DALLAS -- It happened late Sunday afternoon after the Dallas Cowboys had surprised the Chicago Bears in their first-round NFC playoff: One of the first callers to the Cowboys' post-game talk show was laughing about Jimmy Johnson's famous immovable hair.
"The guy is in the Windy City, right?" the caller said. "And his hair doesn't budge the whole game? Give me a break with this hair."
It was almost a nostalgic moment, if there can be 2-year-old nostalgia about hair spray. Two years ago, when the Cowboys went 1-15 in Johnson's rookie year as head coach, not a day passed without people in Dallas and the NFL telling hair jokes.
Few could resist the sight gag of this cocky college coach, in his bouffant, getting walloped every week. ("Did you hear about the brick that fell on Jimmy's head? You're right, you didn't. The brick was afraid to fall.")
No more. Hair jokes are indisputably out in Dallas and the NFL, limited to the occasional, nostalgic talk show caller. Johnson has silenced everyone by directing the Cowboys' startling reinvention as one of the league's major players.
Why, it is such a copycat league that, if the Cowboys keep winning, other coaches might start showing up on the sidelines with a high, dry Jimmy 'do. (Ditka to hairdresser: "Stack it and spray it, baby.")
OK, OK, no more hair jokes. They're officially dated now that the Cowboys have beaten the Redskins, Eagles and Bears on the road, won six straight, returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 and advanced to this weekend's NFC semifinals, playing the Detroit Lions.
No longer does anyone laugh about a haircut replacing Tom Landry. In the three years since he left the University of Miami, Johnson has done more than just demonstrate he knows what he is doing. He is the NFL's most powerful coach. No other has such control of his fate.
It happens because his best pal, Jerry Jones, owns the team, and Jerry has made Jimmy a king. The Cowboys have no general manager. Johnson's voice is the loudest on trades and draft picks. He gets his way on just about everything. Anyone who complains is on the next plane to Seattle.
Initial skepticism was loud because most teams believe in some division of power. But Johnson has wisely used, not abused, his power. He has traded players for draft picks and picks for players in a true frenzy, cut lazy starters, made some four-dozen deals and elevated his team's talent tenfold.
"He has fooled some people who have been around longer, and that is not easy," Mike Ditka said before the Cowboys beat his Bears. "He's done an excellent job."
The centerpiece was trading Herschel Walker to the Vikings for a trainload of players and picks. Walker went bust and the Cowboys have gotten at least nine players from the deal, among them Emmitt Smith, this year's league rushing champion. It is perhaps the most lopsided trade in NFL history.
With Smith, receiver Michael Irvin, quarterback Troy Aikman and a handful of draft picks in pocket, the Cowboys were marked as a comer. But few expected the coming to begin now. Thus has Johnson demonstrated he can coach in the NFL, not just make deals.
The Cowboys are not a complete team yet. Their pass defense is susceptible and their offensive line is young. But they have won six straight with Johnson and his top assistants flat-out out-coaching people.
They surprised the Redskins with first-down passes and an all-out blitz. Against the Bears they staged three goal-line stands using a new six-man front to which the Bears didn't adjust. The offense is a waste-free marvel, with Smith and Irvin gaining some 70 percent of the yards since November.
The upbeat attitude comes straight from Johnson. "He preaches having no fear," offensive tackle John Gesek said. "People said we were too young to win in Washington and Philly, but his attitude was, 'Why?' "
So the team of the future is winning now, and in a way it makes the NFL whole again to have the Cowboys back. They are the league's glamour franchise, for years ranked first in sales of shirts, hats and jackets. They'd slipped to 19th by last year, but now they're going to finish fifth or sixth in 1991.
Naturally, it's all over the papers and talk shows here, things just like they used to be in many ways except one: the nature of the team. Gone is the computer cool Landry engendered, replaced by the swagger Johnson made famous at Miami.
It takes a little getting used to, the lordly Cowboys gone rowdy, but now everyone here is buying it. Soon they won't even remember they used to tell all those hair jokes.