Just about every offseason, various NFL coaches, general managers and owners drive through the Everglades seeking wisdom at the end of an ordinary, 20-mile stretch of road into the Florida Keys.
It’s the only route to encounter Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, whose accolades include a national championship with the University of Miami and two Super Bowl titles with the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson’s proven knack for team building and talent evaluation is what the visitors ultimately seek, as if that knowledge were the fountain of youth for an unforgiving league Jerry Glanville famously coined, “Not For Long.”
Bill Belichick, an NFL coach since 1975 and a six-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots, has remained close with Johnson throughout the decades and frequently makes offseason sojourns to South Florida. If you ask Johnson, Belichick is the coach whose philosophies most resemble his own — despite the obvious difference in their public personalities. And Belichick’s visits are just as calculated as you’d imagine.
“He always has an agenda,” Johnson told NFL.com last week over a video call from his natural habitat. “He wants to talk about doing contracts, or he wants to talk about drafting players, evaluating talent, you name it. He always has it scheduled, as far as what he wants to talk about.”
Johnson chronicles the visits from Belichick, among others, in the opening chapter of his new book, Swagger: Super Bowls, Brass Balls, and Footballs — A Memoir, which is co-written by sports columnist Dave Hyde. After all, it’s those offseason visits that sparked the idea for this project in the first place.
“Originally, I didn’t care anything about doing a book,” Johnson said. “I did a book after the first Super Bowl, but my attorney, Nick Christin, said, ‘You’ve got so many people, coaches, general managers, owners, come down to the Keys to talk about evaluating talent and building a team.’ And then I speak to so many companies about the same thing — evaluating talent — and building a successful team. He said, ‘You need to write a book and talk about it.’ “
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Johnson’s memoir meticulously deconstructs his winning philosophy, the necessary attitude for which it’s named after, and also explains the challenges of a coach who was burdened with being the successor to Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, Tom Landry in Dallas and Don Shula in his last coaching job with the Dolphins. As an esteemed talent evaluator, Johnson indexes the five traits he looks for in a player:
Johnson says the job of a football coach is to unlock players’ potential like some kind of gridiron Wizard of Oz, cultivating attributes he certainly knows are there.
Of course, Johnson also gives you a peek behind the curtain of a coaching career bound by several what-ifs, despite all of his success. He offers up interesting recollections of two big losses to Penn State and Notre Dame during his tenure at the University of Miami. He provides his side of the story in a well-documented relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — a chapter perhaps coincidentally bookmarked with the memoir’s leaflet of photos, and one that features his detailed exit from Dallas after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. And he reveals how, during the twilight of his coaching career with the Dolphins, he tried to do everything he could to trade up and draft Peyton Manning at the behest of Archie Manning.
For Johnson, writing a tell-all turned out to be an overall pleasant experience, a recounting of his storied coaching career. But the sacrifices he made along the way had a great effect on Johnson, subject matter that invokes a different tone from the normally radiant coach.
“Then we got into the struggles and the sacrifices,” Johnson said. “Struggles with my own family and being away from my family the whole time that I was trying to win a championship. The sacrifices that they made. So, in some way, it was an apology to my two sons (Brent and Chad) that I wasn’t there for them.”
Johnson recently said as much during his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech in 2022, but the subject is far deeper than those in Canton, Ohio, heard at the moment. His youngest son, Chad, battled alcoholism in 2009, and the story of his recovery is one of the longest, most in-depth chapters of the memoir. Johnson depicts a chilling tale that not only includes the trials and tribulations of Chad’s recovery, but how he questioned if this was the result of his coaching career taking precedence over his family. That was most certainly the case, according to Jimmy himself.
Today, though, Chad has not only recovered from alcoholism, but put his best foot forward to help others who struggle with substance abuse. Nowadays, Jimmy is beaming about the rehab center Chad founded: Tranquil Shores in Tampa, Florida. Going to each client reunion still cuts to the core of what was once a cold-blooded football coach.
“I would sit in the audience next to Chad, and mothers and fathers would go up to the podium and talk about their struggles, and they would look over at Chad and say, ‘Chad, thanks for saving my son’s life,’ ” Johnson said. “And one lady got up there and said, ‘Chad, you picked up my daughter at two o’clock in the morning, drove her around for four hours, giving her counsel and talking to her, and then took her to detox. Thanks for saving her life.’ Well, I’m teared up there in the audience! So then I got to go follow that with a finishing talk. And I said, ‘Listen, you know, I’ve won national championships as a player — undefeated team there. Undefeated national champion as a coach, won a couple of Super Bowls, in a bunch of Hall of Fames. But nothing that I ever accomplished can compare to what you all are doing at Tranquil Shores. You’re saving lives.”
Chad’s story is what Johnson calls his “ultimate success” nowadays. He doesn’t shy away from likening his once-competitive nature as a coach to a disease all these years later. Johnson writes about his regrets when it comes to his family, but maintains comfort in the present after amending his relationships with Brent and Chad over the years and doing whatever it takes to uphold his promises.
Johnson has never been interested in being a general manager — or even a consultant, for that matter, which had been offered after his retirement in 1999. Being a football analyst on FOX NFL Sunday has been more than enough to satisfy his thirst for the game, and Johnson still takes proper measures to ensure football doesn’t take over his life again. Just another reason why the NFL luminaries of today must make the journey themselves in order get Johnson’s insight.
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