Chapter 1: Welcome to My World 1 WELCOME TO MY WORLD
The only road into the Florida Keys runs south out of Miami, the mainland releasing its grip over an unremarkable, twenty-mile stretch through the Everglades. The road is lined first by Australian pines, as tacky an outsider as some incoming tourists. Concrete telephone poles soon accompany the drive, mile after mile, dotted on occasion by an oversized osprey or eagle nest on top.
Wet landmarks like Jewfish Creek and Lake Surprise offer only a hint of the rare world ahead, the one I’ve made home, the one coaches, team executives, and franchise owners come to visit under the influence of ambition and obsession like I once had.
A bridge announces the entrance to Key Largo, the largest in the necklace of coral-floored islands. It’s here, just a few miles south, where I often meet a visitor at my restaurant, Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill. Maybe it’s for lunch. Maybe a drink. There’s always a cold Heineken Light waiting there for me, ready to be poured over ice, just the way I like one.
If the conversation is good, if a coach or general manager has more questions, if I’m still in a mood for company, we’ll drive fifteen minutes down U.S. 1 to Islamorada and my six acres of paradise tucked against the Atlantic Ocean. It’s here that I’ve created the life I want in retirement—a boating and fishing playground where the ocean view ensures I’ll never miss the sight of a locker room. It’s also here, while throwing a pre-training-camp party for my Miami Dolphins years back, that Rhonda and I snuck upstairs and got married, both of us in bathing suits, the ceremony performed in the kitchen by the team’s director of security, Stu Weinstein. Rhonda and I wrestle with whether the date was July 17 or 19, though it hardly matters. We don’t celebrate the anniversary, just as I don’t celebrate birthdays, holidays, or just about any other calendar event. When we returned to the team party that day, I announced, “By the way, Rhonda and I just got married… Let’s party!”
These days, my home parties are quieter, more private affairs. Bill Belichick has visited most off-seasons for decades. It’s here at my home, sometimes in the cabana, sometimes in the boat, typically with a cold drink, that Bill and I have discussed the inner wiring of a football team. Drafts. Contracts. Handling success—and even more success, in his case. We once discussed how pushing assistant coaches to be better was a necessary step after a Super Bowl win. Another time we talked about drafting players with little chance of making his championship roster—a similar problem to one I had at the end of my coaching time in Dallas. Those players often made other teams’ rosters.
“You don’t want to draft players for other teams,” I said. “Those picks are like money. Save them if you don’t need them. Trade them into the next year.”
Bill continues to be a master at that.
Me? I enjoy life on the other side of the finish line. I’m out of the arena. I have no agenda. I don’t even have a schedule most days. Often, my big decision after I get up around 5 a.m. and check my computer bridge game is if the weather is good for fishing.
Maybe my having no dog in the fight is what brings these visitors to the Keys—that and the fact I once built what they’re trying to build now. I recognize the look, remember the chase, see in their eyes the cold clarity of a consumed life. That’s what brings them here. They’re hunting for a thought, an idea, anything new to take back home to help a decision in April win a fourth quarter in December.
Football is weekend fun for much of America, but for these visitors it’s blood. They arrive with the questions that once got me out of bed, full of energy, around four in the morning without an alarm clock. Each off-season brings new faces. Through the years, nearly a dozen team owners, from New Orleans’s Tom Benson to the Los Angeles Chargers’ Dean Spanos, have visited the Keys to discuss what to look for in a coach or general manager, how to structure an organization—how to essentially be as successful with their football teams as they are in business.
The Carolina Panthers’ Scott Fitterer and the Miami Dolphins’ Mike Tannenbaum were the most recent general managers to discuss building teams and analyzing talent. Countless college coaches have come. Sometimes I talked with a college coach on the way up to the NFL, like Chip Kelly, when he went from the University of Oregon to the Philadelphia Eagles, or Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, before he went to the Arizona Cardinals. There was a regular list of subjects. Hiring a staff. Leading a team of men. The difference of college football versus the NFL.
In the days before the 2021 season, Carolina coach Matt Rhule and his son spent the day fishing on my thirty-nine-foot SeaVee boat, Three Rings, discussing the five characteristics that mattered to me in evaluating talent—a guideline, really, because judging players is more art form than measuring numbers.
After Carolina, Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer sent a plane to Marathon and flew me in before the 2021 season to talk with his new staff. This was before all the trouble to come for Urban that season. I’ve rarely left the Keys the past two decades except for my FOX NFL Sunday show in Los Angeles or some corporate speech—and then only grudgingly. Urban and I knew each other from working at FOX, with him first visiting me years ago as the Ohio State coach. Back then, we discussed balancing football and family, a subject we both struggled over with our addictive football DNA. I failed with that struggle at times. It contributed to some dark times. It’s also led to the happiest time of my life, this retirement in the Keys with Rhonda and my relationships with my sons, Brent and Chad, and their families.
Often my talks with these visiting coaches or sports executives cross over from football to any sport or business. New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau kept my ideas for evaluating talent on a whiteboard in his office for quick reference under the heading “Can He Play?” San Antonio Spurs general manager R. C. Buford visited Islamorada one year to hear how I created the Draft Value Chart, which helped us build our team in Dallas and has been used the past few decades by NFL front offices. R.C. wanted to create a similar chart for the NBA. It didn’t work in the NBA’s two-round draft, with exaggerated value in the first few picks and the league’s smaller team size. But we talked of building teams and managing personalities, and he returned in 2015 when his great Spurs team was aging. We discussed succession throughout an organization. It wasn’t just about the players. He wanted to be prepared, if needed, for when legendary coach Gregg Popovich retired. He asked about the issues surrounding my following NFL greats Tom Landry in Dallas and Don Shula in Miami.
I mentioned my three qualities for hiring coaches: intelligence, passion for the game, and a willingness to work beyond good reason at times. Simple concepts, right? The best answers often are. But apply those concepts to the assorted candidates. Hold fast to them when you’re criticized by fans, questioned by the media, or just tempted by someone different. Trust me. It’s not always so simple.
My door has been open for years to any coach or executive wanting to talk and willing to find their way to my world—well, almost anyone. Florida and Florida State people know better than to call. The University of Miami is the only stop on my career that was more than a stop. It was home. It still is in many ways. I’ve hosted the coaching staffs at my house. One of my players, Mario Cristobal, is now Miami’s coach. I recruited Mario and his older brother, Luis. I sat in their home. I talked with their parents. This spring, I talked with Mario’s players just as I once did him.
The visitors don’t migrate to the Keys for small talk or social gestures. It’s about nuts-and-bolts leadership, some tangible issue before them, or just to hear how I climbed the mountain—about the Pygmalion Theory and not playing with scared money, about good being the enemy of great, and why I ignored the “traditional coach’s handbook” on practices like using humble-speak in public.
I coached with a big attitude. I wanted it to rub off on my teams. That was my way. It’s not for everyone. I made mistakes, too. Maybe these visitors can learn from those as well. I don’t have secret shortcuts or a special formula for winning. No one comes looking for that anyway. They come instead for ideas formed over four decades that were mixed with the hard work and perseverance that built champions in Miami and Dallas.
These visitors don’t fly into Miami, drive through the Everglades, and visit the Keys just to see me.
They come to hear what I learned.