Decades later, Jimmy Johnson’s lessons still linger with former OSU Cowboys

Decades later, Jimmy Johnson’s lessons still linger with former OSU Cowboys

After his time with the OSU Cowboys, Johnson added to his legacy winning titles with the Dallas Cowboys

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

| Feb 11, 2024, 1:44pm CST

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

Feb 11, 2024, 1:44pm CST

(Ben’s weekly OSU newsletter makes checking email fun on Saturday. Subscribe here.)

STILLWATER — In the first meeting with the first football team he could call his own, Jimmy Johnson removed his jacket. 

Players watched as Johnson rolled up his sleeve. He put his elbow on a table. He flexed his bicep.

“This thing used to be as hard as a rock,” Johnson said.

The players went crazy. 

“Some of them came to feel his bicep,” said Houston Nutt, who at the time was a junior quarterback there for Johnson’s introduction. “It was a heck of a scene.”

Johnson left Stillwater 40 years ago this summer after taking the Cowboys to two bowl games in five seasons — something OSU needed the previous 20 years to accomplish.

When he left for Miami in the summer of 1984, a good football coach added the necessary ingredients to win the 1987 national championship. Then 30 years ago, Johnson won the second of two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, coaching Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.

Johnson maintains a large presence in the football world three decades later Smith and Irvin slipped a blue jacket around him when he got inducted into the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor last month. ESPN broadcast the ceremony live, and the world got to see Johnson pacing side-to-side, rehashing the greatness of his ‘90s teams. Johnson concluded with a line he made so famous, everyone in the stadium yelled it with him: “How ‘bout them Cowboys?’ 

Two weeks later, at halftime of Dallas’ 48-32 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, Johnson, a TV analyst for Fox NFL Sunday, growled at the camera, “You get your rear end in there and play the way you know how to play.” 

It felt like he was in a locker room, not a Los Angeles studio, and the fire in his voice made co-host Michael Strahan drop into a defensive stance. 

Before Johnson became an icon in the football world, he was just a 35-year-old, first-time head coach flexing his bicep on a table in the Iba Hall dormitory. 

Did anyone think that guy would one day have a bronze bust in the NFL Hall of Fame? 

Some players and coaches on those OSU teams from 1979-83, now middle school football coaches, pastors and sports radio hosts, knew Johnson was destined for greatness. Larry Roach saw Johnson’s special ability to motivate players. Pat Jones said Johnson’s enthusiasm set him apart in a business full of high-energy coaches. Nutt said he saw a light in Johnson’s eyes as he genuinely got excited about recruiting. 

“That’s championship DNA right there,” Nutt said. “You always knew he had the blueprint of, ‘Hey follow me. I can get this done.’” 

Enthusiasm was a defining trait of Johnson’s five seasons in Stillwater. It got him in trouble one day when he previewed the 1980 season with media members. He told the writers the Cowboys were going to “Knock their f****** eyes out” that season, but OSU lost its opener to West Texas State and finished 3-7-1.

Enthusiasm was a defining trait of Johnson’s five seasons in Stillwater. It got him in trouble one day when he previewed the 1980 season with media members. He told the writers the Cowboys were going to “Knock their f****** eyes out” that season, but OSU lost its opener to West Texas State and finished 3-7-1.

Whooping and hollering

The Ancestor was one of the few watering holes in Stillwater that wasn’t claimed by the college students. It served as a gathering place for OSU’s coaches. The restaurant, which sat on the south side of town before closing in 1990, had a bar in the back but was mostly known for its family-style food and housing the state’s first salad bar.

Customers congregated at Johnson’s table. 

“We’d end up attracting a pretty good crowd, and we liked to whoop and holler and have some fun,” said Jones, who coached with Johnson at Arkansas and Pittsburgh prior to becoming defensive coordinator at OSU. “Jimmy attracts fun.”

Johnson’s unrivaled zeal for football and life made him the center of attention. At work, Johnson’s vigor didn’t wane. He’d walk around practice, meetings and games clapping his hands and saying, “Everybody quick, quick, quick.”

Success came early in 1979, Johnson’s first season in Stillwater. Led by running back Worley Taylor, the Cowboys went 7-4 and finished with three straight wins against Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State. OSU finished third in the Big Eight after just three wins the year before. 

Johnson was named Big Eight Coach of the Year.  

Media members gathered at Stillwater’s Hampton Inn before the 1980 season, asking questions and talking football. Johnson called the group to order and the conversation went silent. 

 “I tell you what, guys,” Johnson told the reporters, “We’re going to knock their f****** eyes out next year.” 

Jones remembers hearing Johnson deliver the line. Jones shot assistant coach Dave Wannstedt a grim look. 

“I’m looking at Wannstedt, cause we’d lost some pretty good players (from the year before), and I’m kind of thinking … oooh boy,” Jones said.

