Johnson first heard about Marino in the late '70s, while he was an assistant at Pitt, where Marino attended football camps as a high school quarterback. The only time the two met in a game came in 1989, during Johnson's woeful 1-15 inaugural season in Dallas. Just before halftime the Cowboys sacked Marino, and time seemed to run out. But the referee—"my old buddy Jerry Markbreit," Marino says with a laugh—asked if Marino had wanted to call timeout. "If it had been any other quarterback, they wouldn't have put those seconds back," Johnson says. On the next play Marino tossed the usual miracle touchdown pass. Miami went on to win 17-14.
However, while Johnson respects Marino's talent, he is isn't awed by it. Unlike Shula, whose depth chart at times seemed arranged as much by salary as by accomplishment, Johnson has a history of disregarding star power when game time rolls around. Marino had a typically excellent season in 1995—3,668 yards passing, 24 touchdowns, a 90.8 quarterback rating—but he turns 35 in September. The Shula regime discussed a six-year deal with Marino, whose contract was to expire after the 1996 season, but Johnson wanted none of that. He figures Marino is capable of only a few more years at a high level before the decline begins. He is also wary of long-term deals because of the adverse effect they can have on a team's management of the salary cap. So last month, Johnson signed his future Hall of Famer for only three years (at $5.91 million per) with the message as clear as water: Nobody, not even Marino, slides by on reputation.
"That's part of football, and that's what makes it great: the competition," Marino says. "Even though I've proven myself, now I've got to prove myself again to another coach. I look forward to that challenge."
Not that Johnson is fool enough to treat Marino like an ordinary player. When the two sat down for the first time in January, Johnson took pains to explain himself, his system. He spelled out how he wanted to take the focus of the offense off Marino by running the ball more, how that could add years to his career. He and Marino will have these talks often. He needs his quarterback on board. "I can't have him questioning the way we do things," Johnson says. "He almost has to have blind loyalty."
Marino wants only one thing in return: a championship. "I'm excited about playing for him," Marino says. "I've had a chance to play 13 years in the league, and I've set a lot of records. I've had a great career. But I haven't won a Super Bowl." Marino told Johnson he didn't care if he threw only 10 passes a game, as long as the Dolphins won. Johnson told him of his three-year plan for pinning the NFL under his heel again. "That's what I wanted to hear," Marino says.
What Marino liked even better was that Johnson wasn't dressing up his own hunger for a Super Bowl as some kind of phony, win-it-for-Danny-Boy quest. "Who's kidding who?" Johnson says. "The reality is, you like to win it for yourself."
After a season in which he broke the NFL career records for passing yards, touchdown passes and completions, only to find those achievements tasting like ashes because he reached each milestone during a loss, Marino can appreciate such naked need. This early in the honeymoon he's willing to see beauty in almost anything Johnson does. "He just says what he believes," Marino says. "What's wrong with that? Nothing."
Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in South Florida with anything bad to say about Johnson. His hiring was so important that when the news broke, local TV stations interrupted a live press conference being given by the President of the United States. Now a team that was wiped out in the first round of the '95 playoffs, lost three defensive stars and spent its first draft pick on a project (defensive tackle Daryl Gardener) is predicting it will increase its season-ticket sales by 5,000, up to 58,000. For the moment, anyway, the mere mention of Johnson's name inspires gushing.
"I've met a lot of great, famous people in my time, but I've never been as overwhelmed as when I met Jimmy Johnson," says Dolphins tackle Ron Heller. "Normally you have to feel a coach out, find out what he's trying to get out of you. But I had such an open communication and a feeling of ease with him. I honestly felt like I'd had a brush with greatness."
Johnson was no legend when he arrived at the University of Miami in 1984. He was fresh from guiding an obscure program at Oklahoma State when he stepped into the shoes of '83 national-title winner Howard Schnellenberger. Johnson was so concerned about living up to Schnellenberger's standard that, he later admitted, he allowed the Hurricanes assistants he inherited to intimidate him. The one he remembers most vividly was Miami's defensive coordinator, Tom Olivadotti, who quit shortly after Johnson arrived. In January, at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Johnson fired a slew of Shula's assistants on the field in front of other NFL coaches. Olivadotti, who had spent the past nine years as Shula's defensive coordinator, was among the first to go.