Late one afternoon last week, at about the time the Dallas Cowboys were quitting for the day at their training camp in Austin, Texas, Jimmy Johnson grabbed the karaoke microphone at Woody's Saloon in the little town of Islamorada in the Florida Keys. What happened next was not pretty.
As the Beach Boys' Help Me Rhonda erupted from the speakers, Johnson and another bar patron began massacring the lyrics. It was hard to tell who was laughing more—Johnson, in his karaoke debut, or the object of' his crooning, girlfriend Rhonda Rookmaaker, who was sitting at the bar. A few minutes later, egged on by 20 or so of Woody's regulars. Johnson did similar injury to My Girl, by the Temptations. "Keep your day job, Jimmy!" some guy in the back yelled.
For Johnson, that's the beauty of it. This is his day job. At 51, he has sunshine on a cloudy day—as well as a new house on a channel, seven tanks of tropical fish, two boats, two Wave Runners and scuba gear with which to explore the reels.
"People come down here to get away from civilization, and they accomplish their goal," said Johnson. "That's not all bad. The question is: Once you get here, do you ever want to return? I mean, do you think I care what the practice schedule is at camp right now? Do you think I ever will?"
July 31, 1994
A day spent observing Johnson and his new life finds the former Dallas coach asking a visiting football writer nothing about the goings-on at the Cowboy training camp, nothing about Dallas owner Jerry Jones, nothing about which NFL coaching jobs might be open after the upcoming season. Johnson has thrown himself into early, if temporary, retirement from coaching as fervently as he threw himself into coaching. He cares intensely about a $200,000 renovation and landscaping project underway at his house; he decided precisely where the mango and coconut trees would go. He doesn't get a newspaper. He doesn't watch SportsCenter. He says that since moving to Tavernier, which is just southwest of Key Largo, in early May, he has not placed one phone call to anyone connected with the Cowboys. You get the idea that his one-year exile might last a good deal longer.
Peeling shrimp later in the evening at the Whale Harbor Inn in Islamorada, Johnson explained why at least for the moment he doesn't miss football. "People have a perception of me that I have to have a football team to coach day and night or I won't be happy," he said. "They don't understand me. If I coach a team, which I may do again, I have to coach it day and night, every day, so it will be the best team. Whatever I do—stocking fish tanks, riding Wave Runners, coaching football—it has to be the best. I'm incredibly happy right now."
Last winter, when it appeared that Johnson might not be back for a sixth season in Dallas, he said that history meant nothing to him. When Jones bought Johnson out for $2 million and excused him from the final five years of his contract, Johnson insisted that a run at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory meant very little to him. Now, four months after that acrimonious divorce, Johnson was asked if he had even the slightest regret that he wouldn't have the Cowboys to coach to greatness this year.
"Most every decision I've ever made in my life, I'd say 99 percent I don't look back," he replied. "This one is 100 percent. It wasn't a snap decision. I had decided to myself I'd be leaving the Cowboys and coming back to South Florida, and it was just a question of when. The events in Orlando just hastened things."
It was there, late one night over drinks, that Jones told reporters he was thinking of replacing Johnson with former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer. And in the comment that stings Johnson to this day, Jones reportedly said that 500 coaches could have won the Super Bowl with the Dallas talent.
"That made me nauseated," Johnson said. "And he claims he said it in confidence. To a group of writers and men and women in a lobby bar? That's like me standing in front of a full auditorium and saying, 'Now, don't anybody repeat this.' He said things from the heart, and that's why it hurt me. But what killed me is this: My accomplishment was not winning the Super Bowl twice. My accomplishment was putting together and coaching a two-time Super Bowl winner."
Johnson left the meetings and hid out at a Miami airport hotel for a few days. "When I reached Jerry by phone," Johnson said, "I said, 'It's over. Settle the contract. Let's go our separate ways.' With an expletive between every word. I was hurt. Jerry is such a driven person that I don't think he realizes anyone is in his life but himself. He didn't appreciate that I, and others, handed him two Super Bowl rings and millions of dollars."
The future, Johnson said, is wide open. Dallas line coach Hudson Houck called him in the spring, wondering whether to sign a new, multiyear contract with the Cowboys. Why ask Johnson? Well, Houck, like other former Johnson aides, wanted to be free to rejoin his old boss if Johnson was to get a coaching job in 1995. "Hudson, you've got to sign the deal," Johnson said he told Houck. "There's no guarantee I'll coach again."
Two teams did contact Johnson about coaching this season, Johnson said, and four others asked him to consider their clubs for 1995. Only one team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has been identified. Johnson insisted that he has not spoken to the Miami Dolphins, the team that most people thought was first in line for his services. The Dolphin job now seems less likely; last week Don Shula agreed to stay with Miami as coach and/or personnel czar through 1996. Wherever Johnson goes, he will insist on having complete control over all coaching and personnel decisions, and that would be impossible with the Dolphins as long as Shula has a major say in the operation.
The best guess is that Johnson, who will do TV analysis for Fox and HBO this fall, will be in either Philadelphia, Houston, Tampa or—if the 49ers fail to advance in the playoffs this year—San Francisco in 1995. Or maybe he'll be in Tavernier.
"If I go to another team, it will have to be the ideal situation—the right team, the right owner, the right opportunity," he said. "And we'll be the best team, and we'll win that third Super Bowl. If it doesn't happen, I'll be right here. And either way I'll be happier than ever. I don't live for history. I live for the moment."
With that, Johnson and Rookmaaker left the Whale Harbor Inn. It was nearly 10 o'clock. Bedtime. What would they do tomorrow? Fish in the bays or in the ocean. Or sit at the dock and wait for a manatee to come by for a drink of fresh water from the garden hose. Or ride the Wave Runner. Or preside over the construction of the pool. Decisions, decisions.
"What will I miss?" Johnson said, driving his open-air Jeep home under a full moon. "I'll miss the big game. That was my element. The Super Bowl, a big San Francisco game, a freezing game at the Meadowlands against the Giants. I loved talking to the team about how we were going to kick ass. I'll miss the misery when we lost, the thrills when we won."
He'll miss them this season, maybe next. But driving away from an encounter with the coach of the '90s, you get the feeling that he won't miss them forever.