West Texas State, a Missouri Valley Conference team, upset the Cowboys 20-19 in the opener, and OSU started the season 0-5-1. 

“That still gets brought up occasionally, but that did not diminish (Johnson’s) enthusiasm,” Jones said. “I think reality hit a little bit, but it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm.”

Nutt played two seasons at quarterback for Johnson at OSU. In 1981, Johnson made Nutt a graduate assistant coach. It was the start of Nutt’s 30-year coaching career, including 10 seasons at Arkansas and four at Ole Miss. 

“I will never forget the enthusiasm and passion he came in with,” Nutt said. “I’ve tried to take a little bit from every coach, and I can tell you the biggest thing I got from Jimmy Johnson was the enthusiasm, passion for the game.” 

Making everyone run

It took 10 practices for Jimmy Johnson to call out Larry Roach

It was the end of a hot, August sweatfest, back when practice was full contact. Johnson brought the entire team together at the 30-yard line and told Roach, an 18-year-old freshman kicker from Dallas, long snapper Jerry Coshow and holder John Doerner to go stand on the sideline. 

Johnson said the trio had 10 seconds, from the time he blew his whistle, to run from the sideline and kick a 40-yard field goal. The rest of the team was going to be circled behind them yelling as loud as possible. If Roach made the kick, practice was over. If he missed the kick, he would go shower and everyone else on the team would run. 

“That was more pressure than in any game I ever played in,” Roach said.

Roach, now director of board relations at Children’s Medical Center at Dallas, doesn’t remember if he struck the ball well or how close it flew to the uprights, but he knows he made the kick. It earned him some slaps on the back from teammates who said, “Nice kick, what’s your name again?”

A few weeks later, Roach made a game-winning, 24-yard field goal to beat Tulsa 23-22.

It was common to look up into the stands at practice and see players running the steps at what was then Lewis Field. But it wasn’t a player that caught Paul Blair’s eye one afternoon on the second leg of a two-a-day practice. A graduate assistant coach was climbing the 70 rows of steps. 

“I guess he had maybe called a wrong play in a scout drill or whatever, but it was the funniest thing, seeing one of the coaches running to the top of the stadium,” said Blair, lineman from 1981-85 and now a pastor at Liberty Church of Edmond. 

Johnson’s practices were physically intense, normal for college football teams in the ‘80s.

One of Johnson’s favorite drills was 110-yard sprints. Nutt said Johnson was big on making sure players touched their hand to the line. He would call out the names of players who pulled up and didn’t sprint through the line. If you didn’t do it right, you ran it again.

“If we were going to do 16 110s, it always turned into 20 because we weren’t hustling,” Blair said.

Consort held it all together 

Jimmy Johnson’s golden blond hair always looked like a golden ocean wave that never crashed. Now silver, his hair remains perfect every sunday on TV as a studio analyst for Fox NFL Sunday. 

“You didn’t mess with his hair … There was not a time I ever saw a hair blow, even on the plains of Oklahoma,” Blair said.

Blair remembers watching one of Johnson’s Super Bowl wins and seeing Aikman touch Johnson’s hair in the celebration. Johnson smiled, but Blair could tell by the look on his old coach’s face that he wasn’t happy about it.

Johnson used Consort Hair Spray. Once, Johnson had a public appearance to attend and ran out of spray, so he sent an OSU staffer to a drug store to buy another can. 

Johnson’s attention to detail applied beyond his personal appearance. 

Iba Hall, in the heart of campus, was the athletes’ dorm. Roach remembers being at dinner on the bottom level when three or four baseball players entered wearing their hats. Johnson walked over and asked them to be respectful and take their hats off now that they were indoors. The players left and returned 20 minutes later with more teammates — all wearing hats.

“Jimmy, you could just see him turn red,” Roach said. “He couldn’t do anything about it.”

Football players wore coats and ties on road trips. If they showed up in jeans and a T-shirt, they weren’t allowed to board the plane.

The last player to arrive for Johnson’s Thursday night team meeting had to run, even if they were on time. Johnson scheduled the meetings at times like 6:03 p.m. or 4:58 p.m. because it helped stick in the players’ minds. 

Unfortunately for Roach, one Thursday in 1983, his mind was occupied with something else. 

“I asked a girl out to dinner and then, all the sudden, I looked at my watch and said, ‘Oh no.’ I had got caught up eating and talking to her,” Roach said.

The meeting room in the team facility had large glass doors, and before Roach even entered, he could see Johnson looking at him with his arms folded. 

“I came walking through those doors, and his eyes followed me, and he just gave me that look,” Roach said. “Afterward he was like, ‘Roach, stay,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘You know what the rule is, right?‘“

Roach did know the rule. Now, he had a Sunday date with the Lewis Field steps.

Not all wake-ups sound the same

Jimmy Johnson had a motto that struck Nutt as odd.

