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The King of Texas
July 16, 2007
In his biggest gamble yet, wildcat owner Jerry Jones is spending a billion dollars on a new stadium--a shrine to his Cowboys and a 100,000-seat symbol of his reign over the NFL's marquee franchise
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July 16, 2007

The King Of Texas

In his biggest gamble yet, wildcat owner Jerry Jones is spending a billion dollars on a new stadium--a shrine to his Cowboys and a 100,000-seat symbol of his reign over the NFL's marquee franchise

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Jones is mindful that his critics might see a hillbilly pharaoh throwing up his pyramid. He knows it's useless to deny a vanity at work, even if he can't quite acknowledge it himself. "It's healthy," he says, "because it causes you to go the extra mile." All those people out there, who can't quite think of something to do on their own, will have a place to go and cheer together because a maniac owner went overboard with some blueprints. The pharaohs had to wait for centuries, and an unanticipated travel industry, before their monuments had any real utility. You can buy a suite from Jones right now and watch the Boys on a 60-yard big screen in just two years.

What Jones really feels, he says, is responsibility. He says over and over, in a variety of ways, that he's never felt like the owner of the Cowboys but rather a caretaker. The stadium is a little different because it's going to be hulking out there, a reflection of his taste for decades. The financial overhang is minor in comparison; Jones is too sharp a businessman to get hurt here. (He was buying scrap-metal futures before construction to hedge against price increases.) It's really about the Cowboys. That's where it started for him, and that's where it will end.

From the beginning, there have been rough patches. Jones earned widespread enmity, in Texas and beyond, by firing iconic coach Tom Landry upon purchasing the Cowboys, replacing him with Jimmy Johnson, a former Arkansas teammate. Though Johnson won a Super Bowl in his fourth season and another one in his fifth, in the end fared no better than Landry, in the sense that he left, too. Jones then hired Barry Switzer, one of his Razorbacks coaches, and wrung a Super Bowl out of him, but the Cowboys have been in a state of decline since, not having won a playoff game, let alone a championship, in more than 10 years. The great Bill Parcells got Jones within a botched snap of a playoff win last year, but . . . still. Parcells chose not to go through that again, and he's been replaced by Wade Phillips, whose legend is lightweight in comparison. Jones, as you might expect, has gotten smacked around a bit since the Super Bowl years and in 2001 was surprised to see his face on the cover of Texas Monthly with horns sprouting from his head.

The middling failures since those triumphs have left him open to even more criticism, especially as he intends to stay as hands-on as ever. When the owner is going to coaches' meetings, watching tape of practices when he might otherwise be attending to the fortunes of the nearly 2,000 wells he still has interests in, and pacing up and down the sideline during games, he can be characterized as a meddler. "Jerry's a polarizing figure here," says former quarterback Babe Laufenberg, who played for the Cowboys when Jones bought the team in 1989 and now chronicles them for the CBS affiliate in Dallas- Fort Worth and on radio broadcasts. "He's obviously out front. I don't know if there's a more visible owner in the league. I mean, he has his own [TV] show."

As owner--and general manager--Jones doesn't feel the need to step back. (Although he made a big show of turning over the reins when Parcells came on board, we'll see what he does with someone less headstrong.) He says things like, "I didn't have to build a new stadium; I was happy just coaching football." Jerry, did you just say "coaching?" Caught, he says, "I was just being playful." But why would he step back? He's given the fans three Super Bowls. Sometimes, he says, when the criticism becomes too much, he'll snap, "I'm sorry I can't win you one every year."

The reason he's a meddler, of course, is that he really thinks he can win one every year. Gone is the arrogance from those early seasons when he said any one of 500 coaches could win Super Bowls with the players he assembled ("Whiskey talking," he said later). But it hasn't been replaced with the humility you'd expect from an owner whose stadium might get into a Super Bowl before his team. You know, no such thing as a dry hole. Tony Romo could be the real deal after all, and, well, the Boys are back in business, right? His enthusiasm is unreal.

If Jones is charging into an uncertain future, as we all are but with smaller stakes, he at least has the comfort of a place in Dallas history. In February, Michael Irvin, an artifact of those glory years, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Irvin dumbfounded Jones by asking the owner to present him at the Aug. 4 induction ceremony. It makes you wonder about the loneliness of these men at the top when Jones says, "I can count on one hand the times I've been that happy." So, in a back-at-you kind of way, Jones threw a party for Irvin, renting the Ghost Bar high atop the W Hotel in downtown Dallas and inviting anybody with any possible link to Cowboys greatness for a night of drinks and snacks. While four cheerleaders danced go-go style and TV screens replayed games from the '90s, alums pressed through the crowd, clacking longnecks with former teammates. Troy Aikman hugged Daryl Johnston, who hugged Emmitt Smith--all remnants of that first, innocent flush of glory. Irvin, predictably late, caused a flash-popping frenzy, even in this crowd. Not many people, you have to admit, can share what they could. Jones just glowed.

If you were driven to catch some air in this ceremonial melee, you might have escaped to the balcony, which, 33 floors above Texas, had a vertiginous view of new skyscrapers--not shuttered ones--and about a million square miles of twinkling sprawl, as far as the eye could see. Who knows how many people (most of them fans probably) each light in the distance represents? It is Texas. But after enough drinks and snacks it made you think. You wonder if Jones, however secure in his ambitions, could bear to endure this dark vista, to see such responsibility spread before him, to see all those people wanting to be entertained, demanding satisfaction.

Well, this isn't for everybody, is it?

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