Jerry Jones: Pretty serious risk

25 years later, we take a look back at Jerry Jones purchasing the Cowboys

Updated: February 25, 2014, 5:17 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer | ESPNDallas.com

The last ownership change of hands in the history of America's Team actually began in Latin America. It was while vacationing in Mexico that Jerry Jones picked up a newspaper and saw an item about the Dallas Cowboys being for sale.

Jones, admittedly hung over from a night of partying with his family, quickly refreshed and made the necessary phone calls to make a dream become reality.

Jones wanted to own an NFL team and dedicated his entire fortune to the purchase, taking control of the Cowboys and Texas Stadium for an NFL franchise record $140 million.

The deal was announced Feb. 25, 1989, and officially approved by NFL owners weeks later.

On the 25th anniversary of Jones' purchase, this is the story of how it became reality in the words of Jones himself, some key people directly involved and other interested parties.

Jerry JonesAP Photo/Eric GayJerry Jones took control of the Cowboys and Texas Stadium for an NFL franchise record $140 million.

'QUITE A TRYING TIME'

Jerry Jones, Cowboys owner/general manager since 1989: "It was quite a trying time for me. I get emotional talking about it. I've asked why I get emotional talking about it in public or in private and asked a professional about it and [the professional] basically said it was a traumatic time for you. I don't know. There was a pretty serious reach there, risk wise, and I didn't know how it was going to turn out. I thought I had an idea, so it was a nervous time for me. I remember that. I developed an arrhythmia during that time and I never had an unhealthy day in my life. An arrhythmia is called a 'good time heart,' by a lot of people and a lot of medical students get it. It was from not resting, never sleeping and then getting up just right when you lay your head down. That kind of describes me from that period of time. It was a time I felt very off-balance. I didn't know it but I quickly found out the visibility that was involved there. I never forget my dad called me about 10 days, two weeks into this thing and I had no idea this thing would have the visibility it's got and he said, 'I don't care. You're a young guy,' -- I was 46, 45 -- 'whether you do it by mirrors or smoke or what, if you're not successful, you've got to make it look successful or you'll be known as a loser and you won't be able to do anything else for the rest of your life in terms of getting people to go along with you.' So those were the things that I remember the most about those times."

Larry Lacewell, a longtime friend of Jones and former Cowboys director of college and pro scouting from 1992 to 2004: "The hardest thing for people in Dallas and the world is [to] understand Jerry was a very low-key guy in [the] state of Arkansas. He was not a guy that was in the newspapers or on TV or talked very much. I know you don't believe that. It's not like we expected him to do something. It kind of shocked us all."

Scott Murray, former Dallas sportscaster, who broke the story on Jerry Jones buying the team: "We knew of Jerry for six months, and I remember the night we broke the story. There were four of us [on the story] at Channel 5. I had a guy go down to Miami, the Monday before we broke the story, and we shot Jimmy [Johnson] and Jerry in Jimmy's driveway in Miami. On Thursday, I get a call from my news director and he calls me into his office and he says, 'Hey, I was just listening to Brad Sham's [radio show] on KRLD-AM. I just heard Brad say that Jerry Buss is the front-runner, the Lakers owner, to buy the Cowboys.' I said, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'No, my source said he's not the guy.' I called our source again and asked if I could go with it tonight. The source said, 'It's Jerry.'

"After we break the story, I call Jerry and he's staying at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He knew we were working the story. He was watching the news. 'You were spot on. You got it right.' I said thank you very much, we wish you the best."

Stephen Jones, Jerry Jones' oldest son and the Cowboys' executive vice president/director of player personnel: "First of all I think it's the greatest thing that ever happened to our family, getting to be involved in the NFL and sports and nothing better than that. I was very young. I was just out of school. I think I was 24 and at the end of the day you're a chemical engineer and you're in the oil business and all of a sudden you got an opportunity. I played football in college and now it's where you get to do what you love."

Tom LandryManny Rubio/USA TODAY SportAfter 29 seasons as the Cowboys' head coach, Tom Landry was fired when Jerry Jones took over.

