NFL teams
Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer 56d

'How 'bout them Cowboys?' The inside story of Jimmy Johnson's legendary line

NFL, Dallas Cowboys

They sat undisturbed at a picnic table at Jimmy Johnson's favorite Italian restaurant along Highway A1A in the Florida Keys one Saturday night in early April.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame coach was with his Hall of Fame quarterback, Troy Aikman, three of his former assistant coaches -- defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and offensive line coach Tony Wise -- his agent, Nick Christin, and the public relations chief at the University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys, Rich Dalrymple. Some of their wives were on hand, too.

After a day spent on Johnson's boat, fishing and telling stories, there was one more story to tell.

It was about the 1992 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ersĀ -- and what Dalrymple called the Cowboys' finest hour, borrowing the term from former English Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Dalrymple presented those in attendance with a double-sided framed photo, and on one side, there's a picture of Johnson smiling, holding a towel with the words, "How 'bout them Cowboys?"

As Johnson readies for his induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday, many will recall how he led the rebuild of America's Team with the help of the Herschel Walker trade -- drafting Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith and inheriting Michael Irvin as they formed the famed "Triplets" -- and led the Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowls. Others will point to his calculating methods and bravado.

But more than beating the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, Johnson's career is mostly defined by what happened inside Candlestick Park on Jan. 17, 1993, when the Cowboys beat San Francisco 30-20.

"I don't mean to put a damper on anything. No, no, no, but you do understand we do have one game left to play," the CBS cameras captured Johnson inside the locker room telling his players after the win. "Hey, fantastic, fantastic, fantastic. Every single one of you. And I'm not just talking about these last 60 minutes. I'm talking about the quarterback schools, the minicamps, the offseason, the training camp down in Austin when it was hot and you were tired. The whole bit. Everybody, you did one helluva job.

"And only thing else I got to say is, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?'"

That phrase has defined the Cowboys ever since, becoming a large part of NFL history.

"It may not have been the ultimate moment," Aikman said. "But it was our finest moment."

With Aikman presenting Johnson during Saturday's Hall of Fame ceremony, the coach has been reflecting on his career and the April weekend with his closest friends, sharing pizza, pasta, beer and red wine. It rekindled what was a magical time in Dallas Cowboys history.

"During that period of time, personally, I was so driven to not only be the best, but I was driven to get better," said Johnson, 78, who talked with ESPN in multiple interviews.

"Because of that, we probably didn't enjoy it as much as we should have. As soon as that game was over, of course, we're playing in the Super Bowl, and as soon as the Super Bowl is over, you're trying to get ready for the next season and getting ready for the draft because I was in charge of personnel. I had to rebuild the team and get ready for the next year. We were so driven to continually get better.

"I never took the time to enjoy the wins."

Now, he can. And he can savor every moment before and after that game in 1993. During Saturday's walk-through at Candlestick Park field, he charted on a piece of paper the slippery spots where the new sod was laid. He told Turner, Wannstedt and special teams coordinator Joe Avezzano where to avoid certain runs, blitzes or returns.

In San Francisco, this was supposed to be a coronation of 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who replaced Hall of Famer Joe Montana. The ghosts of Dwight Clark's catch still haunted the Cowboys from the 1981 NFC Championship Game.

But this was a different time for these Cowboys, who were 1-15 just four seasons prior.

This was the day "How 'bout them Cowboys?" was born.

"I wonder where coach got that from because he had that in his pocket," Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said. "That was in his pocket like, 'If we win, I'm going to say this.' It was perfect timing, too."

Inside the locker room

The players dressed inside the visitors' clubhouse that was used by the San Francisco Giants opponents. A picture of Roberto Clemente was on the wall near the entrance just as a reminder. Since it was built for a baseball team, there was barely enough room for a larger football roster. It was even more cramped with the coaches, support staff, athletic trainers and the assorted folks who made it inside the locker room to celebrate.

"It was a little mud shack," said former Cowboy Nate Newton, a five-time Pro Bowl guard. "You would expect from the 49ers, Candlestick Park, a better facility than that. But it was a baseball stadium, like [Washington's stadium] RFK was. Not a lot of guys could fit in there."

