It was happy hour on a recent afternoon in a popular restaurant in Valley Ranch, the Dallas suburb that has the Cowboys' ultramodern practice facility and offices as its hub. Johnson was having a beer with Rhonda Rookmaaker, his girlfriend, but even more, "my buddy," he says. She's clever, and their relationship is largely a merry duel of wits and one-liners. They live three blocks apart, in a posh development about a Troy Aikman-to-Michael Irvin bomb from the Cowboys' training complex.
Yeah, Jimmy Johnson's got it like probably a lot of middle-aged American guys would love to have it. Some guys go through mid-life crisis. Jimmy is in mid-life bliss. "At least I'm not criticized for being phony," he says. "I'm just selfish." He pours another beer over ice and, acknowledging the black-hat raps, especially from his days at Miami, where he was perceived as the leader of a band of renegade players, says, "I'm not a bad man."
That, it is pointed out to Johnson, makes him sound like the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy pulled back the curtain, found a mere man there and said, "You're a bad, bad man," he replied, "I'm a very good man. I'm just not a very good wizard."
Johnson is amused by the analogy. "I won't even go so far as to tell you I'm a good man," he says. "But I am a pretty good wizard."
Earlier that afternoon, at the first day of minicamp, Johnson had spotted his Tin Man. ("Poor son of a bitch," Johnson says of the movie character, "didn't even know he had a heart till somebody told him. That's my job.") Rookie cornerback Clayton Holmes, a third-round draft choice out of little Carson-Newman College, was walking meekly off the Cowboy practice field, obviously awed by his surroundings. "Hey, Clayton, I saw you doing some really good things out there," said Johnson, out of the blue, from his seat on a bench near the locker-room entrance. Holmes looked up, surprised that Johnson even knew his name.
"Got a lot to learn, Coach," said Holmes.
"We think you can play here. We like you."
Well, you should have seen Holmes's face.
"Now," Johnson asks at happy hour, "how was he going to know he really can make this team unless somebody told him?"
Push enough buttons, and a pretty good wizard can go from 1-15 in his rookie season in the NFL to 7-9 and Coach of the Year the next season. Push a few more buttons, and the following year he goes 11-5, delivering on a preseason promise to Cowboy fans that Dallas would make the playoffs in 1991. Now Johnson is the toast of Texas, and "the people who were so ugly before, now they're licking his shoes, and you just want to go uh!" says Rhonda, pretending to smack someone across the face.