The amazing (but heartbreaking) legacy of new Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson


The tears began almost instantly, in part because there was so much history behind them.

“Oh, boy,” Jimmy Johnson said as Pro Football Hall of Fame CEO David Baker shook the already-inducted hands of Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan, Howie Long and Tony Gonzalez. Then it was Jimmy’s turn.

Johnson’s smile was permanent. The shock on his face was pure. A day earlier, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher had found out on live television that Canton, Ohio, had finally called his number. But 20 years had passed since Johnson’s last game and 25 since his final moments in Dallas. Johnson is as charismatic as any coach in NFL history, yet he could barely find the words. The result was an instant classic. The coach who won a national championship and two Super Bowls wasn’t the only one in tears, either.

“This is so special to me because when you put in the work that we put in,” Johnson said during Sunday’s halftime broadcast on Fox. “It’s nice to know people appreciate it.”

Perhaps most surprising was how this tearful induction marked the finest moment in the past 25 years for the Dallas Cowboys, a franchise marred by inconsistency and mediocrity, unable to recreate the success forever synonymous with Johnson at Valley Ranch. The moment was poetic justice distilled, a quarter-century after poetic injustice crippled a dynasty when Johnson unceremoniously left Dallas after a falling out with owner Jerry Jones. That one decision stands as the turning point that has haunted the team, especially Jones, ever since.

The truth is that for an entire generation of Cowboys fans, fandom is more of a family heirloom than it is due to anything the team has done on the field in the 20-plus years since Jimmy’s departure. It is a remembrance of a time when the nickname “America’s Team” carried weight or of a franchise that combined popularity and dominance so seamlessly that its only competition for cultural supremacy was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. There have been talented teams post-Jimmy — perhaps none more so yet ultimately more disappointing than this season’s team. There has been a 13-3 season here, a 12-4 campaign there and occasional divisional championships. But gut-wrenching playoff losses are the closest the franchise has come to the successes of yesteryear.

Yet revisit Jimmy’s quote. All he wanted was to know that people appreciated him. Cowboys fans love Jimmy Johnson in nearly religious fashion. Cowboys players adore Jimmy Johnson. It was deeply visceral to see Jimmy overcome with emotion and his quarterback Troy Aikman fighting back tears in the booth. Aikman’s Instagram post said that Johnson “made me better, but more importantly, made the Dallas Cowboys better,” and that Johnson, the dynasty’s architect, should’ve been the first of that group enshrined in the hall — before Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Larry Allen or, yes, Jerry Jones.

On Jan. 17, 1993, Dallas defeated the 49ers in San Francisco for the NFC championship. Jimmy, addressing his players and coaches, took the Cowboys from NFL contenders to pop culture darlings with four words. “How ’bout them Cowboys!” Johnson proclaimed as the locker room erupted, extending both arms in the air in what has become a legendary image in Cowboys lore. Jerry Jones was in the crowd, pumping his fist twice and almost immediately turning around to exit the locker room. No excitement. No emotion. Is that overanalysis? Perhaps. But it’s also an apt portrayal of how both were viewed: Jerry as the powerful owner in search of more and Jimmy as the exuberant mastermind who found just as much success coaching in the pros as he did in college at the University of Miami.



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