The man's message has come down in different ways through the
spring, some parts like a punch to the face and some like a
whisper, but all saying the same thing: We'll do it my way now.
Forget the ghosts of Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, forget that
perfect season, forget anything that smacks of the past, because
history is for professors and for that other guy--what was his
name again?--who in the end spent so much energy worrying about
his legacy that he didn't have gas enough for a playoff drive.
Don Shula's way was the prudent, political way. He uttered
paragraphs designed to say nothing, to tee off no one, to
diplomatically hint that, er, of course I'd like to win the
Super Bowl one more time. But Jimmy Johnson? Ever since he
completed his coup in January and took over the Miami Dolphins
as coach and general manager, ever since he finally arrived
where "deep down I always wanted to be," the man has been
dropping bombs large and small.
In March, after losing his three best defensive
players--linebacker Bryan Cox, defensive end Marco Coleman and
cornerback Troy Vincent--to free agency, Johnson hopped onto his
yacht and cruised 130 miles north to the NFL owners' meetings in
Palm Beach, where he blithely announced that his is "the team to
beat" and insisted a Dallas writer put that in his story so
Jerry Jones and Troy and Emmitt and the rest of the Boys would
be sure to see it. In April he stood up at the Dolphins' annual
awards banquet, a perfect place for the new coach to make nice
about the team's storied tradition and Shula's legacy and all,
and dumped those things down the sewer.
"I'm supposed to say congratulations to all the people in the
past, to all the great tradition, to all the people who laid the
groundwork," Johnson said to a room filled with longtime fans,
players and staff. Then he lifted his hand and dismissed all
that with a pained wave. "But I only care about one thing: the
present. The people who are here now to win now." The place
vibrated with applause. It was clear that nothing would ever be
the same in Dolphinland. We'll do it my way now.
"I guess the courtesy thing would be to congratulate them for
performance in past years," Johnson said a few days later. "But
I wasn't in the mood to pass out courtesies."
May 12, 1996
He said this easily, while sitting at his desk, cleaning his
fingernails with a stilettolike letter opener. Johnson is
comfortable being the man from whom people want courtesies. The
only other coach who had occupied this office at the Dolphins
training complex in Davie was Shula, who, in the words of
assistant coach Larry Seiple, spent plenty of time in it poring
over newspapers from around the country, "for crying out loud,
to find out what they were saying about him." There's no sign of
out-of-town papers in the place now. The most prominent thing is
the Super Bowl trophy over Johnson's right shoulder, a replica
of one of the two he won in Dallas. He doesn't give himself much
time to collect number three. "I came here to do one thing: win
another one," Johnson says. "And on the clock in my head, I'm
looking at three years."
With that kind of timetable, it's no wonder it already feels as
if it were September in Davie, with Johnson instilling fever and
fear in an abundantly talented team that last season lacked
both, finished 9-7 and then was embarrassed 37-22 by the Buffalo
Bills in the first round of the playoffs. In his first team
meeting, the day after his hiring was announced, Johnson
immediately made it clear to the players that they would be the
best-conditioned and toughest in the NFL--or else. (He also
scolded two players who arrived late, saying if they were tardy
for another meeting, he would be through with them.) As a
result, more than 50 Dolphins, the largest group in team
history, took part in the off-season conditioning program. All
84 players who attended last week's minicamp were in their seats
10 minutes before Johnson's first team meeting. Then, in his
first on-field contact with the players, Johnson cantered about
in the scorching heat, his hair stiff in plastic perfection but
his 52-year-old body on the move: tugging on the jersey of
running back Irving Spikes as he ran sprints, drifting along the
offensive line, darting between tackle and guard and then
covering wide receiver O.J. McDuffie. "That's right!" he yelled.
"Let's go! Let's go!" For a team used to seeing Shula standing
on the practice sidelines, jaw ajut, as remote as an Easter
Island monument, it was like watching some kid cavorting in
"He's out there, covering receivers, running routes," says
safety Louis Oliver. "With the rookies he was running gassers.
