for ambiguity"--his phrase--is high enough to register somewhere between
impudence and daredevilry. Where else would you put it? When the big oil
companies, who are hardly in the business of prudence, abandoned their dry
holes in the late '60s, it was Jerry Jones who offered to lease their failures.
He barely understood their caution anyway. Spending $14 million to drill, say,
18,000 feet and then just walking away because of something called budget--was
that any way to find oil or gas? "Unthinkable," he says. "That's
independent operator and not answerable to anything like budget, kept drilling,
and who knows how many times he embarrassed the big oil companies with his
finds. A dry hole, after all, is simply a gusher without conviction. Jones,
then as now, supplied all the conviction necessary. Maybe if he hadn't made 12
strikes in his first 13 tries--drilling between dry holes in Oklahoma's Red
Fork Wells--he'd have had less of it. Then again, we're talking about a guy
who, as a 23-year-old in 1966, nearly bought the San Diego Chargers from Barron
Hilton with money he didn't have. ( Jones had arranged for a letter of credit
from a labor union.) "You sure are young," Hilton told Jones, who was
born with all the conviction he'd ever require.
But let's not make
him sound pathological, either, as if he lacked a mortal's ability to recognize
consequence. He never actually drilled to the center of the earth for oil, and
the times he came close he sweated it. When he pledged his wealth and all
receivables to buy the floundering Dallas Cowboys-- America's Team or not, this
was a failing outfit in 1989--he needed two hands to steady a cup of coffee.
Who wouldn't? In those days Dallas was the epicenter for one of the oil
industry's worst depressions. Oil, to the extent that anyone was bothering to
look for it, was $10 a barrel. Titans were being wiped out, banks closed,
skyscrapers shuttered. Loans were being sold for a nickel on the dollar. Why
did the Cowboys, the one club for which Jones would revisit his childhood dream
of owning an NFL team, have to come up for sale when there was blood on the
Of course his
hands shook. Even beyond the economic climate, the deal was punishing, a
sophisticated form of extortion, really. It was bad enough that he had to pay a
$65 million for the Cowboys (quite literally America's Team, considering the
federal government owned 12% of the franchise after a lending bank failed). The
team was not very good, and, after three losing seasons, home sellouts were
even harder to come by than victories. But--here's the extortion part--he was
forced to absorb the $75�million leasing rights on Texas Stadium as well.
(The total purchase price was a record for an NFL team.) In those days NFL
stadiums were essentially rentals, some place you visited on Sundays. They had
no income or marketing worth to NFL owners.
He had to have
those Cowboys, though. He was no longer that 23-year-old "turnip" (as
he says) but a fairly wealthy businessman. He'd only recently celebrated a
strike that would produce--understand, this was one well--$80 million toward
his interests. That was not the sort of fortune to be frittered away on a
hobby, a college kid's whim. He'd moved beyond that fantasy. He was 46! But
that April morning, on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, having decided to forgo a
fishing trip on account of too much tequila the night before, he rattled his
newspaper open to see that the Cowboys were for sale. And he knew he might be
in trouble. "The Cowboys were my devil," he says. It was the one team,
the only franchise, that could tempt him at this point in his life. Oh, he was
in trouble, all right!
The deal done,
Jones barely had time to count the empty suites, consider the previous season's
3-13 record, bemoan the NFL's failure to negotiate improved TV contracts and
get over the surprising fact that the Cowboys had lost $9.5�million on
just $41�million in revenues the year before, when the bills began to come
in. They totaled $105,000 a day. "If you want to get motivated," Jones
suggests, "strap that on."
O.K., that was
then, and now here's Jones in his splendid office at Valley Ranch in Irving,
the three Super Bowl trophies always in his line of sight. He's fit and trim
(down 60 pounds), a ball of energy at 64, impossibly charming, and when it
comes to enthusiasm, a carrier. Things turned out, more or less, even after he
fired a legend, got sued by the NFL and kept hiring old Razorbacks to coach the
Cowboys. That pitiful team he bought is valued by Forbes at $1.2�billion
(shades of Red Fork!), and he has turned that albatross of a stadium into his
biggest revenue producer. But what's the fun of this business, really, if your
hands aren't shaking?
"Let's go see
the stadium," Jones says, and we're off in a black Town Car to 140 acres of
mud within sight of the Texas Rangers' Ballpark at Arlington. This is the
latest, possibly the greatest, edifice to be constructed for the people's
entertainment in this great land of ours, maybe the final frontier in
sports-related architecture. Glass panels 120 feet high will open at each end
for autumn breezes, a roof will retract at night to reveal that iconic hole
familiar to Texas Stadium (and close during the day to maintain a sensible
temperature), the glass skin will produce a shimmering effect. It's all
concrete and cranes for now, naming rights are still up for bid, and the place
won't be open for business until 2009, but it's undeniably a doozy. At the site
the lead contractor explains how the four concrete buttresses that support the
two quarter-mile steel arches running lengthwise are sunk as deep as 70 feet.
Oh, and the Statue of Liberty would fit under the roof, the torch not even
singeing the trusses.
Jones, who did not
answer to budget here any more than he did in the Oklahoma oil fields, did not
stint on anything, even when the original cost of $650�million ballooned
to $1�billion. The city of Arlington's share was capped at
$325�million, meaning that Jones pays for every add-on doodad--such as two
60-yard-wide flat screens hanging over the field--out of his pocket, 100%.
"And I'm an adder-oner," he says.
It turns out Jones
is a bit of a stadium freak as well, going way back. Before playing Nebraska in
the 1965 Cotton Bowl, his Arkansas team stayed in Houston and got a tour of the
new Astrodome. "When we saw that thing--glistening--I couldn't stand
it," he says. "It sucked the air right out of you." Many years
later (he won't say when because it embarrasses him to admit how old he was on
his first visit to New York City) Jones paid a cab driver to take him to Yankee
Stadium first thing. He got out, touched it and returned to business.