An excerpt from the forthcoming SWAGGER: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs—A Memoir by Jimmy Johnson with Dave Hyde. Copyright c 2022 by James W. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Some problems that came with coaching the Dolphins couldn’t be conveniently swept out the door. For instance, to fix messy salary cap issues, I had to release a handful of good veterans.
That added to the burden of a rebuild. The first time I met Shula after replacing him was at a team banquet in his honor. I held out my hand and he shook it while delivering a bare-knuckled message.
“You really f—– up,” he said.
“How so?” I asked.
“You let Troy Vincent and Bryan Cox go,” he said.
I mentioned that the salary cap dilemma left no choice. (I didn’t mention who caused the problem.) He was obviously angry I had replaced him. The NFL’s all-time winningest coach had the right to fume if he wanted.
I understood the dynamics of replacing a legendary coach by this point. I followed Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Miami, Tom Landry at Dallas, and now Shula. This became a regular question from visitors to the Keys: How do you replace an iconic coach?
The answer? I was never concerned about who came before me. There’s a saying: “You don’t want to follow the legend; you want to follow the guy that follows the legend.” None of that mattered to me. I always took a job based on where I would live, the opportunity it offered, and the people I was going to be around—not whom I followed. I took over an Oklahoma State program on probation because I wanted to be a head coach. I took the University of Miami job, sight unseen, at a coaches convention because of the opportunity and because I wanted to live there. I took the Dallas role because of Jerry’s offer and the NFL challenge. I went to the Dolphins because I wanted to coach again and still live in South Florida.
I acted respectful about the preceding era when the subject was raised, but I never looked back, or was hesitant about installing my methods. The past—even my past—didn’t mean too much to me while coaching in a particular season. I was always about the present and the future.
Media, fans, and many people inside the organization made comparisons to the previous coach because of the good memories and point of reference. I was usually good about sidestepping those issues, but I made a mistake a few months after replacing Shula in talking at a Dolphins awards banquet for their previous season. Many of the team’s greats were there and references were understandably made to the franchise’s history. The previous season was reviewed. Don Shula was lauded. Awards were given to players like Cox and Vincent, whom I had released to get the salary cap under control. The entire night was about yesterday.
“I know I’m supposed to say congratulations to all the people in the past,” I said when it came time for me to talk. “I’m supposed to talk about the great tradition, to pay tribute to all the great people who laid the groundwork . . .”
I gave a dismissive wave of my hand.
“Well, forget that,” I said. “I only care about one thing: the present. The people who are here to win now.”
That caused a stir. It’s how I felt. It’s how I always felt in any job. That night’s message was directed at my current staff and players, that what happened before doesn’t matter to us. But some things need a gentler touch or are just better left unsaid in a public forum.
Still, if others were upset at how I came in the door, I was more concerned with the minefield of inherited issues: An aging roster. Dan Marino’s physical health. A mediocre team. A limited array of draft picks. Salary cap problems. And maybe worst of all: a general, comfortable feeling from the players they had a good team since they made the playoffs the previous year before being blown out by Buffalo in the first round. As Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated, “It may be stretching things to say the Dolphins of 1996 have as many problems as the Dallas Cowboys of 1989, the year Johnson began his pro career. But not by much.”
My grand plan was to clean up those problems the first year, draft like I did in Dallas, and use Scotch tape and baling wire to hold Dan Marino together, if necessary, to make a quick run at the Super Bowl. There was a small margin for error. Dan was on board with everything right from my first day. I made sure to talk to him privately after my first team meeting to underline his importance in my plans.
“Coach, I’ve set enough records,” he said. “If I throw ten passes and we win, I’ll be happy.”
Dan still could throw the ball as well as anyone when healthy and proved to be a true pro, a great competitor, and, despite some media reports, a good partner with whom I had a solid relationship in our years together. I would have loved to have coached him in the prime of his career.
But if I foresaw the potholes involving the Dolphins’ roster, salary cap, and draft options when taking the job, I was surprised by the state of Dan’s legs. This was the era before quarterbacks were bubble-wrapped under protective rules. Dan’s gait remained affected by the aftermath of a torn Achilles tendon. He had minor knee surgery, as usual, after the previous season—”a tune-up,” he often called them. There were other effects from thirteen years of playing NFL quarterback.
It took one practice to reveal what it all meant. I had the team run a couple of laps around the field to loosen up. Dan came to me and said he could run a couple laps with everyone, no problem.
“But then my knees won’t let me practice,” he said.
Welcome to Miami.