The Day Jerry Jones Tossed Troy Aikman Aside
Public criticism had dogged his, and his Cowboys, steps every inch of the way through a turbulent season that concluded in the smoke of a 6-10 trainwreck. A very self-aware Jerry Jones had just witnessed the official end to the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s, as Dallas wobbled, teetered, and then finally crashed down the stretch of the 1997 campaign, missing out on the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Now, Jones was out to do more than just replace the departed Barry Switzer as head coach. He was out to protect the two sacred foundational pieces that make up the bottom-line in Big D’: his trophy case and, yes, himself. He desperately wanted to hire a head coach who called his own plays, if only to quell the crazy rumor going around that a meddlesome Jones spent the previous season in the suite of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese suggesting plays. Publicly, the status-quo linked the necessity for an offensive mind with the health of battered quarterback Troy Aikman.
That much was well known. What was not known, however, was just how sensitive the owner’s public image had become.
After a few weeks of what was repeatedly referred to as an “intensive coaching search,”, it appeared that Aikman’s old ball coach at UCLA, Terry Donahue, was all locked up for the job. Uh, in fact he was. A news conference announcing the hiring of the fourth head coach in franchise history had been scheduled.
But then Donahue read the small print on the contract.
The Cowboys had included a clause in Donahue’s contract, clearly stating that he would be fined $25,000 every time he said anything that might throw a poor light on the Cowboys, or in particular, Jerry Jones.
Donahue balked at it, and walked away.
“We never thought the insubordination clause, and certainly the money ($500,000 annually), would be the thing that turned it one way or the other,” Jones said. “He was offered the job…I did feel he’d come in as a coordinator on an entry-level basis [pay scale] into the NFL as opposed to coming in as a Super Bowl coach.”
But then Jones tried to smooth things over and suggest that Donahue wasn’t really the right man for the job, ignoring the fact that he was merely hours away from announcing the news to the entire world.
“…We were not on the same page of how we were going to do things on offense,” Jones said. “I was on the page whether he could do it or not, but when the issues on the contract came up, I talked with my son Stephen and we realized we were trying to put a larger foot in a small shoe here. We’re trying to make something happen, and we’re not a team that needs years to make something happen.”
Donahue wasn’t willing to tow the company line every week during the season, especially on a team such as Dallas coming off a 6-10 season, and with many bumps still in front of them.
Jones finally found his man, in Chan Gailey, who reportedly signed the contract with the same clause in it that Donahue had issues with.
And this doesn’t mean that Gailey, an up and coming assistant, was desperate for a head coaching job. Calling out his players, or owner, publicly simply wasn’t in Gailey’s nature. Agreeing to those terms didn’t bother him in the least.
But rather than protecting Aikman’s backside, the hiring of Gailey proved to only shelter Jones’. The Cowboys now not only had a head coach doubling as an offensive coordinator, but a man able and ready to wield feather duster and furniture polish in honor of the owner to each and every press conference.
So with Jones having alighted upon the perfect solution to safeguard his own domicile, the fact that his good buddy Aikman was to be saddled with an offensive scheme that he couldn’t appreciate had suddenly lost any significance.