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From The Heart
Peter King
January 22, 1996
Jimmy Johnson defied logic in choosing Miami over ascendant Tampa Bay
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January 22, 1996

From The Heart

Jimmy Johnson defied logic in choosing Miami over ascendant Tampa Bay

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Too late now. Unless Green, defensive end Trace Armstrong, defensive tackle Steve Emtman, linebacker Chris Singleton, tackle Ron Heller and safety Gene Atkins are significantly more effective in the future than they were in 1995, they will be financial weights that could hinder Johnson for years. And unless Johnson can re-sign cornerback Troy Vincent and guard Keith Sims, Miami will have big holes that may have to be filled with Wal-Mart players.

As he did in Dallas, Johnson believes he can make up for some potential losses with low-budget free-agent signings (James Washington) and mid-to late-round (Leon Lett, Larry Brown) finds in the draft. Johnson and his staff will hit the road in late winter to scout players at 30 to 35 schools. In addition to checking on prospects' football aptitude, they will investigate such off-field factors as drug histories and attitude problems.

Johnson apparently has already done a bit of homework. "At Fox this year," he said, "most of the guys on the set would go back [to a lounge] to watch the games. I'd sit on the set, and they'd roll out a bank of TVs. I'd put sound from one game in one ear and sound from another game in the other, and I'd go from game to game, watching every one. So I think I have a better view of the league than I ever had when I was in Dallas. I know the players better, I know the trends better. So I think I'll be a better coach than I ever was."

On the two-hour drive with girlfriend Rhonda Rookmaaker to last Wednesday's 10 a.m. meeting, Johnson was pensive. He was so enthused about the prospect of being offered the Miami job that he had dismissed the thought of going to Tampa. "This is a pretty big deal," he told Rookmaaker. "If I don't get the Dolphin job, I'll never coach again."

Huizenga and his front-office point man, general manager Eddie Jones, had prepared a two-page list of more than 20 issues they wanted to discuss with Johnson, but they didn't plan to talk money that day. Huizenga surprised Johnson by telling him, "I want a coach I can enjoy winning with. I want to be your friend. There's no money in sports, so I have to have other reasons to be in it. I'm not Jerry [Jones]. I'm not a hands-on owner. I'm not going to bug you a lot—we might talk once or twice each week during the season—but I have to have a relationship with the man running my team, or it's not going to work."

The owner wanted to be his friend, not his working peer and football adviser, as Jones had been—with disastrous consequences for Johnson—in Dallas. This was good, Johnson thought. Johnson was also surprised to hear Huizenga say a couple of times that he was willing to "turn over the keys of the franchise." So soon into the meeting, and he already wants me to be the guy with total authority?

Huizenga wanted to hear that Johnson still had the fire to build a winner. "Why don't you take the easy road, Jimmy?" Huizenga said. "You're a hero, with two Super Bowl rings. You have the credentials to second-guess everybody, work a couple of days a week and do almost as well financially as you could in coaching. Why take a job where, immediately, you'll be under so much pressure?"

"I have a passion for the game," Johnson said. "I want to win. I love the adrenaline rush of the game."

Then he added, "I need to win." Huizenga loved that.

By 12:30 p.m. they had covered everything, and Huizenga knew he wanted to offer the job to Johnson. First, he had to make a phone call. Huizenga had taken great pains to keep Shula informed about the coaching search, though it had been awkward. Shula and Johnson have had a chilly relationship dating back to 1991, when Johnson demoted Shula's son David from offensive coordinator to receivers coach of the Cowboys. That relationship turned downright cold this season when Dolphin fans noisily campaigned for the legendary Shula to be replaced by Johnson.

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