“It was the first time I heard somebody say, ‘I don’t treat everyone the same. I treat them by what they earn,’” Nutt said.

Nutt remembers a player falling asleep in a team meeting. Johnson kicked the chair and told the player to get out of the meeting. Another time, a more decorated player was dozing off, so Johnson walked over and roused the player by whispering his name.

It was the same philosophy Johnson employed with the Dallas Cowboys. He boasted to the Washington Post about treating players differently. He said he wasn’t going to be nearly as tolerant of defensive tackle Jimmie Jones going on The David Letterman Show, but if quarterback Troy Aikman wanted to go back on the late night TV show, he could.

“You had to earn that respect,” Nutt said. “And you earn it by giving great effort, doing what’s right, being a playmaker and doing the little things right.”

Sucking air with the team

Johnson didn’t waste the psychology degree he holds from the University of Arkansas

In a 25-15 loss against Tulsa in 1982, Roach missed four field goals, including a 50-yarder that Tulsa blocked and returned for a touchdown.

He walked into Monday’s practice expecting to get benched. He wanted to apologize to Johnson for the misses and asked to talk. 

 “Sorry for what?” Johnson sharply responded.

Johnson patted his disheartened kicker on the leg and told him not to worry about it. Johnson said he knew what Roach was capable of. The following week at Louisville he rebounded, making three of four field goals. 

Occasionally, though Johnson could get fiery. Roach got a flashback last month sitting on his couch watching Johnson give an intense halftime pep talk like he was coaching the Dallas Cowboys against the Green Bay Packers. 

“I told my wife, ‘Do you know how many times I’ve seen that? Not that speech, but seen him get just like that,’” Roach said. “That emotional, that excited, that angry. I mean, for a game he’ll motivate you to go play anybody.” 

Johnson motivated with more than words.

When the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ morale was at its lowest, usually after several 110-yard sprints, Johnson would often join them on the line.

“Now, he was sucking air, too,” Nutt said. “He was gasping for breath, but he was showing the players, ‘I’m going to do exactly what you do. I’m going to pay this investment and this sacrifice. I’m going to show you I can make it on a hot day.’”

The beckoning beaches

Blair learned of Johnson’s June 5, 1984 departure while in the middle of leg day at an Edmond Gold’s Gym. The move happened abruptly. Miami needed a head coach after Howard Schnellenberger left for a coaching and front office position in the United States Football League.

Word traveled quickly among teammates. Johnson gathered the team in the all-purpose meeting room that looked out over Lewis Field. He stood behind a podium and informed the team he was going to Miami. 

It was a more subdued meeting than the one where he flexed his bicep five years earlier. Mark Moore, a sophomore defensive back in the room, said Johnson told the team it was the best move for him and his family and to continue working, because he thought the team would have a great year. The Cowboys returned 15 starters and 90% of their scoring production. They went on to win 10 games in 1984. 

Johnson’s move for the beaches of the University of Miami was bittersweet for the Cowboys.

It was bitter because of the success OSU had found under Johnson and the connection he had with his players. They were coming off a 24-14 win in the Bluebonnet Bowl and Johnson’s career record at OSU was 30-25-2, the best winning percentage of an OSU coach since Jim Lookabaugh from 1939-49. OSU athletic director Myron Roderick said he regarded Johnson as one of the top coaches in the country. 

Barry Switzer was the head coach at OU from 1973-88 and won three national championships in that time. In 1979, when Johnson was at Pittsburgh, he called Switzer to tell him he was considering taking the job at Oklahoma State. 

“I said, ‘Well, Jimmy, you know what’s going to happen; I’m going to beat your ass every year and I’m going to get all the good recruits,’” Switzer told selloutcrowd.com. 

Johnson never did win Bedlam. In 1983, he had a 20-3 lead on the Sooners in the fourth quarter. The margin wasn’t safe, even in the friendly confines of Lewis Field. Two OU touchdowns made the score 20-18, then with three minutes left, a line drive kickoff bounced off the helmet of Cowboy Chris Rockins, the Sooners recovered and ultimately kicked a 46-yard field goal to win 21-20.

“We did beat their ass every year,” Switzer said, “but he did make ‘em better.” 

Johnson’s departure was sweet because a large group of seniors lobbied for Jones, beloved by his team, to take over and the request was granted. 

There were no hard feelings toward Johnson. Moore, now a middle school football coach at Jenks in the Tulsa area, just remembers Johnson saying it was something he felt was best for him and his family and thanking all of the players he recruited for coming to OSU. 

“There was just something about him,” Moore said, “that Stillwater wasn’t going to be able to hold him down.”

 

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Ben Hutchens and his twin brother Sam cover Oklahoma State for the Sellout Crowd. After a decade of living in the state, Ben finally feels justified in calling himself an Oklahoman. You can reach him at [email protected] and continue the dialogue @Ben_ Hutchens_ on social media.

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