13. Jimmy Johnson: Filling big shoes

No. 13 - Jimmy Johnson (1:30)

Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, Darren Woodson and Jerry Jones discuss why Jimmy Johnson is one of the greatest NFL coaches in history. (1:30)

ESPN celebrates the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth with the "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series, saluting the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.

Following a legend without tripping over his large shoes is no easy task. Jimmy Johnson made a career out of it. Before settling into a life as a TV analyst and Florida Keys fishing enthusiast/restaurateur, Johnson manned three successful transitions, taking over for revered coaches and becoming the first coach to win an NCAA championship and a Super Bowl.

After growing up in Port Arthur, Texas -- where he was high school classmates with singer Janis Joplin -- Johnson was a defensive lineman at the University of Arkansas, where he was a teammate of future Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. From 1965 to 1978, Johnson gained experience as an assistant coach at multiple colleges (and one season as a high school assistant). He worked at Louisiana Tech, Wichita State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Pittsburgh during this time, picking up more responsibility with each stop.

After spending two seasons (1977-78) as defensive coordinator/assistant head coach under Jackie Sherrill at Pittsburgh, Johnson got his first head coaching job at Oklahoma State, which he took to two bowl games in five up-and-down seasons. In 1984, Johnson was hired at the University of Miami to replace Howard Schnellenberger, who had just led the Hurricanes to their first national championship before accepting a job with the USFL. Miami went 8-5 in Johnson's first year but lost only four games the next four seasons, which included the 1987 national championship and two No. 2 final rankings.

In 1989, Jones bought the Cowboys, who had fallen on hard times under longtime coach Tom Landry. Jones' first order of business was to fire Landry -- who had led the team since its inception in 1960 and won two Super Bowls -- and replace him with his longtime friend.

Johnson's pro coaching career got off to a shaky start with a 1-15 season. Shrewd drafting helped Johnson restore the Cowboys to prominence, and he had them in the playoffs by his third season. In the 1992 season, the Cowboys won their first of back-to-back Super Bowls. But Johnson and Jones had been feuding over control, leading to Johnson's departure before he could pursue an unprecedented third consecutive championship. The team Johnson left behind was strong enough to win a Super Bowl two seasons later under Barry Switzer.

After two years out of football, Johnson was called upon yet again to replace one of the game's all-time greats. Don Shula had retired as the winningest coach in NFL history, and Johnson agreed to take over the Miami Dolphins. Johnson led the Dolphins to the playoffs three times in four seasons, but never got them past the second round. He retired from coaching for good after the 1999 season.

Johnson's legacy didn't end there; six of his assistants eventually became NFL head coaches, and nine became college head coaches (including Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis in both categories).

-- Kevin Stone


Jimmy gave this speech a couple of times a year and it always motivated me. That was his strength. He knew how to get the best from everybody.

He was in the team meeting room and he was telling us how he treats all his players differently depending on who you are. Most coaches tell you they treat every player the same -- and then they treat them differently. Not Jimmy. He told us how he treats us differently based on what we can do for the team and how we can help the Dallas Cowboys win games.

Then he put his hands above his head to show the guys at the top. These are the stars. Then he put his hands near his knee and said the guys down here are always getting cut or swapped out. Then he put his hand in the middle of his chest and said these guys are always going up or down. They never stay the same. They're either getting better or worse.

Jimmy never told a story unless there was something significant about it. Or there was some point he wanted to make. If you didn't want to work hard or you always had an excuse for why something went wrong, then Jimmy was all over you. You had to be early to meetings and stuff like that or he would get rid of you in a hurry.

Jimmy was a master manipulator. He didn't have to cuss you out or dog you to get you to do what he wanted you to do. He took what you feared most and used it to motivate you.

Stuff like Michael Irvin's fear of not being able to feed his family. Or Troy Aikman's fear of not being the best quarterback in the league. Or Emmitt Smith's fear of not being on the field.

He used my fear of letting the coach down. You could say anything and it wouldn't faze me, but if you cornered me off and got me in a one-on-one situation and made me commit, I would do whatever I said I was going to do because you showed faith and trust in me. Jimmy knew that. And he used it.

-- Former Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton, as told to Jean-Jacques Taylor

ESPN "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" voting panel: Chris Berman, Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Colin Cowherd, Mike Ditka, Gregg Easterbrook, Herm Edwards, David Fleming, Ashley Fox, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Suzy Kolber, Eric Mangini, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Bill Polian, Rick Reilly, Mike Sando, Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, Trey Wingo.