Johnson became a coach almost by accident. Coach Frank Broyles's Razorback staff often played host to groups of small college and high school coaches in miniclinics. Johnson so thoroughly comprehended the Hogs' defensive scheme—the whole thing, not just the linemen's assignments—that the Arkansas coaches would send him to the chalkboard to lecture. Louisiana Tech's staff was so impressed with him during one such visit that in 1965, when Tech's defensive coach had to sit out a season to recover from a heart attack, they talked Johnson, who graduated that year with a 3.2 average, into taking the post temporarily.
By the end of the 1965 season Johnson was hooked. But then he got knocked flat. In '66, Bill Peterson interviewed him for a job at Florida State, "but at the last minute," says Johnson, "he hired someone else." Jimmy jumped up, loaded Linda Kay and Brent and their belongings into a U-Haul, and went off to Picayune, Miss., to take a high school assistant's job. Because he didn't have teaching credentials, he had to monitor study hall. That's how badly he wanted to coach.
From there he plodded the assistant coach's trail from Wichita State to Iowa State to Oklahoma and back to Arkansas to work for Broyles, and there he got knocked down harder than he ever had. In 1976, Broyles decided to retire and "told the staff that he was going to make me head coach," says Johnson. But the last half of the season went badly, and Broyles, who was also the Razorbacks' athletic director, decided he needed a high-profile replacement. He hired Lou Holtz, who had been fired by the New York Jets with one game left in the '76 season.
Johnson was crushed. Jones, who was by then a prominent alumnus, could have lobbied Broyles on Johnson's behalf, but he didn't. Jones wasn't ready to invest in this promising property just yet. (Johnson now says that at age 33 he wasn't ready to be a head coach.) But Jones kept an eye on Johnson, who jumped up again and went to Pitt as Jackie Sherrill's assistant head coach.
Then, three years later, Jones made a personal investment in Johnson. An associate of Jones's in Oklahoma City, Kevin Leonard, was on the Oklahoma State selection committee that was looking for a new coach after the 1978 season. It was not a plum job, because the school was on NCAA probation and was facing additional sanctions pending the result of a new investigation. Moreover, the Oklahoma State coach had to recruit against titanic Oklahoma, then coached by Barry Switzer. The selection committee contacted Grant Teaff of Baylor, Hayden Fry of North Texas State and others, but Jones told Leonard, "The guy you ought to call is Jimmy Johnson."
Johnson took the Oklahoma State job mainly for the prestige that would come with proving himself in the Big Eight. Starting with about 50 scholarship players, as he recalls, because of probation limitations, he solicited walk-ons, patched together a team and won seven games in his first year. "It gave us some credibility," he says. But it wasn't that easy. His next three teams went 4-7, 7-5 and 4-5-2.
By 1983, after Oklahoma State had gone 8-4 and Johnson had signed blue-chip Texas high school running back Thurman Thomas, the program had turned a corner. Also in '83, Schnellenberger won the national championship at Miami and then left for the ill-fated USFL. The Hurricanes' athletic director, Sam Jankovich, went head-hunting at a coaches' convention and called Johnson aside for advice on some other coaches. Johnson said, "I wouldn't mind living on the beach, Sam."
It was more like hitting the beach. He walked into gale-force hostility from the media and the public, which resented Miami's hiring a country boy from a school that fell short of being a football power. And worse, he met resentment from Schnellenberger's old staff, which he was required to keep for one year. With the coaches divided, Miami went 8-5 in 1984 and lost its last three games notoriously: The Hurricanes led Maryland 31-0 at the half and fell 42-40 when the Terps staged what was then the biggest comeback in NCAA history; next they were beaten by Boston College 47-45 on Doug Flutie's famous Hail Mary pass; and finally they lost to UCLA 39-37 in the Fiesta Bowl.
After the season Johnson began to revamp his staff, hiring Wise and, later, Wannstedt, and Miami went 44-4 the next four years. Then the Cowboys came up for sale, and Jones finally played his hole card. "This was heart surgery for me," Jones says of buying the foundering pro team, "and I wanted to find the best heart surgeon." Friendship was a factor in hiring Johnson, but only in that Jones planned to be a hands-on owner. "I knew we could get back-to-back and work together," Jones says.
But mainly, Jones adds, "Jimmy was brought here because he'd been through adverse situations and jumped up and handled them. When we finished our first year together, I knew I'd made the right decision. I saw something during that 1-15 season that I couldn't have seen if we'd gone to the playoffs or walked into a honeymoon in Dallas."