Johnson shrugs all this off, just as he shrugs off his long-frayed relationship with Shula. The two chatted at the NFL owners' meetings, but, Johnson says, "there was tension, there is tension, there always will be tension." Part of it stems from the fact that he has Shula's job, and even more from the fact that while in Dallas, Johnson demoted Shula's son David from offensive coordinator to receivers coach. But, says Johnson, "I think it's more than that. I think it's the success we had at the University of Miami. I think it's my personality. I don't know. And I don't really care."
Yet surprisingly, Johnson didn't fire all of Shula's aides. For the third straight time, he has a legendary act to follow, and he is secure enough to know that you don't need to burn a house to its foundation before you can rebuild. He retained more than half of Shula's staff because, those who know him say, he knew those coaches would be useful. It would be a mistake to think that Johnson's two-year hiatus from coaching mellowed him. He remains proudly heartless, capable of cutting anyone off at the knees. Ask defensive end Daniel Stubbs. He played for Johnson's Hurricanes, then was shocked to find that that meant nothing when the two were reunited in Dallas. Nine games into the '91 season Johnson cut Stubbs from the Cowboys because he didn't like his work ethic. This year Johnson had to work hard to persuade Stubbs to sign with the Dolphins.
"You've just got to know the man," Stubbs says. "He's just business." Asked to explain, Stubbs laughs and compares dealing with Johnson to handling a mean animal: "He'll bite you if you don't treat him right."
If anything, Johnson's years in Dallas and his time out of coaching have whetted his appetite. "Back in college, he didn't accept losing," says free-agent quarterback Bernie Kosar, who played for Johnson at Miami and Dallas and hopes to re-sign as Marino's backup. "But I see him now, and I see it even more. I see him more focused, more committed to winning a championship. It's in his tone and in his eyes. It's not made up. You can see it bleeding from his heart."
All of which is music in Miami, where sports tickets are a hard sell unless you win big and nothing is more useless than the past. One car dealership ran a barrage of ads on local TV in April, celebrating Don Shula Appreciation Month. Obviously, someone didn't understand the market. "One of the slowest Aprils I've had," says Louis Alvarado, a manager at the dealership, Gus Machado Ford in Hialeah, "and I've been here almost nine years." Front-running fans? Johnson loves them because they are just like him. What I care about is winning now. "That statement, in essence, is Miami," Johnson says. "They want to talk about today and tomorrow."
Mostly they want to talk about Johnson and how he's going to make the Dolphins a power again, how he's the best there is and how, quite soon, he and his team will be collecting Super Bowl trophy after Super Bowl trophy. Jimmy Johnson hears all that. "And I think they're right," he says.