OFF THE COAST OF ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Jimmy Johnson sure didn’t look or sound like a man with many worries as he stood in the cockpit of his high-speed sport fishing boat this week, hoping to reel in another big one. The depth of the Atlantic Ocean beneath him was more than 600 feet, but with induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame looming for the legendary coach, some matters didn’t seem so deep.
Got your date for the Ring of Honor yet?
“Ha!” Johnson blurts from behind the steering wheel of a vessel dubbed “Three Rings."
Johnson, 78, coached the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl crowns more than a quarter-century ago, starting from the scratch of a 1-15 season to build the NFL’s “Team of the ‘90s” after winning a college national championship in the late ‘80s at the University of Miami. That got him a ticket to Canton, Ohio, for his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction on Aug. 7.
But Johnson, who remains plenty visible as a studio analyst for Fox Sports, still doesn’t have a place in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor among the franchise greats. It's a snub for the ages, flowing back to the beef with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that caused their split after the second of Dallas’ three Super Bowl titles of that era.
“You know, Jerry told me a bunch of times that he’s going to put me in the Ring of Honor,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports. “I think what happens is that he tells me that, and then he sees an article in the paper or watches a TV show where I got the draft picks for Herschel Walker, and he’ll get mad and change his mind.
"One of these days he’ll get in a good mood and put me in there. I think the media and fans are more concerned about it than I am.”
In the context of glory overdue, it’s a shame. This week, someone asked Jones during his press conference opening training camp in Oxnard, California, whether he will induct Johnson into the Ring of Honor this year. The choice is solely up to Jones — but he hemmed and hawed with some convoluted answer that left the issue dangling.
“I don’t want to do anything that takes away from this year,” Jones said.
Huh? That Jerryspeak can be interpreted as suggesting the team could honor Johnson’s Hall of Fame achievement — it’s tradition for new members to receive their Hall of Fame rings in a ceremony before home fans during a game — while still not necessarily mounting the coach’s name in the ring at AT&T Stadium.
This should have happened years ago, despite the Jerry vs. Jimmy dynamic. Instead, Johnson’s omission from the Ring is a slap in the face that allows Jones — a Hall of Famer himself — to remind us what petty looks like.
Johnson (enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame and Broadcasting Hall of Fame) knows he belongs.
“As long as I know, as long as y’all know, it’s fine,” he said. “My name doesn’t have to be up there.”
He might say or even feel that. But it doesn’t change the sentiment that, thanks to Jones, the Ring is incomplete without him.
“Really, he would take a lot less heat if he would do it,” Johnson said of Jones. “But really, it hurts him more than it hurts me. You think I really give a (expletive)?
"Other people are more concerned about it than I am. It ain’t going to change my life. I’m not going to catch any more fish.”
That Johnson hasn’t received the Cowboys’ ultimate honor before his Hall of Fame call in Canton makes it an even worse look for Jones. Usually, a great player or coach is hailed first by their former franchise. Johnson only coached the Cowboys for five seasons, but won as many Super Bowls as Tom Landry did in 29 years.
“I see those other stadiums and these other franchises and they put people in their Ring of Honor and it’s, ‘What did they do?’ " Johnson said. “Coaches who have never won a Super Bowl, much less going from 1-15 to winning a couple of them.”
And just think: Both Jones and Johnson, former Arkansas linemen who once roomed together for road games, are pushing 80 with this particular issue unresolved.
'How could you (expletive) this up?'
The split came in March 1994 after Jones declared to reporters that there were “500 coaches” who could have led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory. Obviously, there were other issues along the way that created the fallout, but diminishing the coach’s impact in that fashion incensed Johnson. A day after Jones and Johnson reached a mutual agreement cementing his departure, the Cowboys hired Barry Switzer — who during the 1995 season won a Super Bowl with a team largely built by Johnson.
Jones told a funny story during his press conference this week about the transition to Switzer, who coached Johnson and Jones when they were teammates at Arkansas.
“Where’s Jimmy?” Jones recalled of Switzer’s question during his initial visit after Johnson’s departure.
“Jimmy’s gone,” Jones told him.
Switzer: “Well, that’s not right. Get him. Get him in here.”
Jones: “Barry, Jimmy’s gone. We’re sitting here talking about you being the coach … What in the world are you so anxious to talk to Jimmy about?”
As Jones recalled, Switzer responded, “I just want to get both you little (expletives) on this couch and ask you both how could you (expletive) this up?”
Jones maintained, “I’ve never been able to know why I (expletive) it up.”
He can find a clue in three letters: E-G-O.
“Jimmy’s a great coach,” Jones said. “Ridiculous, my role here … my job was to keep it together. It was my job. Should have had deference to something that was working good.”
Sure, the ego went both ways with two strong-willed, Type-A personalities. Yet Johnson bit his tongue, sort of, when reminded this week that the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl — or even advanced to the NFC title game — in 25 years.
“Well, yeah, but that’s their deal,” he said.
Imagine if Johnson had remained with the Cowboys for, say, another decade.
“I know we would have won more Super Bowls,” he said.
When Johnson departed, the “Triplets” — Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin — were just entering their prime. And, as he did later during a stint as Dolphins coach, Johnson built a fast, No. 1-ranked defense in Dallas.
“We had the youngest team in the league when we won the Super Bowl,” Johnson reflected. “So we had plenty of cap room. I know I would have brought in a lot more talent to add to what we had. It’s speculation. But egotistically, I told ‘em we were going to win the Super Bowl when we were 1-15. So you know I would say we’d have won a bunch more Super Bowls.
“I know the influence I would have had. I would have brought in a bunch more players. And I knew how to construct a team. Some of the guys I brought in, they might not have been the greatest players in the world, but they fit what I needed.”
All that, yet still no slot in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. The Hall of Fame will have to suffice — at least until further notice — as the big honor paying homage to Johnson’s monumental role in building the Cowboys as the NFL’s best team of the ‘90s.
And he can still try to haul in another Blue Marlin.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jerry Jones snubbing Jimmy Johnson for Cowboys honor is a slap in face