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Beyond The U: Jimmy Johnson

From “Jimmy who?” to Legend of The U

Jimmy Johnson helped build Miami into a national brand.
UM Sports Hall of Fame

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.”

-Jimmy Johnson

Legend of The U

Coach Howard Schnellenberger rightly gets credit for putting the University of Miami football program on the map, but Coach Jimmy Johnson is the true architect of the program. He is the man responsible for turning the University of Miami Hurricanes into The U.

When he was hired away from Oklahoma State in 1984, JJ was greeted by the press and fans with a resounding “Jimmy who?”. By the time he left, the football program had become a powerhouse, a dynasty, and a legend. Through his dynamic recruiting, coaching, and personality, Jimmy shaped the program in ways which not only changed the University of Miami forever, it also changed both college and professional football.

By basing his 4-3 defense on speed and aggressiveness, JJ changed the template for defensive recruiting and play calling. Athletic linemen who attacked upfield and sleek linebackers who could run step for step with many wide receivers were the D’s trademarks. This style was quickly adopted throughout college and soon in the pros. His embrace of players personalities and backgrounds upset the apple cart in the conservative, largely white, NCAA. It could be argued that the Canes swagger was as much a statement of civil rights as it was of on-field dominance. When the team showed up in full camouflage at the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, it was clear that there was a new order, and that college football would never be the same.

What Johnson really brought was winning, and a lot of it. During Coach Johnson's tenure, The U compiled a 52–9 record, appeared in five New Year's Day bowl games, won the 1988 national championship and lost a championship to the Penn State Nittany Lions in 1987 (And should have played for another in 1989 but was inexplicably bumped by FSU). School records were set for consecutive wins with 36; and consecutive road victories with 20. He began Miami's NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak with victories in his final 26 Orange Bowl games.

When the NFL came calling for Johnson, those who had been paying attention knew it had only been a matter of when.

New Sheriff In Dallas

In a story well-known to all, Johnson was hired as Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Former Arkansas Razorbacks teammate Jerry Jones was the owner, and brought Johnson aboard to replace Coach Tom Landry. In what would become a recurring theme of JJ’s career, he replaced a coaching legend.

The Cowboys at that time, to put it bluntly, sucked. Johnson knew he had to do something to upgrade the talent and scheme to compete in the tough NFC East. Working closely with Jones and the personnel department, JJ developed the NFL Draft Pick Value Chart - a game-changing innovation now used by every NFL team. He then engineered a heist of a trade that forever reshaped the franchise when he swapped Herschel Walker to the Vikings for a boatload of picks and players that became the foundation of the new team. He also brought over the majority of his Miami defensive coaching staff and implemented The U’s defensive scheme in Dallas.

Mining his intimate knowledge of college ball, the Cowboys consistently drafted players that became stars or contributors, such as RB Emmitt Smith, QB Troy Aikman, and DT Russell Maryland. Johnson coached all that talent into a dynasty. From 1989 to 1993, Johnson’s Cowboys when 44-36, winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993. Johnson became one of only six coaches to win consecutive Super Bowls, and the first head coach to win both an NCAA Championship and a Super Bowl.

The Cowboys looked unstoppable. Unfortunately, Jones and Johnson had a personal falling out, which resulted in Johnson leaving the Cowboys following the second Super Bowl win. So much talent had been assembled that two years later the Cowboys won the Super Bowl again with the largely inept Barry Switzer at the helm - a real tribute to the team JJ had built.

Do you want to be safe and be good, or take a chance and be great?

-Jimmy Johnson


Johnson spent the next two seasons doing some television work and enjoying the good life in his adopted Florida Keys home. In 1996, he came back to the NFL to replace yet another legendary coach, the Miami Dolphins Don Shula.

Johnson coached the Dolphins from 1996-1999, putting up a respectable record of 36-28 with playoff appearances in his final three seasons. The Fins were never able to advance beyond the Divisional playoff round. While he was able to build an excellent defense around such great players as DE Jason Taylor and MLB Zach Thomas, the Dolphins were hamstrung on offense, consistently failing to put good talent around QB Dan Marino. A number of failed high draft choices hurt, an area where Johnson’s track record at Dallas betrayed him in Miami.

