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Miami (and the NFL) brace for the return of... : HURRICANE JIMMY : With Johnson at Helm, Dolphins Had Best Not Ignore Storm Warnings

August 20, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIE, Fla. — Leaning back in his office chair, Jimmy Johnson locks his hands behind perfect hair, flashes perfect teeth, puffs out perfectly ruddy cheeks.

This is not a man, this is a wax museum.

The teeth are famous from when he gritted them during Super Bowls on the Dallas Cowboy sideline.

The hair, from when Emmitt Smith messed it up after one of those games.

The cheeks, from when they bulged as he uttered the most renowned locker room exultation that didn't involve a sick Notre Dame player: "How 'bout them Cowboys?"

Jimmy Johnson leans, and leans, and then it happens, as it so often does when staring too long at majesty.

There is a flash of misgiving.

Is this the NFL's best coach . . . or best con man?

Is this somebody who can return from a two-year vacation and replace legendary Don Shula . . . or will he just be more quotable?

Was his coaching the reason the Dallas Cowboys won consecutive Super Bowls in 1993 and '94 . . . or did Barry Switzer prove last January that it really doesn't matter?

Does Johnson represent the triumph of old-time swagger in a high-stepping era . . . or is the infatuated football world simply too blind to believe anything else?

Johnson says nothing for about four seconds--this is so rare that the exact time is recorded--when figures appear in the picture window behind him.

Two of his Miami Dolphin players are running across a practice field. Make that, sprinting.

They stop, yell at each other, and start again. Again and again, they sprint across the lush green field under a sun that has already heated the place to unbearable.

The date is May 6, two months before the start of training camp.

The time is 9 a.m.

The players' schedule for every day this week reads OFF.

"Why, looky there," Jimmy Johnson says.

*

Johnson barks, and blusters, and barrels through the NFL like a man with something to sell or hide.

But the proof is always in that big window behind him.

It happened with the University of Miami, where his Hurricanes won a national championship; with the Dallas Cowboys, who won two national championships, and at FOX TV, where he was probably the most popular figure on the four networks that televised pregame shows.

Now something equally dramatic is happening with that NFL cornerstone in Miami--those underachieving, overpaid, pampered, malingering, Shula-shadowed Dolphins.

Seven months after their new boss moved in, they are the depleted, dehydrated, demeaned, Johnson-waxed Dolphins.

And they are delightful.

They may not all be good football players--they may not win more than a few games--but judging from practices and exhibitions, they will all be playing football.

As opposed to some of that other silliness that occurred under Shula.

The quarterback is the same. A couple of offensive and defensive linemen are the same. The rest of the positions are manned by either new players, or changed ones.

There are rookies in the offensive backfield. Journeymen at wide receiver. Former flops in the secondary.

And all have been frightened.

"Walk through the locker room and look at their eyes," said former tight end Ronnie Williams, one of many whose certain roster spots were yanked from under them because they showed up out of shape.

Those eyes have seen mass firings, stunning pay cuts, bloody daily drills, and a coach who works so hard he pulled a muscle running sprints in mini-camp.

"You have guys coming up to me totally surprised," Williams said before he left. "They are taking deep breaths, like I did."

Those eyes have not seen Don Shula. Not once.

The legendary 26-year Dolphin coach was dissed into submission last spring, at the Dolphin awards banquet, when Johnson gave this speech:

"I'm supposed to say congratulations to all the people in the past, to all the great tradition, to all the people who laid the groundwork. But I only care about one thing: the present. The people who are here to win now."

And with that, he waved.

As in, goodbye to Shula's regime, which included players who walked out of meetings. Players who walked onto the practice field late. Players who would not stay with the team at a local hotel on the night before home games.

Even when the place was Don Shula's Hotel and Golf Club.

Johnson was also saying goodbye to a regime that had not produced a Super Bowl championship in 22 years, or a Super Bowl appearance in 11.

Shula's Dolphin days unofficially ended on a miserable late December Sunday in Buffalo, when the Bills scored the first 27 points in a playoff game against one of football's most star-studded rosters.

"I've watched that game quite a few times, trying to figure out how we could have been so bad," said Dolphin defensive end Jeff Cross. "It's like, you're playing a game and you don't know what the hell is going on."

A couple of weeks later, Johnson was in charge.

"I'm trying hard not to have any negative innuendoes toward Shula, because I really don't dislike him," Johnson said. "But there were a lot of things that went wrong last year, things that we need to correct."

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