The Magazine

America's Teams

Football is serious business.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By MAX BOOT
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He had an equally tumultuous relationship with his boss, Eddie DeBartolo, who, one of Walsh's friends said, "treated him like dirt in certain cases," and who contemplated firing his coach after almost every season that did not result in a championship. Walsh even had a difficult time with his top players. Joe Montana, a teammate recalls, would routinely deride his coach: "He called him a 'dumb, stupid m--f--r,' which was his catchall phrase for anybody he didn't like."

Ultimately, what led to Walsh's retirement was not his inability to get along with others but his inability to live with himself after every loss. An emotional wreck, he finally called it quits after his 1988 Super Bowl victory. His hand-picked successor, George Seifert, would continue the team's winning ways, snagging two more championships (1989, 1994) thanks to DeBartolo's free-spending ways. But as the 1990s went along, the team lost ground to its old rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, who had recovered from their nadir of the late 1980s.

Just as in San Francisco, the resurgence in Dallas was led by a new owner--Jerry Jones--and a new coach--Jimmy Johnson, who took over in 1989 from Tom Landry, the only coach the team had ever known. Jones and Johnson had been teammates years before on the University of Arkansas football team. Since then, the two had gone their separate ways, Jones earning a fortune in the oil business and Johnson coaching the Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 1987. Reunited in Dallas, they proceeded to stockpile
top-tier talent including quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and receiver Michael Irvin.

Nobody ever described Johnson as a "genius" in the manner of Bill Walsh, but he was just as driven to succeed. And like Walsh, he paid the price, divorcing his wife and neglecting his kids. His dedication paid dividends in Dallas once he made the adjustment to the professional game. The Cowboys went from 1-15 in 1989 to 13-3 in 1992. That year they won the Super Bowl, a feat they would repeat in 1993 and again in 1995. By the third championship Johnson was no longer at the helm. He was fired in 1994 by Jones for no better reason than that the owner was jealous of all the accolades heaped on his employee. Jones wanted to show he could win without Johnson, and to make his point he hired another former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer to lead "America's Team." The easygoing Switzer would win one more championship, but he would also lose control of the squad and hasten its downfall.

Reading Boys Will Be Boys makes you wonder how the Cowboys managed to win as many games as they did. The tales of their carousing suggest that the later Roman emperors were puritanical by comparison. Jeff Pearlman writes that the players routinely would "hit the town in a pack--twenty, twenty-five Cowboys sitting at a table in the hottest gentleman's clubs, slinging $100 bills and screwing dancers and ducking into back rooms for pulls on bongs and snorts of cocaine." They even rented a house near their practice facility where they could indulge in sex and drugs away from the preying eyes of wives and reporters.

The ringleader in many of these debaucheries was Michael Irvin, who showed a preternatural ability to score "blow" at night and still blow by cornerbacks the next day. But after Johnson's departure, discipline collapsed, and Irvin got out of control. In 1996 he was arrested in a Dallas hotel room along with a former teammate and "two strippers, 10.3 grams of cocaine, more than an ounce of marijuana, and assorted drug paraphernalia and sex toys." In 1998 he grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed a teammate in the neck, nearly killing him, when he wouldn't vacate a barber chair. That incident, as much as any other, symbolized the end of Dallas's run as the "Team of the '90s."

The Cowboys appeared to be on the brink of a comeback last year before they were eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Giants. This year has turned into a nightmare with a return to the indiscipline and infighting of the late '90s. For their part, the 49ers have never been the same since DeBartolo, in legal difficulties, had to cede control of the team in 1997 to his sister and her husband. Those two have presided over one disastrous decision after another, from firing coach Steve Mariucci in 2003 to selecting quarterback Alex Smith as the first pick of the 2005 draft.

Both Dallas and San Francisco cry out for a savior in the mold of Bill Walsh or Jimmy Johnson. Too bad Walsh is in the ground while Johnson is in a television studio, and fans of both teams will have to satisfy themselves with these tales of the glory of yesterseason.

Max Boot, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.