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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Swagger

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

Jimmy Johnson can be a difficult personality to love.

After all, this was someone who jumped from coaching the University of Miami (Florida) after a great run of success to the Dallas Cowboys. One of his first actions after taking the job in Dallas was, as someone put it, to fire his wife. He thought that he had to increase his commitment to work upon joining the NFL, and the only way to do that was to get a divorce.

Love, no. Maybe that’s why I picked up this book at a thrift store for $2. Respect, yes – at least on the field.

Johnson was, by any definition, a heck of a coach. He won a national championship in Miami. He won two Super Bowls (and was in good position to win a few more) in Dallas. He reached the playoffs a few times in Miami, even though he eventually came to the conclusion that he never would win it all with the Dolphins for a variety of reasons.

Johnson is 79 years old now, almost a quarter of a century past his days as a coach. But he can still stir up some emotions in others. That’s what happens when people read “Swagger,” Johnson’s book about his days as a head coach.

Let’s start with the title, and that’s a good word to be associated with Johnson. He defines it at the very end of the book this way: “Swagger is confidence. You’re confident that you’re going to kick somebody’s ass. That’s what swagger is.”

More often than not, Johnson backed up those thoughts with his actions. If your team beat his team, you knew you had defeated a football squad that was well-prepared.

It’s always been that way. Johnson speeds through his coaching career in this autobiography, taking some brief turns along the way. He started his association with football as an undersized defensive lineman at Arkansas, using speed instead of strength to cause problems for offenses. He took that philosophy into the coaching ranks. Johnson started as a head coach at Oklahoma State in 1979, where he soon turned the team into a consistent winner.

Then it was on to Miami, where the Hurricanes started with an 8-5 record. From there, the team went 44-4. Johnson recruited some of the best players in the nation, and let their personalities come through as long as they played disciplined football. It worked well.

Johnson might have been happy at Miami indefinitely, but then Jerry Jones – a teammate at Arkansas – came back into his life. Jones had just bought the Dallas Cowboys, and immediately dismissed legendary coach Tom Landry in favor of Johnson. Talk about a tough act to follow. Johnson needed some time to sort out his roster; a trade of Herschel Walker for a barrel of draft choices helped. By the third season, the Cowboys were in the playoffs with an 11-5 record. Dallas won titles in Years Four and Five.

As we know now, Jones and Johnson didn’t live happily ever after. Jimmy’s side of the breakup is told here. He seems to assign most of the blame to Jones, who apparently wanted a bit more of the credit of the rise of the Cowboys. Johnson admits he was starting to burn out from all of the intensity he had expended on the job, and they parted ways. The coach went back to South Florida to calm down; the owner won one more Super Bowl with many of Johnson’s players before the team faded into irrelevance in terms of title talk for a quarter-century.

Speaking of following legends, the Dolphins called Johnson when Don Shula announced his retirement after one of the greatest coaching careers in football history. Jimmy had Dan Marino, which was a good starting point. But Marino was at the stage of his career where he could still play but was past his prime. Johnson soon figured out a replay of his success in Dallas wasn’t going to happen. After a 62-7 loss in the playoff, Johnson said, “I have no more left to give,” and retired.

Since retiring from coaching, Johnson has kept some ties to football through broadcasting. He’s part of the panel that does the pregame show for Fox’s NFL broadcasters. Johnson still keeps in touch with a variety of football people in that role, along with staying in contact with players and coaches. He wraps up the book with a few observations about the college and pro game today. Johnson also tells the story of his son, who had a fierce battle with alcoholism.

Johnson and co-author Dave Hyde seem to have wanted the book to come across as something of a fun conversation over a few beers while watching the ocean go by in South Florida. It’s not too deep, but Johnson answers many of the questions that fans might have about his coaching days. The man knows how to tell a story, even if his ego is still healthy and on display.

Therefore, “Swagger” works quite well in accomplishing the goal of leaving the reader entertained. Even fans of the teams that Johnson coached against will bring themselves to liking it … even if they feel a little guilty about it in the process.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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