Johnson's quest no guarantee of success

January 12, 1996|By John Eisenberg

Jimmy Johnson didn't need more money. He already had enough to live out a good and high life in his beloved Florida Keys.

He didn't need any more championships rings, either. He already had two from his days with the Dallas Cowboys and one from his days with the Miami Hurricanes. That's more than any coach should expect.

So, why did Johnson return to NFL coaching yesterday as Don Shula's replacement in Miami? Because one part of him was still unsatisfied.

His ego.

Oh, sure, there are other reasons underlying his decision. He is a coach at heart, not a broadcaster, clearly more comfortable participating than commenting. As easy and lucrative as TV work is, it satisfies neither his competitive urges nor his ego.

And remember, Shula's job is the one he has wanted for more than a decade. He is a native Texan who fell in love with the combustible melting pot of South Florida, and he'll be crowned king there if he restores the Dolphins' glory. It is what he wants most in life.

The pieces of this puzzle just fit too well for Johnson to say no. But the biggest piece was this: Even with all the success he has had, he wants more.

He wants to stand alone at the top of the profession. Become the ultimate definition of success.

He wants it because he is so close to it that he can almost touch it. The temptation is just too great.

If he can turn one last trick and remake the bloated, underachieving Dolphins into a Super Bowl winner, he'll probably go down as the greatest football coach ever. Certainly the most accomplished.

Question: What coach has built one champion in college and two champions in the pros?

Answer: No coach.

Question: Which of the modern icons -- Brown, Lombardi, Walsh, Noll, Landry, Gibbs -- has won Super Bowls with different teams?

Answer: None.

In that sense, Johnson can outdo them all with another Super Bowl win in Miami.

Of course, embarking on such a turnaround job and completing it are vastly different matters. Johnson became a legend for taking the Cowboys from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in five years. But repeating the feat won't be easy. The guess here is Johnson will struggle.

For starters, let's take a closer look at his Dallas accomplishment. Michael Irvin was already a Cowboy when Johnson arrived. Troy Aikman was a Cowboy-in-waiting as the No. 1 pick, a no-brainer selection. Emmitt Smith arrived with a draft pick obtained in the Herschel Walker trade, which consisted of the Minnesota Vikings giving the Cowboys about 100 players and picks for one overrated back.

In other words, two of the three cornerstones of Johnson's Cowboys triumph were basically already in place before he arrived, and the third came in an unbelievably lopsided trade made by a sucker franchise. You can be sure Johnson won't get that lucky again.

Without Irvin, Aikman and Smith, Johnson wouldn't have won one Super Bowl in Dallas. It is enough to make you wonder if he is really the peerless mastermind everyone makes him out to be. The hype surrounding him has become so shrill that it is hard to discern the truth. Just keep it in mind.

But hey, getting to the Super Bowl won't be nearly so tough in the chump-change AFC as it was in Dallas. Don't think Johnson didn't consider that.

And, all skepticism aside, let's give him all due credit for putting together the Cowboys team that has dominated the NFL in the '90s. He had a brilliant coaching staff and a roster including many players now earning free-agent dollars elsewhere. His eye for spotting talent was unmatched. And he motivated that talent, through fear, to perform best in big games.

But re-creating that environment in Miami won't be easy. South Florida has become a fast-lane paradise full of problematic temptations. It is hard to keep players unified and focused on their jobs. Just ask Shula.

And, unlike in Dallas, Johnson won't be able to rely on a pool of top-shelf talent he recruited to the Hurricanes before leaving for the pros. His best Dallas teams were littered with former Hurricanes such as Irvin, Russell Maryland, Jimmie Jones and Kevin Williams. But that well has dried up. The Hurricanes are a fading power. Johnson is on his own now in a personnel sense.

Still, it is obvious Johnson is one of the sharpest coaching minds to come along. He was the one who fleeced the Vikings. He was the one who put together the great Cowboys teams. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was determined to share the credit, though, so Johnson hit the road.

His departure then does much to explain why he is back now. He couldn't stand alone in triumph in Dallas. He had to stand there with Jones. But he'll stand alone now if he can turn the Dolphins back into a winner. He'll own the football world. And that is what he wants.

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