Jimmy Johnson joins Cowboys' ring of honor 30 years after ugly split with Jerry Jones

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Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, left, talks with Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson after Johnson was inducted into the team's ring of honor during a ceremony at halftime of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

ARLINGTON, Texas – Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones tip-toed around talk of their acrimonious split almost 30 years ago, when they had just teamed as coach and owner to win consecutive Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys.

Whether that breakup was the reason it took Jones so long to put Johnson in the team's ring of honor doesn't matter much at this point to both Pro Football Hall of Famers.

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The bottom line is Johnson is joining Tom Landry as the only coaches alongside the 19 players and two executives in the exclusive group of one of the NFL's storied franchises.

Johnson was greeted by the Hall of Fame “Triplets” who headlined his Super Bowl teams — quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and receiver Michael Irvin — for the ceremony at halftime of Saturday night's regular-season home finale against the Detroit Lions.

“Thank you, Jerry Jones, for bringing me to the Dallas Cowboys,” Johnson told the crowd.

Johnson capped his acceptance speech with a dramatic pause as he walked up to Irvin, turned and offered his famous catchphrase, “How 'bout them Cowboys!” He said it the first time in the locker room after Dallas won at San Francisco in the NFC championship game before the first Super Bowl victory.

“You can say whatever you want to about my human reaction or frailties,” Jones said before the game. “I say this today, he’s there because it’s the right thing. He was always going in the ring of honor, whether I put him in or my kids put him in.”

One of the theories behind the abrupt end of Johnson's tenure in 1994 was a tussle over who should get credit for the dramatic turnaround in Dallas.

The Cowboys went from 1-15 in 1989 — the year Jones bought the Cowboys and hired Johnson after firing the only coach Dallas ever had in Landry — to the first back-to-back Super Bowl titles in franchise history to cap the 1992 and ’93 seasons.

“I think we’re past who gets credit,” Johnson said. “The two of us, working together, made history. When I say working together, we talked every single day. I don’t ever recall us having a difference of opinion.”

Others would suggest Johnson's take is revisionist history, because he was incensed 30 years ago over suggestions from Jones, also the team's general manager, that any one of 500 coaches could have won a title with the Dallas roster.

Barry Switzer did it two years after the split of Jones and Johnson, who were teammates at Arkansas in the early 1960s. But critics never stopped suggesting the 1995 title was with Johnson's players, and the Cowboys haven't even reached an NFC championship game since that season.

Aikman was working the game as an analyst for ESPN and hustled down from the broadcast booth to join the ceremony. He stood with Irvin and Smith during the presentation, which started with Johnson walking through a greeting line of dozens of players from his Super Bowl run.

“It means everything to me and my teammates and everybody that was a part of those teams,” Aikman said on ESPN during the first half. “And the circle has been closed tonight at halftime.”

After two years away from football, Johnson returned with the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and led them to the playoffs the last three of his four seasons. But Miami never got past the divisional round.

The 80-year-old Johnson, a Texas native, has been a Fox studio analyst the past two decades and was enshrined in Canton, Ohio, in 2020, three years after Jones.

Now Johnson's name will be inside AT&T Stadium along with Landry, who led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles in the 1970s and is fifth on the career list with 250 regular-season victories.

“I don’t think anybody can ever imagine what this means to me,” said Johnson, who won the 1987 college national championship at Miami. “This was a special time in my life. This was something that paid dividends for me the rest of my life. We took over the worst football team in the NFL. Not only did we win Super Bowls, but we were able to put together the team of the ’90s.”

Because of that, the split left many, including Johnson's players, wondering what might have been had he stayed. Not only is Johnson past the question of credit, he doesn't think much about “what ifs” either.

“Sometimes I’m kind of like a gypsy,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been anywhere more than five years. Got the point after winning a couple of Super Bowls, almost to the point of, ‘I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish.’ Sometimes you lose sight of what you can do because of what you’ve already done.”

Johnson suggested he and Jones weren't communicating as well at the end of their time together in Dallas as they had at the beginning, when they both faced a firestorm of criticism.

Jones suggested he let the sudden success of the Cowboys go to his head.

“What Jimmy brings is a lot of the best of me, enthusiasm, what have you,” Jones recalled telling his parents just before the split became public in 1994. “When it’s going the other way, I don’t like myself. It’s taking away from it. That mentality probably caused me to be not as tolerant as maybe we could have gone.”

A sense of closure for many of those issues was coming a few hours later.


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