CANTON, Ohio — Even to people in the Florida Keys who don’t follow football, the name Jimmy Johnson is well known.
It’s one of the first names that greets motorists heading south on U.S.1 in Key Largo, enshrined in large, yellow letters on the sign for Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill. But Johnson is bigger than the Keys. In fact, he’s bigger than most of the National Football League. His eye for evaluating talent, and finding the right components of a team, have extended beyond the world of football.
Johnson’s home on Plantation Key has become a hotspot for sport and corporate mentoring. Speaking to the Free Press Saturday from a hotel room in Canton, hours before he was to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Johnson said he’s given close to 1,000 speeches and talks over the years “about building a champion and building a winner.”
“I’ve drafted or coached 14 Hall of Famers. I’ve worked with, coaching or broadcasting, 13 more Hall of Famers, so evidently I’ve got an eye for evaluating people,” Johnson said.
He said the full list of executives and coaches who have come to the Keys to talk with him is too long to name. To name a few: late Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, San Antonio Spurs manager R.C. Buford, L.A. Chargers owner Dean Spanos, all the coaches of the University of Miami football program, including Manny Diaz. New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is planning a visit.
Johnson said he gets a lot of requests from people wanting to consult with him on matters of evaluating and recruiting, among other things. Some people he meets at the Big Chill, the restaurant and bar he owns at mile marker 104. Close friends, such as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has coached his team to six Super Bowl wins, is a frequent guest and stays in Johnson’s guest house.
Johnson first rose to South Florida fame as the coach at University of Miami in 1984, inheriting a team that had won the national championship a year previous. During his first season, the Hurricanes were on the losing end of one of the most iconic games in the history of college football when Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie launched and completed a 63-yard Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to beat Miami 47-45.
Despite that, Johnson built on the successes of his predecessor, Howard Schnellenberger, and by the time his tenure as coach was up, he had brought Miami another national championship, in 1987, and had a coaching record of 52-9 with the team. He was part of a dynasty in Miami that came to define 1980s college football.
However, Johnson’s most well-known coaching gig began when he was hired in 1989 to coach the Dallas Cowboys. At a time when there was much less player movement in sports, Johnson wasted no time in putting his own ideas into play. In one of the largest and most influential transactions in the league’s history, he promptly traded one of the team’s cornerstone players, running back Herschel Walker, to Minnesota for players and a litany of draft picks that Johnson used to select players that would later become synonymous with the franchise, including Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson. His uncanny eye for drafting is what allowed him to turn the Cowboys’ 1-15 record in 1989 into back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993.
Johnson returned to Miami in 1996, this time as head coach of the Dolphins, to mixed results. After three seasons of records around .500 and little playoff success, he decided to resign in 1999. However, the ripple effect of his methods of personnel management and coaching can be seen in the NFL to this day. Take, for example, Belichick’s famously rigid approach to team management, frequently waiving or trading players without a scoff at sentimental value once he sees them as being beyond their peak value.
Johnson’s charismatic personality landed him a spot as a television analyst on Fox NFL Sunday after departing from the Dolphins, a job that he holds to this day. It was on the set of that pregame show in January 2020 that his fellow panelists surprised him with the news that he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Momentarily, an emotional Johnson was left speechless by the announcement. He is already a hall of famer for his career in broadcasting and college coaching but said that making it for his pro coaching career was the “pinnacle.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to wait a year and a half, until Saturday, to actually receive his gold jacket. The wait to be inducted, though, was not terrible, he said. The more difficult wait was before he knew whether or not he’d get in. On Saturday, Johnson described the experience in Canton as a hectic scene.
“We’ve been on a treadmill going 90 miles an hour,” Johnson said. “But it’s been good. There’s just been an outpouring of congratulations from text messages to email. All the players and coaches that I’ve worked with in 35 years of coaching.”
Part of what made it so special, Johnson said, is that there are so few who make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame all for coaching. Indeed, Johnson is now part of an elite club of only 26 coaches, out of 346 inductees.
Johnson’s first exposure to the Keys came when he was coaching at the University of Miami. He came to the Upper Keys to get dive certified and joined a long list of celebrities to be enchanted by the charms of the island chain. He bought his house his last year coaching with the Cowboys before making it his full-time home with his wife, Rhonda.
Johnson owns a few boats, and on a given afternoon can often be found out on the water taking part in his favorite activity other than football: fishing. His interest in fishing has gotten him several offers from companies that make fishing gear to come on sponsored trips to fish in Africa and elsewhere.
“I tell them my favorite place to fish is at my house,” he said. “I live on the water.”
Despite all the requests for visits, and his position as a television football panelist, Johnson said he enjoys the laid-back nature of the Keys.
“I came to the Keys for peace and quiet and I don’t like to travel a lot,” he said.
Johnson appeared on Fox remotely in the last year because of the pandemic. Going forward, he said he’d be traveling to the set about half the time and tuning in virtually from his office the other half. Now that he’s in the Hall of Fame, Johnson has just a few weeks to relax in his island home, then the man who first uttered the now-iconic phrase “How ‘bout them Cowboys?” will have to be getting back to work with the start of the NFL season.
“Rhonda and I both love living in the Keys,” he said. “It’s the best place on earth, it’s paradise.”