After the game ended and inside the tiny locker room, Aikman held in his arms teammate Jim Jeffcoat's son, Jackson, before Johnson addressed the team.

"When Jimmy called everybody up, there was no lollygagging around," Aikman said. "He made that clear early on. When he got up to speak, it was important everybody settled in. Jackson came running up, Jimmy was hollering, I just picked him up to make sure he wasn't running around."

Johnson stood tall on a blue equipment trunk, so he could see everybody in the crowded room.

"You don't realize, I'm quite an athlete," Johnson said as he smiled. "It wobbled a little bit, but I kept my balance."

For the first time, a crew from CBS Sports was in the locker room to catch the winning coach's comments. Beforehand, Johnson was not aware the cameras would be there.

"I kept thinking during the week of the game there would be a lighter moment and I'd ask him if it was OK [to allow the media crew] because I was afraid he would say no," Dalrymple said. "That moment never came. I was just rolling the dice. And that's when 'How 'bout them Cowboys?' happened. Had we not had CBS in there, think of all the ink and T-shirts that would never have been printed."

To this day, those who were inside the locker room remember the feeling of euphoria. Former fullback Daryl Johnston is 55 years old. Whenever he sees a replay of Johnson standing on that tiny table, he is instantly 26 again.

"The locker room went crazy after because it was just, I mean, you've got a lot of young guys in there in that situation for the first time," Johnston said. "That's your dream as a little kid growing up playing football, wondering if you'll play in a Super Bowl. Well, you're getting to go now.

"And you can't lose sight of the fact that just four years prior we were 1-15. There were a lot of people questioning whether Jimmy had the moxie to be an NFL coach."

Said Newton, "Man, when he let out that, we roared and you thought we had 100,000 people in that room."

Darren Woodson was a rookie safety for the Cowboys in 1992.

"I was in a situation where I didn't go to a bowl game in college [at Arizona State]," Woodson said. "So you can imagine being a rookie at 22 years old, whatever. Being in the locker room with those dudes and for Jimmy to say it, it just exploded. ... To have that energy in that locker room and the alpha dogs in there, led by an alpha dog head coach, that was f---ing awesome."

Former cornerback Larry Brown was in his second season with Dallas. Three seasons later, he would become the MVP of Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Jimmy was always talking about what they said we couldn't do," Brown said. "They're not old enough. They're the youngest team in the NFL. They're not good enough. There's no way they'll beat the 49ers at Candlestick. There's no way they're going to beat Buffalo. So he never said, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?' before, but we understood what he meant when he said it. [It was] 'How about these guys that everybody says there's no way.'"

Said Johnson, "The 49ers were probably a better team, but on that particular day, they weren't. We knew if we beat the 49ers, we were going to get a Super Bowl ring."

Two weeks later at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the Cowboys had their ultimate moment, throttling the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII 52-17 to mark their return to greatness.

But if the Super Bowl VI win in the 1971 season ended the thought that the Cowboys were always "Next Year's Champs" under former coach Tom Landry, beating the 49ers was the seminal moment for the 1990s Cowboys.

"At that moment after that win, it legitimized the Dallas Cowboys again," Wannstedt said. "And that was everyone that was associated with the organization, whether it was the players, coaches, owners, whoever if you were under the umbrella of the Cowboys. They took it and ran with it."

"How 'bout them Cowboys?" became viral before moments could become viral. None of them knew it would become that big. Not even Johnson, who joked he should have trademarked the phrase.

"Could've made some money," he said, laughing.

No one trademarked it until the Cowboys did in 2016, and they pay a yearly fee of $525 to maintain the phrase under their control for licensed apparel.

There's no escaping it

Closing in on 30 years later, Johnson, his assistant coaches and players can't escape the "How 'bout them Cowboys?" mantra. Not that they want to because it brings them back to a time when they were the best in the world.

"I've personally said it at least a million times," Woodson said.

Woodson was vacationing in Italy's Amalfi Coast with his wife when he once heard "How 'bout them Cowboys?" in a most unexpected way.

