Johnson divorces himself from all but task at hand

John Steadman

January 28, 1993|By John Steadman

LOS ANGELES -- Some of football's most successful coaches have been more than a bit off-center, meaning they forgot it's still a game and attached a larger-than-life importance to what it is they are doing. Winning becomes an unrelenting lust, a passion, an obsession that takes control of their mind and personality.

Jimmy Johnson, the leader of the Dallas Cowboys, could become the only coach to ever earn a national college championship and also a Super Bowl, depending on the outcome of Sunday's match with the Buffalo Bills. Obviously, his qualifications are superb.

Suffice to say, Johnson is a paradox. He's hard to read, which makes him an intriguing study when it comes to trying to decide what it is that makes him tick. A Frank Leahy and a Woody Hayes, to mention only two coaches, were blindly motivated to where the usual priorities were somewhat jolted out of balance.

A man's personal life is his private domain. That's a given, so there will be no attempt to invade it, except that Johnson has expressed himself openly on subjects that normally don't reach the ears of listening sportswriters.

He said the need for having a wife was minimized when he left the University of Miami and began coaching pro football. Johnson explained a wife was more important to a college coach because of the numerous social functions he must attend.

Thus Mrs. Johnson became his "ex" and she doesn't live in Texas. Divorced after 25 years. Maybe Jimmy was using that as an excuse to walk away, but it happened. He says he has "the kind of relationship with his two sons [both adults] that any father would like to have."

Meanwhile, his parents aren't coming to the Super Bowl. Earlier, he was understood to imply they were something of a distraction. Imagine. But yesterday this reporter wanted to hear from Johnson if this was indeed the case.

"I talked to my parents," he replied, "and we thought it best they not be here. They're up in years, although they wouldn't like me saying it. They'll be home watching, cheering on television."

Any way you measure Jimmy Johnson, he can teach football. Achievement came in his first head coaching job, Oklahoma State (where he recruited quarterback Jim Traber, who later became an Oriole) and then at the University of Miami, where he won a national title in 1987 with a collection of talented players, many of whom never could have been nominated for good conduct medals.

When Johnson arrived in Dallas, he was interviewed by Bernie Miklasz, a sports columnist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He gave Miklasz some extraordinary comments, insisting that football was the most important thing in his life.

"Even ahead of your family?" he was asked. "Football is No. 1 in my life," Miklasz remembers him replying. "My family is No. 2. If anyone wants to get close to me they have to honor that."

Johnson further admits he never proceeds down the middle of the road on any subject. "I'm extreme one way or the other." Obviously, he knows himself even if the rest of the world looks on at Johnson and wonders.

His mother and father said Jimmy likes to be called "at the office," which is another unusual stipulation. Usually, if there's a preference, it's the other way around: Reach him at home.

Johnson, reflecting about games past, went back to the 1988 season when Miami was 11-0 and then lost the Fiesta Bowl to Penn State. "I felt that was the best college team that ever played the game," but, even though Miami had superior ability, it found a way to lose.

Then after climbing the heights at Miami he left in 1989, when he made his bow in the NFL with a mark of 1-15. Despite the dismal debut, Johnson said he had no doubt he'd be successful.

"We expected that kind of a season. We released a couple players who could have helped us win one or two more games, but we were looking ahead."

The improvement was to come in a hurry as the Cowboys moved to 7-9 in 1990, 11-5 in 1991, 13-3 this year, plus two more victories in the playoffs. When comparisons are made with his Cowboys predecessor, Tom Landry, he says, "Everybody has respect for him and I'm one of 'em. But people, deep down, wanted a change."

So the Cowboys, instead of America's Team, became Johnson's team. He's a coaching machine. But it would be insightful if he'd psychoanalyze himself. His degree is in psychology so he's academically equipped to make the study.

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