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'A CHAPTER CLOSED'

March 06, 1989
March 06, 1989

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March 6, 1989

Dallas Cowboys
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Wade Boggs
Jay Burson
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'A CHAPTER CLOSED'

So said Tom Landry after the Cowboys' brash new owner installed a new coach in Dallas

By William Oscar Johnson

The great stone face flinched and the flinty blue eyes went glassy when Tom Landry heard the verdict: He had been summarily removed as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, after 29 years. There was no appeal, no recourse, no room for negotiation. Landry, 64, gazed in shock at the two men who had brought him the terrible news. He said in disbelief, "You've taken my team away from me."

This is an article from the March 6, 1989 issue Original Layout

Precisely. The two messengers of doom had waited until the implacable Landry had finished a round of golf; then they bearded him late Saturday afternoon in his villa off the 18th green of the Hills of Lakeway Golf Course, near Austin. One of the messengers wept a little as he broke the news of the firing. This was Landry's friend and Cowboy colleague for all of those 29 years, club president Tex Schramm, 68. The other was visibly uncomfortable, but he had never met Landry before, and he didn't weep. This was Jerral Jones, 46, a native of Rose City, Ark., who had made a fortune in insurance, gas and oil over the years and who had used most of it to buy the Dallas Cowboys for a reported $140 million on the same day he fired Tom Landry.

Later, at a press conference, Jones ranted in ostensible anguish over Landry's demise. "This man is like Bear Bryant to me, like Vince Lombardi to me. If you love competitors, Tom Landry's an angel!", he said. Nevertheless, he veered not an inch from his decision to dismiss Landry to make way for his old roommate and teammate at the University of Arkansas, Jimmy Johnson, 45, the effervescent coach of the University of Miami's recently splendid football teams. Jones, who makes speeches with the arm-waving fervor of a TV evangelist, cried out to the assembled press. "Jimmy Johnson would be the first to tell you that he couldn't carry Tom Landry's water bucket!" But then Jones made it clear that this didn't matter one whit, shouting at his audience, "I wouldn't have bought the Dallas Cowboys if Jimmy Johnson couldn't be my coach!"

Thus it was that America's Team came up with a new owner (only its third in 29 years), a new coach (only its second), a new high in the gross price paid for a U.S. sports enterprise (next best: the reported $110 million paid for the New England Patriots and their stadium in 1988) and a new low in insulting a living legend (as recently as Feb. 13, Landry proudly declared his intention to coach at least four more years, "because I just don't want to leave the Cowboys when they're down").

The deal that brought Jones, Johnson and all that money to Dallas was in the making for almost six months, but the history of all this goes back to the genesis of pro football as we know it today. In 1960 the Dallas franchise was bought from the NFL for $600,000 by Clint Murchison Jr., then a typical Texas Croesus of those pre-oil-bust days. For most of the next quarter century the Cowboy management remained unchanged: Landry was the brilliantly innovative if stone-faced genius on the sidelines; Schramm was the loquacious front office wheeler-dealer and general manager; and Murchison was the invisible, deep-pockets owner who never even occupied a desk—let alone an office—at the Cowboys' headquarters.

Under this nicely mixed management, the Cowboys were merely magnificent. After a cataclysmic 0-11-1 first season, they charged through the next three decades with a record between 1966 and 1983 of 209-81-2, which included a streak of 18 consecutive winning seasons, 13 division championships, five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories.

Then Murchison fell ill, his fortune became depleted in the great oil and real estate plagues that struck Texas, and in late 1983 he had to put the Cowboys on the market. Schramm was in charge of selecting the most acceptable buyer from a handful of eager candidates. He chose H.R. (Bum) Bright, a Dallas native whose $600 million fortune, built in the oil, banking and real estate businesses, made him one of America's wealthiest men. Bright headed an 11-member all-Texan consortium that put up $86 million for the Cowboys and their leases at Texas Stadium.

Under Bright, both Schramm and Landry retained their accustomed positions of power. The Cowboys, however, did not. Their record during Bright's five-year ownership was a bleak 36-44, with 1988's mark of 3-13 being their worst since 1960, and they didn't win a playoff game. Though Bright gets the rap for this in the minds of many Cowboy fans, it's hard to blame him for such a shoddy performance, because he was no meddler. Indeed, he never pretended to have any real interest in the team beyond its value as an investment. Last week, as he prepared to cash in that investment, Bright said matter-of-factly, "From day one, I made it clear that the Dallas Cowboys were more of a business deal for me. I do regret that we were not more successful, but it was simply time for us to sell." He was also notably unsentimental about Landry's firing: "Since I've owned the football team, I've probably not exchanged 15 words with Tom Landry. Tex was my contact. This is a new generation. It's time for a new generation to take over."

