The Dallas Cowboys had just crushed the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, and Cowboy owner Jerry Jones was hugging his coach, Jimmy Johnson. The Best Buddies from Arkansas were already legendary: Roommates and teammates in college, as the story went, they had planned to one day win an NFL championship together. And now here they were, before 750 million viewers around the world, locked in triumphant embrace.
In the Rose Bowl locker room NBC's Bob Costas asked Jones what had been the key move in lifting the Cowboys from the depths of their 1-15 season in 1989, the year Jones bought the team. "I hired Jimmy Johnson," Jones said quickly. But when photographers asked the Buddies from Arkansas to hold the Super Bowl trophy together, Jones pulled it from Johnson's grasp and thrust it aloft in his right hand. Johnson's smile changed from ecstasy to bemusement. Still, he wasn't going to let anything spoil the way he felt.
Later, at the Cowboys' victory party at the Santa Monica Civic Center, Johnson was uncontrollably happy. Very late that night several people thought they saw him actually kiss Jones on the cheek.
It appeared that the Cowboys had started a trend—the coach and the owner-president-general manager in constant communication, teaming up to handle holdouts, close key deals and make difficult free-agent decisions. Yet, while the JJ's were viewed by some as the hot new model for success in the NFL of the '90s, at times during the 1992 season it wasn't at all clear that they were even a model for success in Dallas. Only a month before the Super Bowl, in fact, the relationship between Jones and Johnson, both 50, seemed stretched to the breaking point. The occasion was the Cowboys' regular-season finale, on Dec. 27 against the Chicago Bears.
As the third quarter of that game ended, an entourage paraded out of the locker room tunnel at Texas Stadium. The group included Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. and one of the most powerful men in the Middle East. Prince Bandar, 42, is also one of the world's biggest Cowboy fans. Jones and the ambassador—Jones just calls him Bandar—have become buddies. They share a passion for oil, gas and football. At Texas Stadium, Bandar, surrounded by six bodyguards, was led to the field by Jones, who had become one of the most powerful men in Dallas and in the NFL. Many in the rowdy crowd of 63,101 gave the owner a standing roar. What a moment this was for Jones. Four years earlier he had been the most hated man in Texas, the Man Who Fired Tom Landry. But now his team was leading the Bears 27-0. Having clinched the NFC East, Jones's Cowboys were about to win their 13th game, something no Cowboy team had ever done, even under Landry.
In '89 Jones had come from nowhere—well, Arkansas—to buy the team. He had hired his "best friend" Jimmy Johnson to replace the legendary Landry, and together that year they led the NFL in ridicule received. Johnson had come to the Cowboys straight from the University of Miami, with no NFL experience, and was immediately dismissed as a "college coach" by Philadelphia Eagle coach Buddy Ryan. "There ain't no East Carolinas on his schedule now," Ryan said with a chuckle. Jones was nicknamed Jethro by fans and media critics, who considered him the NFL equivalent of a Beverly Hillbilly. Before that first season was six weeks old, Jones and Johnson traded the team's only superstar, tailback Herschel Walker. They turned the Cowboys upside down. They didn't just disregard the NFL's how-to manual, they buried it. Now, in December '92, they were Super Bowl contenders.
"This," Jones said before escorting Prince Bandar onto the field, "is going to be the greatest story ever told. We're just on the second or third chapter of Gone with the Wind here. We are going to win Super Bowls." Plural.
What a sight it was: Jones parading up the sideline, pumping both fists to the crowd. "Ca-boys!" he yelled again and again in his Arkansas twang. Jones had become a chicken-fried piper to thousands of new-breed Cowboy fans. In three years he had attracted 20,000 new season-ticket holders with an average age of 30 (when he bought the team, the average age of all season-ticket holders was 55). Now the crowd was raising the roof on a stadium that didn't have one. What a day this was to be a Cowboy fan.
This, however, was not a good day to be a Cowboy player or assistant coach. Within the hour the locker room roof would be raised by Johnson. He would chew out his team for the third straight week. Johnson, a control freak, appeared to be out of control. The two assistants he called his "best friends," defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt and offensive-line coach Tony Wise, both thought that Johnson had "lost it." At the very least, many players found his behavior irrational, uncalled for and meanspirited.
Why would a coach blow up over a blowout victory? A series of events, any one of which might have put Johnson on edge, combined that afternoon to push him over it. One was a pair of fumbles lost by backup running back Curvin Richards, the second of which was returned 42 yards for a Bear touchdown that cut the Cowboy lead to 27-14 with 9:19 remaining; the other was the arrival of Jones with Bandar and his bodyguards. While Johnson seethed, Jones and the prince were congratulating players in the bench area.