Winning at All Costs - The Cautionary Tale of the Dallas Dynasty

On the morning of February 25th, 1989, Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million.

After a news conference announcing the news, Jones boarded a private jet and flew to the remote town of Lakeway, Texas to find his head coach. Jones arrived at the Hidden Hills golf course to find Landry and his son working on their putting as the sun set following an evening round. With his general manager at his side, Jones introduced himself, and unceremoniously fired Landry on the spot.

At the time, Landry was the third all-time winningest coach in NFL history. His career accomplishments included twenty consecutive winning seasons and two Super Bowl championships. Landry was known as a man of faith who according to one player, “wanted you to be a great football player, but really wanted you to be a great man.”

The same would not be said about his successor Jimmy Johnson, the former head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Johnson was driven by a single, solitary obsession - to win, no matter the cost.

In Johnson’s first year in Dallas, the Cowboys were the worst team in football, finishing the season with a 1-15 record. Johnson spent much of his time removing anyone who might get in the way of his success, starting with journeyman kicker Massimo Manca.

On the first day of Cowboys mini-camp, Johnson required all players to run 16 110-yard sprints under a specific time. This was in March, months before actual camp would start. Manca considered himself a stationary kicker more than a professional football player, and needless to say, he struggled to complete the sprints. In fact, he committed a cardinal sin that would end his career.

After an asthma attack made breathing almost impossible, Manca stopped.

Johnson was livid, and eager to make an example out of someone. Pausing the drill, he laid into Manca in front of the entire team.

Accounts vary as to what was actually said, but most agree that Johnson kicked him off the field shouting, “THE ASTHMA FIELD IS OVER THERE!” Two days later, Manca was cut.

The message was clear: Thou shalt not be an obstacle to my success.

The incident reverberated through the team. “If Coach is willing to banish someone because of a life-threatening asthma attack, what the hell will he do to me?”
Johnson quickly established two forms of justice. On the one hand, if you got in the way of winning, you were gone. When quarterback Micahel Peyton collapsed during a workout, doctors discovered he suffered from a rare neurological condition. After surgery and weeks of arduous rehabilitation, Peyton returned to practice only to learn he had been cut for being “too unreliable.”

After linebacker John Roper and his wife welcomed a new baby girl into the family, he suffered from sleep deprivation for weeks as he stayed up night after night with his infant daughter. When Johnson caught him dozing off in a team meeting, he unleashed a hellish tirade before cutting him in front of the entire team.

On the other hand, there were no rules for those who could help Jimmy Johnson win football games.

Star wide receiver Michael Irvin loved three things in life: winning football games, wild women, and cocaine. Johnson was explicitly clear in his handling of Irvin, as long as he helped the Cowboys win, he didn’t give a shit about anything else. All other transgressions could be overlooked as long as you performed on the field.

Irvin was one of many Cowboys who took advantage of being a vehicle for Johnson’s success. When he was caught with prostitutes at a local hotel, he played. When he was charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine, he played. When he stabbed teammate Everet McIver in the neck with a pair of barber scissors following an argument after practice, a gash that required 18 stitches to close, he played.

Defensive phenom Charles Haley was another Cowboy whose behavior could be recklessly inappropriate. Fond of exposing himself to teammates, Haley frequently attended team meetings wearing nothing but his birthday suit. He once became so incensed with a teammate that he urinated in his car. Under Johnson, as long as he sacked the quarterback, he played.

This message was equally as clear as the first: You can do anything you want as long as you help us win.

And so the Jimmy Johnson era continued for five tumultuous seasons. It resulted in back-to-back Super Bowl titles, but came with a human cost that is difficult to measure. The Cowboys suffered from embarrassing off-the-field incidents including multiple arrests, near-fatal car accidents, broken marriages and neglected families. Johnson’s ego increasingly clashed with Jones as both men demanded credit for the team’s success. Their relationship soured, and Johnson was fired following the 1993 season.

While you might dismiss this cautionary tale as a product of the win-at-all costs mentality that pervades in professional sports, I can’t help but think of the many times I have fallen prey to seeing some players as obstacles to my success.

Just the other day I scoured the landscape of our 4th-6th grade open gym, silently plotting who might one day help us win, and who might get in the way. I thought about players who might have operated with an extended leash because they were high performers - more mistakes were tolerated from those who could put the ball in the basket.

I thought of all the times I’ve been quick to judge a player’s attitude or effort without seeking first to understand the unique circumstances from which they arrive into our gym.

I remembered too many times when I’ve failed to see our players as people first.

And I believe this is the antidote that provides the greatest inoculation from seeing players as obstacles or vehicles to our success. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys are an extreme case study of what can go wrong when humanity is sacrificed at the altar of success.

The challenge is to never lose sight of this: as transformational coaches we are using the pursuit of success as a means to enhance the human experience of our players, both good and bad. The cost of not doing so is simply too great to ignore.

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

Story adapted from Jeff Pearlman’s book Boys Will Be Boys: The glory days and party nights of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty

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