Everything’s bigger in Texas, even the grudges, and you don’t get much bigger than the two-decade chill between two of the state’s most important sports figures, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson. Dating back to 1994, the split between the two Texas titans has narrowed in recent years, and now there are signs that the Cowboys might even induct the coach into the team’s hallowed Ring of Honor alongside other Cowboys notables like Jay Novacek and Gil Brandt.
But how did we get here? How did a two-time Super Bowl-winning team fracture so badly? Well, that’s a book-length story, but this is the short version.
Why did Jerry hate Jimmy?
You can decide for yourself if “hate” is too strong a word, but “intense personal and professional dislike” just doesn’t carry the same punch. Back in 1994, the Cowboys were coming off two straight Super Bowl wins on the backs of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. And one of the chief architects was Johnson, the coach who had joined them in 1989. Johnson had used some draft-day wizardry to build a juggernaut of a team, and everyone was thrilled with that except Jones … who thought Johnson was getting too much credit for creating a champion.
Jones once said that “500 coaches could have done what Jimmy did,” and initially, Johnson’s replacement, Barry Switzer, proved him right by winning a Super Bowl two years later. But neither Switzer nor anyone else possessed Johnson’s personnel acumen, the result being that the Cowboys have not been back to the Super Bowl since then.
“Disloyalty … I couldn’t handle the disloyalty,” Jones said in 2014. “Whether it was right or not, by every measurement you can go, I had paid so many times a higher price to get to be there than he had paid, it was unbelievable.” (Johnson responded by calling Jones “a rich [expletive that begins with “a”].)
Why did Jimmy hate Jerry?
Johnson got the heave-ho in March 1994, just weeks after the Cowboys bounced the Buffalo Bills for the second straight Super Bowl (and the Bills’ fourth straight loss). That in itself would be enough to stoke some decades-long resentment, especially in a guy as proud as Johnson. Combine that with the fact that Johnson felt Jones meddled too much in personnel matters — “my girlfriend knows more about football,” Johnson once said of Jones.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the trade where the Cowboys dealt away Herschel Walker in a trade that reshaped the entire franchise. “When I told Jerry that we were going to trade Herschel Walker, he was kind of astonished,” Johnson said in a recent ESPN “30 for 30.” “He said, ‘Really? You can’t get rid of Herschel Walker. We won’t score a point if we don’t have Herschel Walker.’ And that’s what Minnesota thought. Minnesota thought, ‘This college guy, we’ll pull one over on him. We’re going to give him these five guys, and they’ll fall in love with them, and we won’t have to give up anything until the No. 1 pick a couple years down the line.’ That’s what they thought.” We all saw what happened after that.
So what thawed the freeze?
Time, and also the recognition that Johnson and Jones weren’t nearly as successful without each other as they were together. Johnson congratulated Jones on his recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the men have reached a kind of peace.
“Yes, it is good with Jimmy Johnson. It’s very good,” Jones said in 2017. “Jimmy and I really understand the circumstances. To some degree we have a good feel for each other. I’ve always had to overlook his foils. But he’s had to overlook mine too.”
Now, it seems, the two men could be on the verge of bridging the gap once and for all.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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