keep it together,” Jones said. “I’ve never been able to know why I [bleeped] it up.”
Again, Johnson has no regrets.
He realizes he never got a chance to enjoy his success with the Cowboys because he was always working.
In his previous coaching stops, Johnson had never stayed more than four or five years.
He says he was ready to move back to Florida. He has never left.
Johnson said he found it is important to slow down and “smell the roses.”
And he has nothing but praise for his former college teammate at Arkansas.
“Jerry and I both have a lot of pride and ego,” Johnson said. “And at times there is going to be a clash but I think the relationship is very good right now. I have tremendous respect for Jerry Jones. He is one of the most passionate and smartest men I have even been around. Best businessman I have ever met. He worked around the clock to make the Cowboys the very best. I have a lot of respect for him.”
This is Johnson now.
The jovial, fun-loving guy you see every week on “Fox NFL Sunday.”
Living life on his terms and not only smelling the roses but enjoying them as he experiences the greatest achievement of his career.