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When Jerry met Jimmy

'Before They Were Cowboys' is no showdown.


GLORY DAYS: Corey Frost's sports documentary for ESPN's SEC Network hones in on the history around -- and between -- the once-unstoppable duo Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson.
  • GLORY DAYS: Corey Frost's sports documentary for ESPN's SEC Network hones in on the history around -- and between -- the once-unstoppable duo Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson.

ESPN's next Arkansas-centric sports doc, "Before They Were Cowboys," purports to delve into the strange kismet between Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson. The early-'60s teammates at the University of Arkansas later became world-beaters as the owner and coach, respectively, of two Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl titles in the early '90s. It's hard to believe that Johnson, he of the immaculate comb-over and the pumpkin cheeks, is 73 years old. It's easier to believe that Jones, with periwinkle eyes set back in a nest of wrinkles, has hit 74. There's an obvious home-state appeal to picturing them as skinny-bordering-on-scrawny teenagers hitting the field in Fayetteville, not realizing that as seniors they'd lead the Hogs to their only national title. Add in some live sit-downs with still-living legends, including Frank Broyles (who turns 92 on Dec. 26), and you have yourself a wistful 50 minutes of recalling perhaps the finest moment in the history of Razorbacks athletics.

But it's a bummer that we don't get a whole lot else from the documentary. The run time doesn't allow for the depth of storytelling that would've helped carry it more consistently through that 1964 title team to Jones' hiring of Johnson to coach the Cowboys — a bold decision at the time, given that it required firing Tom Landry, then the only coach the franchise had ever employed. Something happened to sour the relationship between the former teammates, even as the (how 'bout them) Cowboys racked up those two Super Bowl rings such that Jones fired Johnson when the team was poised perhaps for what would've been an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl win. Jones hired one of their old Arkansas assistant coaches-made-good, Barry Switzer, to replace Johnson. In the doc, Jones relates Switzer's first words upon arriving in Dallas: "Where's Jimmy? ... I want to sit you two knotheads down and ask how you two could screw this up."

We don't find out from the film: In his rumbling Arklatex accent, narrator and country singer Trace Adkins says, "We all know what followed." So this is definitely a doc for the children of the '80s, or even of the '50s, who remember enough coverage of those '90s Cowboys teams to forgive filmmaker Corey Frost for eliding all mention of hookers and/or blow from this yearbook tour of Arkansas's glory days. Maybe that's not the point of the doc, after all, but it would perhaps go some distance toward explaining how you could have apparently full cooperation from both Jones and Johnson — both offer extensive original interviews — without ever getting them into the same frame, or getting much of an explanation of what went wrong.

What they did get right, however, will forever etch them into the state's lore. Jones grew up in North Little Rock, helping his parents out at their grocery store, enamored with the success and style of Broyles, who comes off here as a gracious and forward-thinking leader, focused solely on getting the best out of his players as men. Johnson grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, where his folks worked in the oil refining industry. Native Arkansans, they told him he'd have to attend the UA if they were ever going to watch his games. So fated were two of the brightest stars and most determined athletes on that '64 national champion team. (Ken Hatfield, maybe the best natural athlete on that squad, also gets into this film.) About the only thing they shared other than a love of the Hogs: the first two letters of their last names, so they were assigned to room together on road trips. Johnson's now a National Football League talking head for Fox, and Jones has continued to run the Cowboys for 20 years of mediocrity (until this year, maybe?) since Switzer took Johnson's former toys and won the Super Bowl in 1996. Both Jimmy and Jerry absorbed just a bit too much Dallas from the '80s on, and as such, they both command a round of eye-rolling at the very mentions of their names. But "Before They Were Cowboys" will endear you to both of 'em enough that you'll overlook the lack of true insight. There are perils involved in ESPN's making docs under the SEC banner while the contracts with the conference are so lucrative; namely, we get glossy versions of stories that would've been more compelling with even a hint of adversarial editorial viewpoint.

Still, you're going to love watching the Hogs beat Nebraska in the 1965 Cotton Bowl. Some things never get old.

"Before We Were Cowboys" premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 28, on the SEC Network.

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