In his first day as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, billionaire oilman Jerry Jones announced that he had fired head coach Tom Landry. University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, who played with Jones at Arkansas, was announced as his replacement.
The sacking of a legend like Landry was giant news throughout the state of Texas. He had been the Cowboys' coach for 29 years, their only coach in franchise history. With him at the helm, the Cowboys won two Super Bowls, 13 division championships, and posted a winning record in twenty consecutive seasons. Landry, with his trademark fedora and suit, was a driving force behind Texas' fanaticism with professional football.
As the 80's dragged on, Landry's position with the team seemed to be in doubt. After making the postseason in 1985, the Cowboys posted three consecutive losing seasons, including a 3-13 disaster in 1988. Many believed Landry was losing his touch and with the team's owner, H.R. (Bum) Bright, set to sell the team, the Landry era appeared to be at an end.
''I'll step down when I feel like I'm ready, when I can't do the job I want to do,'' Landry said in November 1988. ''It could be any time, or it could be a while.''
Less than two weeks before Bright sold the team, Landry fired the team's defensive and pass coordinators and showed no signs of relenting control. "I have no intention of retiring unless it is forced upon me,'' he said.
Jerry Jones then bought the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million, the first time a sports team surpassed the $100 million plateau. He told Landry face-to-face that he had been replaced, but by immediately announcing Johnson as the coach within minutes of his opening press conference, Jones drew the ire of many die hard Cowboys fans. Jones later admitted that Landry's departure could have been done more gracefully.
"I've never been one to get that upset, because I accept people as they are,'' said Landry, who gave a tearful goodbye to the Dallas players a few days later. ''Sure, the firing could have been handled better, but I won't get upset over it. I wouldn't think I would coach again, because it would just be hard, not being in the Cowboys' blue.''
It didn't take long for Jones to establish himself as a hands-on owner. He quickly fired general manager Tex Schramm, drafted UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman with the No. 1 pick, and traded star running back Herschel Walker to the Vikings for five players and six draft picks. Aikman was horrendous in his rookie season, losing all eleven games he started while throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. The Cowboys finished 1-15 in 1989, a new low for "America's Team."
Following Dallas' one-win season, Jerry Jones was absolutely despised by Cowboys fans. It was bad enough that an Arkansan had bought the team and replaced Tom Landry with Jimmy Johnson, but now Jones appeared to be driving the team into oblivion. Herschel Walker was considered one of the greatest college running backs of all time; simply giving up on him was not a popular decision in Big D.
As time passed, Jones' moves gradually became acceptable as the team started to win. Dallas went 7-9 in 1990, 11-5 in '91, and 13-3 in 1992. Troy Aikman went from being a linebacker's punching bag to a six-time Pro Bowler and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. While Walker was productive with the Vikings and later with the Eagles, he failed to live up to his massive expectations. Two of the draft picks Dallas got from the Walker trade turned out to be Darren Woodson, who became a five-time Pro Bowl safety, and Emmitt Smith, who utterly surpassed Walker by becoming the NFL's all-time leading rusher and setting the single-season touchdown record.
At Super Bowl XXVII, the Cowboys destroyed the Buffalo Bills 52-17 (only four years after Jones took over). The Cowboys went on to win three Super Bowls in four years and reestablished themselves as the face of the NFL. Jerry Jones, whose decisions created one of the greatest NFL teams of all time, was completely vindicated in his firing of Tom Landry. At the same time, the trade that brought in Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson, once thought to be a horrendous decision by Jones, is now considered one of the most lopsided trades ever -- in favor of the Cowboys.