Last Saturday, three days after the fact, Jimmy Johnson still
had trouble believing how quickly things had unfolded in South
Florida when he chose to coach one Florida team (Miami) over
another (Tampa Bay). Here was Johnson now, in the sprawling
Stadium Club of Texas Stadium, looking down upon the field he
once ruled, preparing for his last Fox TV appearance. Slowly,
the dizzying events of Wednesday were sinking in. In four hours
the charisma of Dolphin owner H. Wayne Huizenga had charmed the
charmer. Coach the team? Thought you'd never ask. Heck, I'll
park cars at Joe Robbie Stadium if that's what you want. That's
how eager Johnson was to end his exile from the sidelines and
begin a honeymoon with his new favorite owner.
"Ask anybody in the league," Johnson said, the field below
bustling in preparation for Sunday's NFC Championship Game
between Dallas and Green Bay. "The smart decision would have
been to go to Tampa Bay. But my decision wasn't logical. It was
a decision of the heart, not the mind."
It may be stretching things to say the Dolphins of 1996 have as
many problems as the Cowboys of 1989, the year Johnson began his
NFL career. But not by much. Miami has huge salary-cap worries
and could lose as many as six premier free agents. Some players
have little respect for authority, a fact Johnson found out when
two were late for his first team meeting. The Dolphins are soft
on defense. Johnson loves to build through the draft, but Miami
has only one of the first 50 picks in April.
Had he taken the vacant Tampa Bay job, he would have inherited a
team with better young talent and with more than $11 million to
spend in a free-agent market that has a good crop of players.
The Buccaneers also have four of the first 41 selections in the
draft. But in the end, four factors led Johnson to spurn an
offer from Tampa Bay, and, according to The Dallas Morning News,
a lucrative deal with the Cleveland Browns to replace Bill
January 22, 1996
1) Dan Marino;
2) Miami, which is his adopted hometown;
3) Huizenga, who blew Johnson away with the promise of the keys
to the Dolphin empire; and
4) His championship timetable. Johnson believes the Dolphins can
be Scotch-taped together for the quickest Super Bowl run.
(Debatable, but we'll get to that later.)
To understand how Johnson reached these conclusions and bucked
football logic required a trip to the Florida Keys, to Johnson's
channel-front home in Tavernier. It was the day before the
meeting with Huizenga, and Johnson was under a self-imposed
house arrest because the media had already put him in Don
Shula's still-warm coaching chair. A newspaper and a television
station were staking out the house, and Johnson was on the
phone, debating whether to cancel a face-to-face interview with
SI that had been arranged the previous day. "Yesterday," he
said, "I left the gate open, got a knock at the door, and there
was a TV crew, already shooting. I said, 'What is this, Hard
Copy?'" Johnson ultimately agreed to meet with SI.
Later that day Johnson donned his reading glasses and sat on a
big leather couch, looking over a salary-cap comparison between
Miami and Tampa Bay. "Miami's in tough shape, huh?" he mused.
The Bucs have a big advantage in draft choices and cap money,
both of which are hard currency in today's NFL.
The phone rang. It was Nick Christin, Johnson's agent.
"Spurrier's going to announce he's staying at Florida this
afternoon," Christin told Johnson. Scratch Steve Spurrier off
the Tampa Bay list. The Bucs had met with Johnson on Dec. 27 and
offered him complete control of football operations and more
than the $3 million a year the Philadelphia Eagles had anted up
last winter. The Tampa Bay offer was still on the table.
Back to the salary-cap sheet. "All this would make it tough," he
said, taking off the glasses. "Tampa's young and hungry, with a
lot of picks and cap room. Miami's got some problems. But the
one overriding thing is Marino. For my sanity, it would be best
to go to a place where the quarterback is a Hall of Famer, not a
guy [the Bucs' Trent Dilfer] I don't have faith in."