Bright's fortune has declined dramatically in recent years, partly because of the sagging Texas economy, partly because of the stock market crash of October 1987. Forbes magazine reported last year that his net worth had plunged from $600 million in '84 to $300 million in '88. Three weeks ago the centerpiece of his banking operations, Bright Banc Savings Association, a savings and loan institution based in Dallas, was declared insolvent and was taken over by federal regulators.

Bright had been openly seeking Cowboy buyers since last spring. Prospective purchasers included such high-profile sports entrepreneurs as Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Don Carter, proprietor of the Dallas Mavericks. In all, Bright said that more than 75 different purchasers were considered as candidates. One of them was Jones, who began last August to research the possibility of buying the Cowboys.

Jones made his first tidy fortune from a life insurance company—owned by his father, Pat—whose value grew in the late 1960s from $2 a share to $135 a share. From there Jones shifted into higher gear, going into the oil business with a company called Arkoma Exploration Co., which operated first in Arkansas and Oklahoma and then branched out to California and Canada. Soon he had his own Learjet. Later he expanded into natural gas and a variety of other enterprises. Only once before in his life had Jones shown any interest in investing in sports: In '66, at the age of 23, callow and freshly graduated from Arkansas, where he earned a masters in finance, he arranged to raise $8 million for the purpose of buying and operating the San Diego Chargers. His father took one look at the easy-come, easy-go bunch of financiers his son had assembled and nixed the deal.

By the fall of 1988. Jones had the money to enter big-time sports with a vengeance. Although a host of other buyers were interested. Bright said, "We had been pointing at Jerry Jones since September. The more I got to know him, the more I knew he was the right man to own the Cowboys." Of course, the feeling was mutual. As Jones said last week, "The Dallas Cowboys are the only team I would want to own. A lot of my friends from college live in Texas now."

Bright had tried to get as much as $180 million for the team, the stadium leases and the outstanding debt. The deal he and Jones finally closed was for less, reportedly $90 million for the team and $50 million for the stadium leases; he also assumed the $10 million mortgage on the Cowboys' headquarters. The sale will become official only after 21 of the NFL's 27 other owners approve it. That's expected to happen later this month.

Unlike the hands-off administrations of Murchison and Bright, Jones has promised to put his fingerprints on everything in the Cowboy organization. "I will sell my house in Little Rock and move to Dallas," he said last week. "My entire office and my entire business will be at [the Cowboys'] complex. This will be a hands-on operation. I want to know everything there is to know, from player contracts to socks and jocks and television contracts. This is my company, and I will be making all the decisions. The Cowboys will be my life!"

This doesn't bode well for Schramm. He ran the Cowboys like his own corner grocery under Murchison and Bright, voting at league meetings as if he owned the whole franchise instead of the mere 3% he has. So powerful has Schramm's influence been in the NFL that he has long been considered the second strongest man in the league, after commissioner Pete Rozelle, his pal. In one of his more insensitive but noteworthy public remarks last week, Jones let it be known that Schramm's days of power were numbered. He said, "Well, Tex is used to standing out front, but he's a little behind me here tonight. He's still going to be an important part of the Cowboys, but it's my vote. I'm the owner."

Jones's businessman's attitude toward the Cowboys is markedly different from the way many major league owners view their teams—as playthings, ego boosters or tax write-offs. Jones has told friends in Little Rock that the Cowboy franchise must be a profit-making operation, for he has invested the bulk of his fortune in it and it will be his primary source of income. This could cause uneasiness in the corral, for the Cowboys have never made much money—in part because of their celebrated penchant for doing everything in high-priced style. The Cowboys have 109 nonplaying employees (compared with 28 for the Cincinnati Bengals, for example), a weekly newspaper, a luxurious training camp in Southern California and a nationally syndicated TV show each week during the season. Texas Stadium is a palace, and the team's 200-acre headquarters and practice complex in Valley Ranch is the most lavish in the league. However, Cowboy income has been squeezed by fixed national TV revenue and by less-than-capacity attendance in Dallas in recent seasons. Jones has told friends that his first acts as head Cowboy will be to slash away at the fat in the budget.