Following a 62-7 playoff loss to the Jaguars in 1999, Johnson pulled the plug on his coaching career for good, citing a loss of passion for the game. As he left the final press conference, it was clear where he was going. High tide is at two o'clock, Jimmy said as he left the building, looking at his watch. I've got to get out there.

But like a fish, the NFL still had him hooked.


During his 2 year hiatus between the Cowboys and Dolphins jobs, JJ worked as an analyst for Fox Sports NFL broadcasts. In 2000, Jimmy became a full-time analyst on Fox Sports NFL Live Sunday Show, where he still can be found today. Known for his candor and insight, he’s been providing great commentary every NFL Sunday for 17 years and counting.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson's TV career also extended to commercials for, ah, male enhancement pill ExtenZe in 2010. It wasn’t that big of a deal. <rimshot> He’s also been a guest star on TV shows such as Coach and a frequent guest on late night television.

In 2010, Johnson was a contestant on Survivor: Nicaragua, the 21st edition of the popular reality competition show. A longtime fan of the show, JJ was the oldest participant. There would be no championship here - he was voted out on Day 8. I had fun, but I was miserable the whole time, Johnson told the Associated Press. I still love the game, it's been a great adventure, but this is the most stressful time I've ever gone through in my life. And that includes Super Bowls and collegiate national championships.

The Keys to Success

Coach Johnson fell in love with South Florida, and the Florida Keys in particular, while at University of Miami. He still makes his home in Islamorada, where he enjoys sport fishing, boating, diving, and tossing back his beloved Heineken's aboard his boat Three Rings.

Johnson's life there is driven by QTL — quality time left - a term Johnson learned from former Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. It’s a reminder to enjoy every day to the fullest because you never know how much QTL you have.

He hosts NFL and college coaches every offseason at his home in Islamorada for coaching consultations, between fishing trips of course. Dabo Swinney famously offered to send a plane to pick up JJ and bring him to Clemson. Johnson declined, insisting that Swinney had to come to the Keys himself if he wanted to talk.

And the main thing was that I wanted to live in South Florida. That's why I left the Cowboys; to live in South Florida.

-Jimmy Johnson

Johnson is also a restaurateur, owner of the JJ’s Big Chill at Mile Marker 104 in Key Largo, offering waterfront dining, a pool with cabanas, a Tiki Bar, and of course a sports bar. He also owns Jimmy Johnson’s Fisherman's Cove at the same location, an elite private residence and yacht club.

He’s host and sponsor to an annual billfishing tournament in Key Largo, Jimmy Johnson’s Quest for the Ring Fishing Championship. Clearly, Coach Johnson is living the good life and then some in the Florida Keys.

U Family

Jimmy Johnson’s University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys staff members became a very successful coaching tree. Former assistants Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Norv Turner, and Dave Campo all went on to become head coaches in the NFL, and Wannstedt, Davis, Ed Orgeron, and Tommy Tuberville also became head coaches in college.

Johnson currently lives with his wife Rhonda in the Keys. He has two sons from his first marriage. One of them, Chad Johnson, operates a successful addiction rehab facility, Tranquil Shores, in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area of Florida.

Johnson is still part of The U family, even going so far as to deliver a pregame speech to the football team before the opening game in the 2012 season. Trying to fire up Al Golden’s troops, Johnson broke out the passion that carried his great Canes teams in the 1980s.

Let me tell you something, guys, this is going to be the greatest time of your lives! I used to sit in this same room years ago, and say 'We're playing this big game! This is why you came to Miami! That's why you wanted to be a Hurricane!”

With The U in his soul and the Florida Keys in his heart, Jimmy Johnson is an innovator, a game-breaker, and a legend - not only a Legend of The U, but in coaching, fishing and television - living the good life, Beyond The U.