But the lack of '96 draft picks could cripple a big dealer like
Johnson. Dallas made 33 trades involving draft choices from 1989
through 1991, the years when the team was crafted. Now, some of
the players he might want to dangle for draft picks carry big
salary-cap baggage. That's because Miami, so desperate in '95 to
build a champion in the twilight of Shula's career, signed some
players to hauntingly stupid contracts. If the Dolphins want to
dump tight end Eric Green for draft choices or release him, for
instance, they will have to charge the rest of his prorated
signing bonus, $2,916,667, to the 1996 cap. "We won't front-load
contracts unless I'm absolutely sure about players physically
and mentally," Johnson said. "I think I'll avoid some of the
contract mistakes they made."
Too late now. Unless Green, defensive end Trace Armstrong,
defensive tackle Steve Emtman, linebacker Chris Singleton,
tackle Ron Heller and safety Gene Atkins are significantly more
effective in the future than they were in 1995, they will be
financial weights that could hinder Johnson for years. And
unless Johnson can re-sign cornerback Troy Vincent and guard
Keith Sims, Miami will have big holes that may have to be filled
with Wal-Mart players.
As he did in Dallas, Johnson believes he can make up for some
potential losses with low-budget free-agent signings (James
Washington) and mid- to late-round (Leon Lett, Larry Brown)
finds in the draft. Johnson and his staff will hit the road in
late winter to scout players at 30 to 35 schools. In addition to
checking on prospects' football aptitude, they will investigate
such off-field factors as drug histories and attitude problems.
Johnson apparently has already done a bit of homework. "At Fox
this year," he said, "most of the guys on the set would go back
[to a lounge] to watch the games. I'd sit on the set, and they'd
roll out a bank of TVs. I'd put sound from one game in one ear
and sound from another game in the other, and I'd go from game
to game, watching every one. So I think I have a better view of
the league than I ever had when I was in Dallas. I know the
players better, I know the trends better. So I think I'll be a
better coach than I ever was."
On the two-hour drive with girlfriend Rhonda Rookmaaker to last
Wednesday's 10 a.m. meeting, Johnson was pensive. He was so
enthused about the prospect of being offered the Miami job that
he had dismissed the thought of going to Tampa. "This is a
pretty big deal," he told Rookmaaker. "If I don't get the
Dolphin job, I'll never coach again."
Huizenga and his front-office point man, general manager Eddie
Jones, had prepared a two-page list of more than 20 issues they
wanted to discuss with Johnson, but they didn't plan to talk
money that day. Huizenga surprised Johnson by telling him, "I
want a coach I can enjoy winning with. I want to be your friend.
There's no money in sports, so I have to have other reasons to
be in it. I'm not Jerry [Jones]. I'm not a hands-on owner. I'm
not going to bug you a lot--we might talk once or twice each week
during the season--but I have to have a relationship with the man
running my team, or it's not going to work."
The owner wanted to be his friend, not his working peer and
football adviser, as Jones had been--with disastrous consequences
for Johnson--in Dallas. This was good, Johnson thought. Johnson
was also surprised to hear Huizenga say a couple of times that
he was willing to "turn over the keys of the franchise." So soon
into the meeting, and he already wants me to be the guy with
Huizenga wanted to hear that Johnson still had the fire to build
a winner. "Why don't you take the easy road, Jimmy?" Huizenga
said. "You're a hero, with two Super Bowl rings. You have the
credentials to second-guess everybody, work a couple of days a
week and do almost as well financially as you could in coaching.
Why take a job where, immediately, you'll be under so much
"I have a passion for the game," Johnson said. "I want to win. I
love the adrenaline rush of the game."
Then he added, "I need to win." Huizenga loved that.
By 12:30 p.m. they had covered everything, and Huizenga knew he
wanted to offer the job to Johnson. First, he had to make a
phone call. Huizenga had taken great pains to keep Shula
informed about the coaching search, though it had been awkward.
Shula and Johnson have had a chilly relationship dating back to
1991, when Johnson demoted Shula's son David from offensive
coordinator to receivers coach of the Cowboys. That relationship
turned downright cold this season when Dolphin fans noisily
campaigned for the legendary Shula to be replaced by Johnson.