One of the toughest things Jones had to do was fire legendary coach Tom Landry. As part of the deal, Jones was to fire Landry when he purchased the team from H.R. "Bum" Bright. Bright offered to fire Landry himself, but Jones wanted to do it in person because he thought that was the right thing to do. Jones and former Cowboys president Tex Schramm visited Landry at a golf club in Austin, Texas, to deliver the news. It didn't go well. Landry, stoic, and hurt by the decision, told Jones he wasted his time for the visit. So, after 29 seasons as a head football coach, Landry's coaching career was over with 250 victories, 88 losses and two Super Bowl titles.

'HOW COULD THEY FIRE TOM LANDRY?'

Everson Walls, the Cowboys' all-time leader in interceptions, who played for Landry: "That was when Tom was really having problems and we were having problems winning and you start to hear reports on the sidelines about Coach Landry not really being the head coach [anymore]. It was very un-Landry like. We had gone [3-13 in 1988] and it wasn't a surprise that it happened because you could hear the rumblings. There was rumors or reports, you know, something was brewing at the press conference [to end the 1988 season] when they asked Coach Landry about retirement. I was told Tex Schramm had already broached the subject [with him after Jones purchased the team]. Tex asked him, 'We already have some suitors and they're going to come in and have their own people and what do you think about gracefully retiring?' From what I heard, Coach Landry chose the press conference [after 1988 season] and said, 'I think I'm going to coach well into the '90s.' That was [the] 1989 calendar year. That was more of defiance by Tom. He knew he and Tex already had the conversation about what was going to happen. He knew it was the writing on the wall for him and that was a very defiant statement."

Brad Sham, the current voice of the Cowboys: "I listened to the press conference live on the phone. It's not like everyone was celebrating the great ownership regime of Bum Bright. People want to forget how much the public wanted Landry out the last couple of years."

Murray: "We go to Valley Ranch the next day at 6 a.m. and Landry is cleaning out his office. He wanted to be gone before anybody showed up. It was a real blow. The thing that bothered me most by breaking a story -- and this is just me. I felt badly. This is 29 years of their lives and it comes to an abrupt end. It was a tough way to go. Jerry gets blamed for not talking to Coach Landry before this happened, but it wasn't his fault. We broke the story before Jerry had a chance to talk to Coach Landry."

Greg Aiello, then the Cowboys public relations director, currently a spokesman for the NFL: "Monday, Tom came in to say goodbye to the team and everyone was saying goodbye to Tom and it was very emotional and people were crying. It was a difficult situation. No one was in there so I kind of peeked in and he was packing up and taking things out of [his] desk and he said it's a rough bidness. B-i-d-n-e-s-s. I don't remember much else about it except that I was standing there choking up for some reason. It was a strange thing. You know his personality. He was a great guy, but he was very straightforward. You weren't real close to him and you weren't socializing with him. But everyone had such great respect for him -- a real leader and father-figure kind of thing. That's what brought up the emotions of a lot of people."

Jerry Jones: "If I had a chance to do it over again I would've waited a year and just got my feet on the ground a little bit more and probably just gone with the staff that we had and then later made the ultimate change that I made."

Sham: "That 3-13 team in 1988 was still the worst Cowboys team I've ever seen. I was taking calls on 'Sports Central' every night about, 'When is Landry going to retire? He's got to go! The game has passed him by!' Every night. Until he got fired, then the same people were calling saying, 'How could they fire Tom Landry?'"

Jimmy Johnson and Jerry JonesUSA TODAY SportsJimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones' friend and former teammate, was hired to coach the Cowboys.

Jones had Landry's replacement ready at the time of the sale in Jimmy Johnson. Jones thought of two people to take over for Landry in Barry Switzer and Johnson. But Switzer wasn't coaching at the time and Johnson was having success at the University of Miami, which appealed to Jones. The two were teammates at the University of Arkansas, and while it's been described that they were very close, the reality is that was not the case. They were good friends, but not best friends. The hiring of Johnson, the polar opposite in personality from Landry, stunned many in the NFL and Dallas. Here was Jones, an outsider, buying the Cowboys, firing a legendary coach and now hiring a college coach.

'WILL YOU THINK ABOUT JOINING ME?'

