Johnson quits

Dolphins give Wannstedt job

Saturday's drubbing not seen as factor in decision to end career

January 17, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Jimmy Johnson, who found out how tough it is for a football coach to go home again, resigned yesterday as the coach of the Miami Dolphins after failing to duplicate the success he had with the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys.

With the approval of Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, Johnson turned the head-coaching job over to his longtime sidekick, Dave Wannstedt, and said he'll have a limited role with the team.

"This is final and forever. I really feel that this transition will be very smooth," he said.

The Dolphins' worst loss in franchise history the day before, a 62-7 shelling at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, apparently had little to do with the decision.

Johnson almost quit last year after his mother died and he discovered there are other things in life besides a football field. Huizenga, though, talked him into staying and hiring Wannstedt -- who had just been fired as Chicago Bears coach -- as his top aide to give him more help in the job. Wannstedt had served under Johnson when he coached the Hurricanes and the Cowboys.

But the tumult of the past season, when Johnson was the subject of much criticism as the team started out 7-1 and then collapsed to a 3-7 finish, made it easy for him to walk away this time. He told Huizenga a couple of weeks ago he was quitting, and this time the owner didn't try to change his mind.

"He wants to fish," said Huizenga, who said Johnson didn't want a contract or a job with the team.

Johnson, 56, arrived with much fanfare four years ago as the only coach to win a national championship in college (at Miami) and a Super Bowl (two with the Cowboys). (Paul Brown won a national title and seven pro titles in the pre-Super Bowl years.)

Johnson was hired to revitalize a team that had supposedly grown old under Don Shula, and promised a Super Bowl in three years.

It turned out his four-year record (38-31) wasn't as good as Shula's record (41-28) for his last four, and Johnson leaves a team that's a year older, on average, than Shula's last team. He did improve the Dolphins' salary-cap situation, but leaves Wannstedt with the thorny problem of what to do with aging quarterback Dan Marino.

Although the losing and criticism may have worn Johnson down, the death of his mother last year seemed to have a profound impact on him.

For most of his career, he had been the stereotype of the obsessed football coach. When he got the Cowboys' job, he filed for divorce, saying he didn't need a wife in the pros, because an NFL job didn't come with the social obligations that a college job did.

The death of his mother seemed to give him second thoughts about his lifestyle. He married his longtime girlfriend last summer and tried to become closer to his father and sons.

"I guess you might say it's my time," Johnson said. "I've had my time in the sun. I've had my time in the spotlight, and now it's time to spend time with my family."

Of his future duties with the Dolphins, Johnson said: "Wayne asked me to help in personnel matters and free agency, which I will continue to do. But I will not be here on a day-to-day basis."

In hiring Wannstedt, Huizenga said he wanted continuity.

"We came to the conclusion we had the best guy right here," the owner said. "He knows the players. He knows the coaches."

But without his mentor, Wannstedt has to prove he can handle the job after going 40-56 in six years in Chicago. Although he won't have the general manager's title, he'll have the final say in personnel -- and his drafts in Chicago weren't distinguished.

His first problem will be Marino's future. Wannstedt stammered when asked about Marino yesterday, finally saying, "We'll hold off on the Marino thing," calling it a "very, very sensitive area."

During a televised interview at halftime of the Indianapolis-Tennessee game, he said, "It's going to be Danny's decision."

In a statement, Marino didn't sound like a man ready to retire. "We're not that far from being a championship team," he said.

Wannstedt and Marino go back a long way. They're both Pittsburgh natives and met when Wannstedt was a Pitt assistant and Marino was in high school.

Because Wannstedt seems to be clearing the decks for a new offense by firing three offensive assistants (Kippy Brown, Rich McGeorge and Larry Seiple), it's likely he wants to start over with a new quarterback. But it'll be easier if he can talk the popular Marino into retiring instead of pushing him out the door.

Because Johnson is only 56, the next question is whether he will miss the game in a year or two and attempt to return.

For now, though, he can't wait for those easy-living days on his boat in the Florida Keys.

As yesterday's news conference ended, he looked at his watch as he walked out the door and said: "High tide is at 2 o'clock. I've got to get out of here."

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