by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

LOS ANGELES — The hair! The hair! They are buzzing about his hair, his follicles, his “do”, his mop, big brown crown. Does it move? Does it muss in a hurricane? Could he use it as a helmet? Could he melt it with anti-freeze? Does he comb it, or slide underneath it? Can he run his fingers through it, or does he need power tools? The hair! The hair! Jimmy Johnson hears all this talk about his hair, why he wears it in that Glen Campbell, early-1970’s, part and dip and swirl back, half-country, half-lounge lizard, spray-until it turns-to- cement style. Such hair! Pre-game hair, post-game hair, breakfast-lunch-to-dinner hair, hair that will not, can not, dare not deviate, rain-nor-sleet-nor-snow-nor-hail hair. Industrial strength hair. Military muster hair. Hair that takes orders. Hair that salutes. They are talking about his hair, and he can hardly believe it. Here he is at the Super Bowl, all the way from Port Arthur, Texas, via Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma and Miami, the promised jobs and the jobs that never came, the headlines and the nasty letters, the doubters who screamed that he was turning out nothing but trash-talking, hip-shaking show-offs and listen, Johnson, we were so happy when Penn State knocked that chip off your shoulder in Miami, and listen, Johnson, you’ll never replace Howard Schnellenberger, and listen, Johnson, you’ll never replace Tom Landry. All the crap he has to take, now he’s here, the Super Bowl, the epicenter of the American sports world, and they are asking about his hair.

Cripes, he’s thinking.

“If I could do something else with it, I would, OK?” says Johnson, the Cowboys coach, pulling a lock and letting it fall back into place. “But it’s straight and fine and it only goes one way. If I don’t put a touch of spray on it, it falls in my eyes and I don’t like that.

“The only other thing I could do is shave my head, and I don’t feel like shaving my head.”

He forces a laugh. He’s thinking: Hair. Unbelievable. Just like always. The bigger the event, the dumber the questions. It was like this in the Orange Bowl. It is like this in the Super Bowl. He wonders if it will be like this at the Gates of Heaven.

“Jimmy,” the angels will say, “before we let you in, you must confess: spray or mousse?”

And yet, know the hair, know the man. Because the rest of Jimmy Johnson, 49, is just as unswerving, unflappable, and entirely non-plussed as that helmet-like coif. There is one way to comb football, one way to part it, one way to lock it into place.

That is the magic of this stocky, well-tanned, barrel-headed football coach who once upon a teenage time in Texas, used to smash car doors with his forearm. He has this approach to life. He is already the star of Super Bowl XXVII — for no matter what happens Sunday — for what he has done to get here in just four years, the Point A to Point B blueprint that raised the Cowboys from the dead. The amazing thing is not that Johnson has done it. The amazing thing is that, to him, it is as simple as shampoo, rinse, blow dry, spray.


“What is the single most important ingredient a player must have to play for you?” Johnson is asked.

“Performance,” he snaps.

Performance. Not character. Not statistics. Not a growth chart, or a set of home barbells. While many coaches work from the ground up — find athletes, build their bodies, teach them skills, give them playbooks — Johnson cuts right to the chase. He looks at what they do in combat. “I want guys who make plays,” he says.

That means, when he looks for personnel — and he is always looking for personnel — he blinks only when he sees someone catch a pass that is uncatchable, make a cut that is unthinkable, make a hit that is unfathomable. Plays. Performance. Stuff you can’t teach.

“People in our business get too carried away with potential,” he says.
“Bench presses, statistics. I’ve fallen for that a few times, and it almost never works out. A guy’s got to be a performer.

“That goes for coaches, too. There’s a lot of smart, smart, football coaches out there — they know so much about football, they could write books
— but for some reason, their players don’t play very good. You know? And that’s not the kind of guy I want to hire.” 2. MAKE YOUR OWN DECISIONS.

“We don’t have a player personnel director,” Johnson says. He says this with pride. He makes the moves, he and the scouts. The players respect this, they fear this, and he knows it. And this is the way it should be, because if Johnson has one standout attribute, it is judging talent. At the college level, when he coached Oklahoma State and University of Miami, he recruited the players he desired. Nobody told him yes or no.

With the Cowboys, it works the same way. The fact that his owner is also his former college teammate, Jerry Jones, a “oil- bidness” multi-millionaire, certainly makes this more possible. But Johnson flinches at the idea he got lucky.

