By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Where were you on March 28, 1994? I was enjoying spring break – a now long-gone concept in my much too adult life – with the spirit of Jimmy Buffett at the Southernmost Point of these great (continental) United States. I was nibbling on sponge cake and watching the sun bake. The effervescence of boiling shrimp was all around. While sitting on the porch swing an acoustic guitar strummed in my head and I debated getting a brand new tattoo. I lamented my busted flip-flop and dressed the cut on my heel delivered courtesy of a stray pop-top. For the life of me, I couldn’t find that lost shaker of salt. I was in such a good mood that even though my buddy swore a woman was to blame, I freely admitted it was my own damn fault. The polygraph test has nothing on a few margaritas, I suppose.
I was in Key West on that long ago March day. My precise memory isn’t because my trip to the little latitudes was unforgettable or the result of my behavior prompting an encounter with local law enforcement; I know of my whereabouts because, while cruising down Route 1 with warm, rejuvenating south Florida air blowing through my window, the radio man announced that Jimmy Johnson, coach of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, had stepped down.
It was a good day to be a Cowboys hater. In late March 1994, Dallas was just two months removed from a second consecutive Super Bowl title and was poised to become the greatest dynasty in the history of pro football. Nothing could stop them – except themselves.
Despite the team’s success and opportunity to rewrite history, owner Jerry Jones and Johnson couldn’t find a way to co-exist. Not even Big D was large enough to house their massive egos. The struggle for power and acclaim forced a divorce that weakened the Cowboys and nudged Johnson from a coaching perch he would never recapture. It is one of the great “what if’s” in sports history.
George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The recent split between the San Francisco 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh indicates both parties have poor memories. While not the equivalent of Johnson’s seismic departure from Dallas, the Harbaugh-San Francisco divorce is similar in this telling respect: it had nothing to do with football.
Entering this past season, Harbaugh had led the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. Despite that envious record, the 49ers nearly traded Harbaugh in the offseason, a botched move that ultimately undermined the coach and contributed to a substandard 2014 season (San Francisco finished 8-8). Harbaugh wasn’t unemployed long; the one-time University of Michigan quarterback signed a lucrative deal to coach the Wolverines. San Francisco’s search for his replacement is ongoing.
Elite coaches are rare; NFL teams scramble to find them. Strong organizations and talented rosters are few; coaches long to work in such environments. Sustained success in the NFL is maddeningly elusive; it is professional nirvana for those in the football business. Jimmy Johnson and Dallas had found it; so too had Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco. All of the above had exactly what they wanted and it wasn’t enough - fascinating commentary on all involved.
An endeavor comprised of competitive, successful, strong and opinionated human beings is going to be combustible. Discomfort will be frequent. It will have untenable moments. But if the desired outcome is achieved, it is incumbent upon the individuals to accept the personally frustrating aspects – organizational authority, credit for the success or the allocation of pay – for prosperity’s sake. If self-importance rules, if there is no ability for the human components to yield, to listen and to compromise, you get the Cowboys of March 1994 and, it seems, the 49ers of December 2014.
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