Tony Wise, the Cowboy offensive line coach, and Johnson go way back; they hooked up as assistants at Pitt in 1977 and have worked together almost every year since. Still, every few weeks, Wise comes up feeling like the Scarecrow did at the end of The Wizard of Oz. "Jimmy doesn't get in drills, and so many people have viewed that as a real chink in his armor—that he lets his people work," says Wise. "But he's fantastic at coming by, dropping hints, getting me thinking. Two weeks later I'll say, 'Jeez, Jimmy, I think we ought to do such-and-such.' And he'll say, 'That's a hell of an idea, Tony.' "
"Jimmy is a very shrewd man," says Irvin, who has played for Johnson in both Miami and Dallas and is the Lion of sorts in this scenario. "He'll make you do some things you don't want to do, and you know you don't want to do them, but for some reason you'll do them and enjoy it."
Irvin, who had an All-Pro season in 1991 with an NFC-high 93 receptions, was perceived at Miami as the quintessential Hurricane hot dog, who, among other things, ran right up into the Orange Bowl bleachers after a touchdown catch. Johnson was regarded as the guy who turned those hot dogs and other assorted hell-raisers loose on the rest of the country. The Miami players really stirred things up before the 1986 national championship game, in the Fiesta Bowl against clean-cut Penn State. Some Hurricane players wore camouflage fatigues as they deplaned in Tempe, Ariz.; all of them walked out of a steak fry honoring both teams; and during pregame warmups some Miami players swore at Penn State players and coaches. When Penn State coach Joe Paterno's "good kids" won the game 14-10, Middle America cheered.
Johnson cuts to the bottom line when he talks of the resentment that built up against his Miami teams. "We had a lot of black players out front," he says. "I think a lot of the resentment came that way. The black players knew that, and the black players knew how I felt. I don't know that there was racism involved in the resentment, but there was some ignorance involved—people who have had few dealings with other ethnic groups. I mean real relationships, not getting somebody to clean your house."
Does Johnson genuinely have such a great rapport with his players? "With the blacks? Yes!" says Irvin. "He'll sit there and listen—I mean, really listen. You know he's in your corner, no matter how the media caves in on you. It takes the load off. Then when you go on the field and the man says, 'I want you to run down there, catch that ball and run into that wall,' who are you to say no? You say, 'O.K., Coach, you were there for me, and now I'm going to give it up for you.' And you run into the wall."
At Miami, Johnson was "such a father," says Irvin. "We'd have these Thursday-night meetings where he would go around the room to each individual, and you had to tell him what you planned on doing in 10 years. He wouldn't let you say football. And you had to tell him what you were doing toward that goal.
"Now it's just football," Irvin says of the relationship between coach and player in the NFL. "I know he loves football, but I think he misses being that fatherly figure to so many kids."
"I don't want to lose the feeling I have for players," says Johnson, "but the pro system almost causes you to be cold and insensitive, when you have to release players yearly."
But the tough personnel moves that have to be made in the NFL also offer Johnson an opportunity to work his wizardry. And never has he been more of a wiz than when he instigated the famous Herschel Walker deal in October 1989. While jogging with his assistants during a lunch break, "Jimmy was talking about what we could do to get this thing turned quicker," says defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who also hooked up with Johnson for the first time at Pitt. "What did we have of value on the club?"
The answer was easy: Walker, who rushed for 1,514 yards and caught 53 passes for 505 yards the year before, was the only Pro Bowl player Dallas had left. But Johnson doesn't believe in building an offense around one player. Besides, he sensed something in Walker. "Jimmy's into all that psychology baloney," says Wise, forgetting how well it works on Wise himself. "Jimmy said, 'I'm concerned about whether Herschel's heart is in it for the long run.' " And so to the shock of his assistants running beside him, Johnson decided he would try to deal Walker for a package of players and draft picks.