Fire still burns in Johnson Coach: The Dolphins discover that a two-year sabbatical hasn't dulled Jimmy Johnson's singular drive.

September 01, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

DAVIE, Fla. -- In the summer of his rejuvenation, Jimmy Johnson was forever sending concise and, more often than not, caustic messages to the Miami Dolphins.

To fat, indolent tight end Eric Green, he sent the message slothfulness won't make it at Camp Jimmy. Green, a two-time Pro Bowl player who missed 39 practices last season, was cut before training camp.

To borderline veterans Keith Byars and Gene Atkins, he issued a message of fiscal prudence. Both were forced to swallow huge pay cuts after testing the market.

To rookie cornerback Shawn Wooden, there was an equally blunt message. Wooden had just been promoted to first-team defense when he was carried off the practice field after taking a "stinger" in his neck.

When the former Notre Dame star returned for limited drills after missing only one practice, a reporter asked Johnson what that suggested about Wooden's toughness.

"It tells me I told him to be out here," was Johnson's pointed reply.

There have been few subtleties and almost no gray areas in Johnson's celebrated return to the NFL after a two-year hiatus as an analyst for Fox-TV. Hired last January as general manager and coach of the Dolphins, his challenge is to win the Super Bowl after a 22-year drought.

For the second time in his NFL career, Johnson is replacing a sports hero. Seven years ago, it was legendary coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys. When Johnson took over the Cowboys in 1989, Landry was banished overnight from the organization he helped build from scratch.

This time, it's Don Shula. The Dolphins coach of the past 26 years resigned last winter in the wake of a bitter playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. He retains a title (vice chairman) and a minority ownership interest in the Dolphins, yet has no role. He is nowhere to be found at the team's training facilities on campus at Nova University. His office is 20 minutes away. It might as well be 200 miles.

There exists an awkward truce between the two men. This was the job Johnson clearly wanted since accepting a $2 million settlement offer from owner Jerry Jones in 1994 to leave the Cowboys. In his position with Fox-TV, Johnson was never shy about putting pressure on Shula.

Shula hasn't forgotten.

"This team was picked last year to win the Super Bowl and it didn't work out," he said. "It was a disappointment to me. He [Johnson] was one of the guys that picked our team to win it. He now has the opportunity to work with that team.

"You have a quarterback like Dan Marino and surround him with the best people you can and let him do his job. I think they're as good as anybody."

When the subject is Shula, Johnson tries to steer clear of outright confrontation. Asked why the Dolphins didn't win last season, he responded diplomatically.

"Because of the sensitivity with having a great coach like Don Shula here, I have purposely stayed away from looking back and trying to judge," Johnson said. "More than anything else, I just want to put my stamp on this team and do it the way I know how to do it and not evaluate what was done before."

Johnson's stamp is unlike any other. There is a swagger in his walk, a glint in his eye and a sneer on his face. He arrived in Miami with a master plan and the psychology degree he received from Arkansas, both of which served him well in Dallas. At times, Johnson, 55, appears to be a cross between Freud and Lombardi.

The Cowboys who survived his massive purge bought into the system, won two Super Bowls under him and ultimately a third after he left. Then, as now, he was brimming with messages and motivation.

"One of the things about him I enjoy is listening to the way he talks to the team and the way he senses issues with the team almost immediately," said backup Dolphins quarterback Bernie Kosar, who played for Johnson at the University of Miami and in Dallas.

"He addresses them right away. He doesn't let things linger too long. You always know where you stand with him."

Cornerback J. B. Brown, an eight-year veteran from Maryland, found out where he stood with Johnson after the team's second preseason game -- on the second team behind Calvin Jackson, a second-year free agent.

Brown's demotion illustrated one of the big differences between Shula and Johnson. No one gets free passage to the regular season.

"Coach Shula had the will to win," Brown said. "Jimmy takes more of a psychological approach than Coach Shula did. He challenges you every day. . . . He's making it a real competitive camp for everybody."

Johnson's motivational methods range from locker-room visuals to fear and intimidation. There is a five-foot, laminated poster of .. the Lombardi Trophy at the players' entrance to the practice facility. In the locker room, the Dolphins' schedule is displayed in steppingstone fashion on a chart with the words, "The road to the Super Bowl starts here."

On the practice field, Johnson has shown renewed zest for his job, a fact that was not lost on veteran defensive end Daniel Stubbs.

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