Gold Jacket Spotlight: Jimmy Johnson, A Football Psychologist
Coming off a 1-15 season in 1989, there was little reason for anyone around the Dallas Cowboys to feel overly optimistic about the team’s immediate future.
Yet head coach Jimmy Johnson, speaking to longtime football writer Peter King, said with certainty: “I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll win here, and we’ll win big. Write it down.”
Jimmy’s unwavering confidence and his team’s ability to back up his words made him a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class of 2020. This week, his nine-year NFL head coaching career is recalled in the Gold Jacket Spotlight.
Jimmy took over a Cowboys team that hadn’t reached the playoffs since 1985, hadn’t advanced in the postseason since 1982 and hadn’t played for the NFL championship since dropping Super Bowl XIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 1978 season.
By Year 2, Jimmy and the Cowboys were knocking on the door – riding a four-game winning streak late in the season to reach 7-7. Back-to-back losses to end the year kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs but set the table for their coach’s next bold prediction that came in the summer of 1991:
“We’ll be in the playoffs.”
And his words proved accurate.
Winning their final five regular-season games, the Cowboys finished at 11-5, trailing only eventual Super Bowl champion Washington in the NFC East. They kept their momentum in the postseason, topping the Bears before losing to the Lions.
The stage was set for the most successful run in the Super Bowl era: three titles in a four-season span.
In 1992, the Cowboys rolled to a franchise-best 13-3 record to win the NFC East, then vanquished the Eagles and 49ers in the NFC playoffs and dismantled the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, 52-17.
Dallas and San Francisco would meet again for the NFC title the following season, prompting Jimmy to proclaim: “We will win the ball game. And you can put it in 3-inch headlines. We will win the ball game.”
Final score: Dallas 38, San Francisco 21.
“I wrote the check, and the players cashed it,” Jimmy said.
The Cowboys then beat the Bills again to repeat as World Champions.
Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin saw Jimmy’s approach work in college and in the pros.
“He'll make you do some things you don't want to do, and you know you don't want to do them, but for some reason you'll do them and enjoy it,” he told Sports Illustrated.
That’s how a psychologist works his craft. Appropriate for Jimmy, whose college major at the University of Arkansas and intended career path wasn’t to sit in a coach’s office, but rather an industrial psychologist’s office.
He knew how to push buttons and how to motivate.
“Let the mind control the body, not the body control the mind,” Jimmy said often.
He summed up his philosophy in his Enshrinement speech this past August.
“I wasn't a dreamer. Dreaming is hoping,” he said. “I believed. I really believed.
“When you believe it, it has something (to do with) the way you act and how you deal with people, your expectation. You put expectations on them. You treat a person as he is, he's going to stay as he is. Treat a person as if he were what he could be and should be, he'll become what he could be and should be.
“I didn't dream. I believed we were going to do it.”
Jimmy left Dallas after that championship 1993 season. A team he largely built won it all again two seasons later. After two years away from the sidelines, he coached the Miami Dolphins for four seasons, reaching the postseason three times.
He finished his career with an 80-64-0 record in the regular season and 9-4 in the playoffs.
“You can live your life influenced by others, or you can believe in something,” Jimmy said in his Enshrinement speech. “People say, ‘Hey, you're stubborn, you're foolish, you're crazy,’ but if you believe it, you're going to work to make it happen.”