"Don," Huizenga said, "I think I'm going to offer Jimmy Johnson
"If you feel good about it, do it," Shula reportedly told him.
"There's no question he can win, and he will win."
That was the confirmation Huizenga hoped for. Now he went back
to the small group--Christin, Jones and Dolphin vice president
Bryan Wiedmeier--and said, "Can I talk with Jimmy alone?"
After the others had left the room, Huizenga said, "Let me tell
you how I see it. I'm willing to make you the highest-paid coach
in football, but I don't want to embarrass Don. I can't feel
like someone took me to the cleaners in a contract, or the
relationship won't work."
He told Johnson that Shula made $1.85 million this season. He
said he was willing to pay Johnson $8 million over four years,
with the subtle assurance that he could make more money in other
ways. "That isn't exactly the number we were thinking about,"
Huizenga said he explained the structure of Shula's contract and
told Johnson how it would be possible for him to supplement the
base salary. When all compensation is totalled--there's
reportedly a house near the stadium in it for Johnson, too--the
new Dolphin coach will probably make in excess of $3 million per
Done deal. "I've done hundreds of acquisitions and business
deals," Huizenga said, "but I've never had one like this. I
can't explain it. [Johnson] was charming, easy to be with. I
felt I had to have him."
Johnson scheduled a team meeting for Friday. Thirty-two players
showed, two of them tardily. "I forgive you this time, but there
won't be a second time," he told the transgressors, whom he
would not identify. "If you're 10 seconds late for a meeting,
don't walk through that door."
Johnson felt it was important to talk with Marino. In a Thursday
meeting, they discussed talent, the coaching staff, the offense
and the attitude. Marino suggested that quarterback coach Gary
Stevens be retained, which Johnson will likely do when he forms
his staff this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. (Other
likely hires: former Georgia Tech coach Bill Lewis; Dolphin
defensive line coach Joe Greene; Raider assistant Joe Bugel; and
former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones.) And Johnson told Marino
that one problem with having a great quarterback is that you
sometimes fall into a trap of thinking he can bail you out of
"Dan was great," Johnson said. "He told me, 'Coach, I've broken
all the records. I don't care if I throw 10 passes a game. I
just want to win.'"
Upon leaving the Dolphin complex on Thursday, Johnson and
Rookmaaker stopped for gas at a convenience store. Somebody
said, "It's Jimmy!" and his red Corvette was so mobbed that he
had to get out of the car and do a lap around it to accommodate
the autograph seekers. "It's amazing how excited everyone is,"
Johnson said. "About the only negative, if you can call it a
negative, is that I heard someone say, 'Jeez, he's only human.
He can't raise the dead. He can't heal the sick.'"
In Miami, that's precisely what he's expected to do.
DOLPHINS VS. BUCS: TOUGH CALL
Jimmy Johnson had a more lucrative offer to coach Tampa Bay but
chose Miami instead. The Bucs are more appealing in many ways.
Tampa Bay 7-9
Picks in top 50 of 1996 draft
[Tampa Bay] 4
Significant 1996 free agents
[Miami] DE-Marco Coleman
[Tampa Bay] WR-Horace Copeland
Projected 1996 NFL salary cap
[Tampa Bay] $42,000,000
Current 1996 cap obligations
[Tampa Bay] $26,796,214
Estimated 1996 draft cost
[Tampa Bay] $3,700,000
Total 1996 projected cost
[Tampa Bay] $30,496,214
Money left for free-agent signings
[Tampa Bay] $11,503,786
Bad contracts (with 1996 cap figure)
[Miami] DT-Steve Emtman ($2,150,000)
TE-Eric Green ($2,108,333)
S-Gene Atkins ($1,790,000)
LB-Chris Singleton ($895,000)
T-Ron Heller ($600,000)
[Tampa Bay] QB Trent Dilfer ($1,762,500)