"We were in this little Italian food place," he said. "Most beautiful place. A little village and right behind it there is this little restaurant. Probably fits 30 people max. So tiny. Anyway, this little old lady was with her family. They owned the place. Her nephew or son or one of her grandkids may have told her who I was. She came up and said in this deep, deep Italian accent, 'Somebody told me to tell you, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?' It was really funny."

Johnson has his own restaurant story.

"We were in the Bahamas, actually Marsh Harbor, many years ago," Johnson said. "I had some friends with me and we took a boat over on this little island, a little back-of-the-way place. A guy looked over at me and he couldn't believe it, 'Jimmy Johnson's here,' and he looked over at me and he says, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?'"

The man later asked Johnson to autograph a trading card he carried with him.

"I said, 'Yeah, yeah, send it over,' so I pass it down and my wife, Rhonda, was sitting next to me and she said, 'Let me have the card,'" Johnson said. "She kind of fiddled with the card for a second. I said, 'Rhonda, what did you do?' She said, 'I drew a mustache on you.'"

Wannstedt has a running joke with a man who works at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, where the former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach lives now.

"He's one of the cart guys here at the club and he's as big a Dallas Cowboys fan as any in the world," Wannstedt said. "Anytime he's out there and I see him, it's a matter of who says it first, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?' If I don't say it, he says it. If he doesn't say it, I say it."

Newton remembers walking through the National Museum of American History and Culture in Washington when somebody screamed out, "How 'bout them Cowboys?!"

"That's some funny s--- because all these [Washington Football Team] fans looked around shaking their head with disdain," Newton said.

Newton mostly travels the United States by car or van. He loves to drive on the open road.

"Butte, Montana. I had a friend that lived up there and I went to visit him," he said. "He took me to this hole-in-the-wall place and people are looking at you because you're big anyway. But then someone figures out who I was and said, 'Hey, are you Nate Newton?' Yeah. 'How 'bout them Cowboys?'

"I don't know if it was a fan or one of the people at the bar that wanted our money."

What could be for 'them Cowboys'

The Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Washington Football Team are the only teams in the NFC not to reach a conference title game since 1995. The Cowboys have made the playoffs 10 times since and suffered painful losses in the divisional round in 2014 (Dez Bryant's overturned catch) and 2016 (Aaron Rodgers' third-and-21 completion). They have had eight losing seasons and finished 8-8 five other times since their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

With all of the losing, "How 'bout them Cowboys?" has taken on a different meaning.

"Anytime the Cowboys do anything bad, a guy like [ESPN's] Stephen A. [Smith] is like, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?'" Irving said in a mocking tone. "So it becomes usable in both directions now."

Newton has heard it, too. While he understands the organization's history, he is still fascinated that a team that has not sniffed a Super Bowl in so long can hold the attention of so many.

"How's a kid who's never seen the Cowboys in a Super Bowl, he's 25 years old, 22 years old, hollering, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?' That's what gets me," Newton said. "I mean, yeah, how 'bout them Cowboys? They ain't won for 25 years."

As much as it has been repeated to Johnson, it has never been done negatively to his face.

"Nah," the coach snickered, "I don't think anybody would dare say that."

Hope is always around the corner as the 2021 NFL season begins. Every time Irvin hears Johnson's speech, he is transported back to the visitors' locker room inside Candlestick Park.

"And then it makes you have a yearning to hear it again under the same light that you heard it in the first time," Irvin said. "You see, it has many iterations. They use it when we're not doing well. ... But the original iteration is what you hope to hear again.

"Really, 'How 'bout them Cowboys?'"

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was born a little more than six months (July 29, 1993) after Johnson's famous comment, but he grew up a Dallas fan and knows what it means.

"Obviously, he said that after winning a big one, right?" Prescott said. "To me, that's always stuck with me. When I sign autographs a lot of times, they ask me to put, 'How 'bout them 'Boys?' on them. And I think that's just kind of been a label to Cowboys fans. Every team kind of has their saying, and that stuck. And I think it means a lot.

"I know I want to be in the locker room and say it the same way he said it. Then it'll mean a whole lot more to me."

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