"There's a total difference," says Seiple, who spent 16 years
under Shula as a player and a coach. "Last year Coach Shula was
hard on the players, but he also was a little laid-back; he
wasn't as strong as when he first came in 1970. There just
wasn't the same spark. Jimmy is a very hyper coach, active in
all parts of the game, being on the field, talking to the
players, fooling around. Enthusiasm, that's the biggest thing."
No, the biggest thing was the extraordinary sight of quarterback
Dan Marino, a veteran of eight operations on his legs, lumbering
like a crippled bear after practice last week in a series of
what may well have been the slowest wind sprints in the history
of the NFL. "When's the last time you saw Dan run?" Seiple says.
"He hasn't run since his rookie year."
In the most intriguing coach-player pairing since Bill Walsh
teamed with Joe Montana, the meticulous and openly egotistical
Johnson finds his fate entwined with that of history's greatest
passer, an aging superstar given to sideline ranting, but also a
South Florida institution. In Johnson, Marino gets a coach who
values his record-shattering talents and knows he needs the
quarterback to get what he wants. "Our best chance is to win it
with Marino," Johnson says. "He can put us over the top."
Johnson first heard about Marino in the late '70s, while he was
an assistant at Pitt, where Marino attended football camps as a
high school quarterback. The only time the two met in a game
came in 1989, during Johnson's woeful 1-15 inaugural season in
Dallas. Just before halftime the Cowboys sacked Marino, and time
seemed to run out. But the referee--"my old buddy Jerry
Markbreit," Marino says with a laugh--asked if Marino had wanted
to call timeout. "If it had been any other quarterback, they
wouldn't have put those seconds back," Johnson says. On the next
play Marino tossed the usual miracle touchdown pass. Miami went
on to win 17-14.
However, while Johnson respects Marino's talent, he is isn't
awed by it. Unlike Shula, whose depth chart at times seemed
arranged as much by salary as by accomplishment, Johnson has a
history of disregarding star power when game time rolls around.
Marino had a typically excellent season in 1995--3,668 yards
passing, 24 touchdowns, a 90.8 quarterback rating--but he turns
35 in September. The Shula regime discussed a six-year deal with
Marino, whose contract was to expire after the 1996 season, but
Johnson wanted none of that. He figures Marino is capable of
only a few more years at a high level before the decline begins.
He is also wary of long-term deals because of the adverse effect
they can have on a team's management of the salary cap. So last
month, Johnson signed his future Hall of Famer for only three
years (at $5.91 million per) with the message as clear as water:
Nobody, not even Marino, slides by on reputation.
"That's part of football, and that's what makes it great: the
competition," Marino says. "Even though I've proven myself, now
I've got to prove myself again to another coach. I look forward
to that challenge."
Not that Johnson is fool enough to treat Marino like an ordinary
player. When the two sat down for the first time in January,
Johnson took pains to explain himself, his system. He spelled
out how he wanted to take the focus of the offense off Marino by
running the ball more, how that could add years to his career.
He and Marino will have these talks often. He needs his
quarterback on board. "I can't have him questioning the way we
do things," Johnson says. "He almost has to have blind loyalty."
Marino wants only one thing in return: a championship. "I'm
excited about playing for him," Marino says. "I've had a chance
to play 13 years in the league, and I've set a lot of records.
I've had a great career. But I haven't won a Super Bowl." Marino
told Johnson he didn't care if he threw only 10 passes a game,
as long as the Dolphins won. Johnson told him of his three-year
plan for pinning the NFL under his heel again. "That's what I
wanted to hear," Marino says.
What Marino liked even better was that Johnson wasn't dressing
up his own hunger for a Super Bowl as some kind of phony,
win-it-for-Danny-Boy quest. "Who's kidding who?" Johnson says.
"The reality is, you like to win it for yourself."
After a season in which he broke the NFL career records for
passing yards, touchdown passes and completions, only to find
those achievements tasting like ashes because he reached each
milestone during a loss, Marino can appreciate such naked need.
This early in the honeymoon he's willing to see beauty in almost
anything Johnson does. "He just says what he believes," Marino
says. "What's wrong with that? Nothing."
Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in South
Florida with anything bad to say about Johnson. His hiring was
so important that when the news broke, local TV stations
interrupted a live press conference being given by the President
of the United States. Now a team that was wiped out in the first
round of the '95 playoffs, lost three defensive stars and spent
its first draft pick on a project (defensive tackle Daryl
Gardener) is predicting it will increase its season-ticket sales
by 5,000, up to 58,000. For the moment, anyway, the mere mention
of Johnson's name inspires gushing.
"I've met a lot of great, famous people in my time, but I've
never been as overwhelmed as when I met Jimmy Johnson," says
Dolphins tackle Ron Heller. "Normally you have to feel a coach
out, find out what he's trying to get out of you. But I had such
an open communication and a feeling of ease with him. I honestly
felt like I'd had a brush with greatness."
Johnson was no legend when he arrived at the University of Miami
in 1984. He was fresh from guiding an obscure program at
Oklahoma State when he stepped into the shoes of '83
national-title winner Howard Schnellenberger. Johnson was so
concerned about living up to Schnellenberger's standard that, he
later admitted, he allowed the Hurricanes assistants he
inherited to intimidate him. The one he remembers most vividly
was Miami's defensive coordinator, Tom Olivadotti, who quit
shortly after Johnson arrived. In January, at the Senior Bowl in
Mobile, Ala., Johnson fired a slew of Shula's assistants on the
field in front of other NFL coaches. Olivadotti, who had spent
the past nine years as Shula's defensive coordinator, was among
the first to go.
Johnson shrugs all this off, just as he shrugs off his
long-frayed relationship with Shula. The two chatted at the NFL
owners' meetings, but, Johnson says, "there was tension, there
is tension, there always will be tension." Part of it stems from
the fact that he has Shula's job, and even more from the fact
that while in Dallas, Johnson demoted Shula's son David from
offensive coordinator to receivers coach. But, says Johnson, "I
think it's more than that. I think it's the success we had at
the University of Miami. I think it's my personality. I don't
know. And I don't really care."
Yet surprisingly, Johnson didn't fire all of Shula's aides. For
the third straight time, he has a legendary act to follow, and
he is secure enough to know that you don't need to burn a house
to its foundation before you can rebuild. He retained more than
half of Shula's staff because, those who know him say, he knew
those coaches would be useful. It would be a mistake to think
that Johnson's two-year hiatus from coaching mellowed him. He
remains proudly heartless, capable of cutting anyone off at the
knees. Ask defensive end Daniel Stubbs. He played for Johnson's
Hurricanes, then was shocked to find that that meant nothing
when the two were reunited in Dallas. Nine games into the '91
season Johnson cut Stubbs from the Cowboys because he didn't
like his work ethic. This year Johnson had to work hard to
persuade Stubbs to sign with the Dolphins.
"You've just got to know the man," Stubbs says. "He's just
business." Asked to explain, Stubbs laughs and compares dealing
with Johnson to handling a mean animal: "He'll bite you if you
don't treat him right."
If anything, Johnson's years in Dallas and his time out of
coaching have whetted his appetite. "Back in college, he didn't
accept losing," says free-agent quarterback Bernie Kosar, who
played for Johnson at Miami and Dallas and hopes to re-sign as
Marino's backup. "But I see him now, and I see it even more. I
see him more focused, more committed to winning a championship.
It's in his tone and in his eyes. It's not made up. You can see
it bleeding from his heart."
All of which is music in Miami, where sports tickets are a hard
sell unless you win big and nothing is more useless than the
past. One car dealership ran a barrage of ads on local TV in
April, celebrating Don Shula Appreciation Month. Obviously,
someone didn't understand the market. "One of the slowest Aprils
I've had," says Louis Alvarado, a manager at the dealership, Gus
Machado Ford in Hialeah, "and I've been here almost nine years."
Front-running fans? Johnson loves them because they are just
like him. What I care about is winning now. "That statement, in
essence, is Miami," Johnson says. "They want to talk about today
Mostly they want to talk about Johnson and how he's going to
make the Dolphins a power again, how he's the best there is and
how, quite soon, he and his team will be collecting Super Bowl
trophy after Super Bowl trophy. Jimmy Johnson hears all that.
"And I think they're right," he says.