“I was one of the best college football coaches in the country. Jerry hired me. If I didn’t go to Dallas, I might have gone someplace else, and I might be sitting here with another team right now.”

Take that. 3. DON’T THINK ABOUT what you lose; think about what you gain.

Most coaches would be too timid to trade their only star player in their very first year. In Johnson’s case, he arrived in Dallas, looked at Herschel Walker, said, “I’m not sure his heart is right for us” and dealt him away. It is the trade that gave this franchise a second life. The draft choices he collected from Minnesota on that swindle have turned into, amongst others, running back Emmitt Smith and defensive lineman Russell Maryland.

But that wasn’t the only trade. All told, Johnson has made 46 deals since joining the Cowboys. And unlike some coaches, he doesn’t care what the guy he trades does for his new team. He only wants to know what the new guy brings.

“People are asking me all week about losing Dave Wannstedt (his defensive coordinator, who will take over the Bears next year). But in 15 years as head coach, I’ve only come back the next season once with the same people I had the season before. I’m used to change.”

In fact, he lives by it. He seems to crave it. Johnson was not satisfied being coach of Oklahoma State. He was not satisfied with a national championship and several near-misses in Miami. And he may not be satisfied with a Super Bowl win Sunday. He is asked what happens when he runs out of rainbows; he waves a hand in dismissal. “There’s always something else to shoot for,” he mumbles. 4. SPEED, NOT SIZE. 5. QUARTERBACKS, THEN DEFENSIVE LINEMEN.

These two go hand-in-hand. Johnson has always preferred quick, fast, players — particularly on defense — because “they tend to pick up fumbles, or knock down passes. They tend to be playmakers.” (See Rule No. 1.)

He also emphasizes quarterbacks and defensive linemen, because he sees them as fulcrums of the offense and defense. “Here we got Troy Aikman and Steve Beuerlein, two good quarterbacks. And we have a whole load of defensive linemen as well. You start with those two positions, you’ll usually succeed.” 6. LET THEM BE THEMSELVES.

The best coaches live by this. The best coaches almost enjoy it. You don’t think those Miami players would have marched out of that steak-fry in the Fiesta Bowl, or worn those army fatigues at the airport, or talked trash on the field to those neat, sweet, Penn State kids if the coach didn’t at least privately wink at it, do you?

“Coach just lets you be a man,” says Michael Irvin, who has followed Johnson from Miami to Dallas and has taken his swagger, his jewelry, and his fast-talking attitude with him. “All he expects out of you is to perform on Sunday. And you want to perform for him, because if you don’t, he can be a mess to deal with.”

Says Johnson, without apology: “I give my time to players who perform. Players who don’t perform, the only time I give them is when I tell them they’re released.” Success drives, rewards him

And there you have it. As stiff as his hairdo. Johnson is not necessarily a likable guy, not if you’re looking for depth of personality. He pretty much dumped his wife of 26 years when he took over the Cowboys, sensing that he needed to clean the decks for his new role in life. He lives alone now. He reads New Age books, about “focusing” on goals and achieving success. He is a bit of an 80’s cliche, afloat with achievement, obsessed with detail, a guy who separates clothes in his closet by their colors. Success drives him. Success rewards him.

But pro football is looking for men like this, and it doesn’t mind if they sleep at the office. Johnson has risen to the top of this heap faster than any coach in recent memory. You sense he is here to stay. He has the youngest team in the NFL. He may have the best. And he likes his fun and his beer: he just likes to have it when he wins.

So let them talk about his hair. Let them marvel at its obedience, its stubborn resolve to stay where it is. Let them try to torch it, windsweep it, soak it. It will be there come kickoff on Sunday, and, like the man underneath

it, it will not change, because it works.

“You know,” says Irvin, “couple of us players were thinking if we win this Super Bowl, maybe we’ll get coach to shave his head.”

Wanna bet? J J DOES DALLAS Jimmy Johnson’s coaching career with the Cowboys: Regular season YEAR WON LOST PCT 1989 1 15 .063 1990 7 9 .438 1991 11 5 .688 1992 13 3 .813 TOTAL 32 32 .500 Post-season YEAR WON LOST PCT 1991 1 1 .500 1992 2 0 1.000 OVERALL 35 33 .515
* 1991: Won wild-card playoff against Chicago, 17-13; lost to Lions, 38-6, in divisional playoff.
* 1992: Won divisional playoff against Philadelphia, 34-10; won conference championship against San Francisco, 30-20.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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