Jerry Jones: "I did think of Barry but Jimmy was more active. Probably had more proximity and I kept up with Jimmy. My oil and gas partners were in Oklahoma City and I spent a lot of time around them and they were very prominent in the Oklahoma State athletic department, very prominent. So for instance when the opening came, Jimmy had not gotten the job at Arkansas and I think he was at Pittsburgh that he had gone to be an assistant coach and before he came to Oklahoma State. Well anyway, I recommended to my guys that the guy they ought to hire is Jimmy. I have a lot of respect for Jimmy and of course knew his background, knew it well ... When I called Jimmy [and told him] that I was interested, will you think about joining me? His quote was, 'I've always wanted to be with you, work with you. If you'd called me to sell insurance, I'd sell insurance.' So actually after Jimmy came in and we announced that he was going to be the head coach, it was a significant period of time -- I'm not sure how long -- but a significant period of time before we got to an agreement about money; that he committed and left Miami and came to the Cowboys before we ever talked about money."

Lacewell: "He could follow God in there -- that's about who he was following -- and it wouldn't bother him. Jimmy always, always from the first time I met him and he was a little ol' high school coach with a couple of kids, he always had confidence in himself. It just grew and grew. There wasn't any doubt in his mind that he wouldn't be successful or great."

Sham: "Jimmy is a Texan [Port Arthur, Texas]. All of the team's greatest years were when Jimmy would've been coming up in the coaching ranks. Jimmy knew what a great coach was. I think he was sincere in his respect for Landry."

Jerry JonesFocus on Sport/Getty ImageThe Cowboys were a miserable 1-15 in 1989, Jerry Jones' first year as owner of the franchise.

There was a negative backlash when Jones purchased the team. He fired numerous longtime employees and was criticized daily in the local newspapers and on local television. The city of Dallas was struggling from a financial standpoint, as well. Jones streamlined how the Cowboys did business because of the money Bright was losing, nearly $1 million a month. Jones, at the time, owned 63 percent of the Cowboys and invested everything into the franchise. Jones changed the way the Cowboys did business. He lobbied to change the liquor laws in the city of Irving, Texas, so he could sell beer and wine at Texas Stadium. Jones also fixed the suites inside the stadium to make them more marketable and he increased the visibility of the Cowboys cheerleaders, who at the time of the sale weren't allowed to make appearances where alcohol was sold. Jones also became more visible in the media, making himself available to reporters locally and nationally. In Jones' first season, the Cowboys went 1-15, with the lone win coming at Washington on Nov. 5, 1989.

'KNEW THAT I WANTED TO BE THERE'

Lacewell: "I talked to Jimmy all the time, and he was just miserable."

Stephen Jones: "It was all on the fly. Obviously we started going around to teams. We met with people. We were at the league office. We kept a lot of people at the time that were with the team. Let go of people but also kept people. It helped us learn the ropes."

Jerry Jones: "The NFL was in a slump, a flattening period when we came in in 1989. Not only was Dallas really as an area struggling economically but the NFL was in a flattening period of time and our rights had flattened in television through two negotiations in a row. The NBA was kind of the exciting thing. I mean if you look back you'll see a sensitivity maybe between Tex and the Cowboys and how good the Mavericks were doing at that time. There's that. You can see it. I know that to be a fact.

"I knew that I wanted to be there. I knew that I wanted to be a part of football. I wanted my life to be in sports. I would have coached had I not been greedy. And wanted to do better than I thought coaches were doing. Had I known what I'm paying coaches now I probably would have gone into coaching."

Jerry JonesAP Photo/James D SmithJerry Jones has spent many long hours building the Cowboys, now worth more than $1 billion.

The day after Jones purchased the team, Bright asked if he wanted to reconsider. There was another offer, but after their handshake agreement, Jones wouldn't do it. He was in it for the long haul. Jones and his wife, Gene, moved from Arkansas to Dallas and lived in a hotel during those early days. Jones spent long hours at Valley Ranch trying to not only build a football team, but a brand, which is now worth more than $1 billion.

'THE FUTURE ... IS SIGNIFICANTLY BRIGHTER'

Jerry Jones: "The unknown was one that I never [knew if] Gene would be waiting tables over this deal. After we had an opportunity for her to not wait tables ... I never really thought that would happen, but I did think it had the potential to really knock my stuff in the dirt.

"[The passion] is there now more than it was back then because I'm able to think more offense. I'm not concerned as I was then financially about the state of the franchise, about the NFL, about the game. The future, I can tell you firsthand, is significantly brighter than it was in 1989 for the NFL, for pro football and for that matter pro sports, in my mind today."

ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor contributed to this report.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

Todd Archer

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter

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