This will make old cowhands very unhappy, but it is nothing compared with the discontent Jones caused by his decision to fire Landry so he could bring in Johnson as coach. The Jones-Johnson friendship is a heartwarming thing, to be sure, going back a quarter of a century to their college days, when Johnson was a defensive lineman and Jones a guard on the 1964 Arkansas national champions. They used to lie in bed at night talking about how much they wanted football always to be a part of their lives. And so it has been for Johnson, who had a variety of college coaching jobs at Oklahoma. Arkansas. Pitt and Oklahoma State before he landed at Miami in 1984. In his five seasons there he racked up a 52-9 record, including a national championship in 1987.

A man of great energy and even greater ambition. Johnson has had his eye on the NFL—particularly Dallas. As Rich Dalrymple. Miami's sports information director, said last week. "I think he was ready to stay here a lot longer, but I do believe the Cowboys job was the one and only job he was prepared to leave any other place for." About six months ago Johnson casually mentioned to Dalrymple that he had a friend who was trying to buy a pro football franchise. Nothing more was heard about that until, suddenly, during their daily lunchtime jog with the coaching staff last Thursday. Johnson said to Dalrymple, "You better be ready to push spring practice back a week. Looks like the guy's going to buy the team."

The next day Johnson was in Dallas with Jones, dining at a Tex-Mex restaurant and refusing to discuss anything with reporters who spotted them. Jones signed the deal with Bright at 3 a.m. on Saturday, and Johnson returned to Miami. By the time the sun rose that morning, a sign painter at the private airport where Jones had parked his Learjet had painted a silver-and-blue Dallas Cowboy helmet on the plane's tail. A few hours later Jones and Schramm took the craft to Austin, where they told Landry that his Cowboy coaching days were over. That act brought forth a spate of praise for Landry and recriminations for Jones, and there was the feel of an obituary in what was said.

Rozelle spoke in tones of grief: "This is like Lombardi's death. Tom's not only been an outstanding coach, but a tremendous role model for kids and fans." Herschel Walker, the Cowboys' star tailback, sounded angry: "The saddest thing is to see someone go not knowing what in the world is going on." Hall of Famer Bob Lilly, who played defensive tackle for Landry for 14 seasons, was nostalgic: ""It's the end of an era, our era. A lot of old Cowboys are crying tonight."

But, of course, Landry wasn't dead at all. He returned quietly to Dallas from Austin on the day after his firing. He cleaned out his desk at the Cowboys' offices, speaking to a reporter or two with his usual unassailable self-control and impenetrable dignity as he did so. He said, "I think I'm too far along to worry about coaching another team, but I was looking forward to this year. I thought it was going to be a tremendous challenge. But that's over with. It's a chapter closed. This is the worst scenario, I guess, but I'm not bitter."

On Monday morning he addressed the Cowboy players who had assembled for an off-season training session at Valley Ranch. He got about halfway through his prepared comments when he suddenly broke down in sobs. The team gave him an emotional ovation as he left the meeting room—forever.

Now comes the Jimmy Johnson era in Dallas, even as it's abruptly ending in Miami. Not a month after receiving commitments from a class of elite high school players, the Hurricanes faced the task of replacing a coach while mollifying the feelings of betrayal among their recruits. As the father of one prized catch, quarterback Bryan Fortay of East Brunswick, N.J., put it, "If Bryan wanted to play for Mike Archer [the coach at Louisiana State and one of the leading candidates to replace Johnson], he would have signed with LSU."

Johnson, too, will have to dig himself out of a deep hole, thanks to the tastelessness and haste with which Jones chose to exercise his control over the Cowboys. If Jones had waited just a few days, better a few weeks, after the sale to announce the Cowboys' coaching change, Johnson could have stepped in for Landry with a minimum of bad vibes. As it is, it will take awhile for Johnson to be accepted.

Still, the chances are that even the angriest Landry fans will come around, just as Johnson's father, C.W. Johnson of Port Arthur, Texas, will probably come around. As C.W. said after learning of his son's new job, "I hate to say it, but I'm more of an Oiler fan. If the two teams were on the TV at the same time, I'd watch the Oilers. Of course, I can change."

PHOTOSHELLY KATZ/BLACK STARWhen Landry cleaned out his office on Sunday, he packed up 29 years of memories.PHOTOSHELLY KATZ/BLACK STAR"The Cowboys will be my life!" vowed Jones as Schramm (far left) and Bright looked on.PHOTOCARYN LEVYAt Miami, Johnson led stars like Steve Walsh to a 52-9 mark.PHOTOMIKE MAPLEIn 1964, Johnson (60) and Jones (61 and right) were members of the Razorbacks' only national champion team.PHOTOARKANSAS GAZETTE[See caption above.]PHOTOAP[See caption above.]