Boys Will Be Boys: An Interview with Author/Columnist Jeff Pearlman

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Boys Will Be Boys: An Interview with Author/Columnist Jeff Pearlman

This week we were fortunate to be able to exchange some emails with columnist and best-selling author Jeff Pearlman about his most recent bad boy biography, Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, released by HarperCollins on September 16, 2008.

Pearlman’s previous releases include HHR favorite The Bad Guys Won, as well as Love Me, Hate Me, an examination of the life and career of Barry Bonds.

Like Bad Guys, Boys Will Be Boys is a fascinating read about one of the most successful, memorable and morally-flawed teams in recent sports history. If you haven’t already done so, pick it up.

From the Cowboys of the 90’s to the ’86 Mets to Barry Lamar Bonds, you seem to have a penchant for controversial topics, but you present them in equally detailed and entertaining light. While it may seem obvious, what is your attraction to subjects like these?

Well, to be honest—and I haven’t consulted my therapist on this—I think it has to do with a certain sense of longing and jealousy. I’m 36-years old, I have two kids and I live in suburbia. My chances to live wildly—drugs and booze and hookers and strip clubs—have come and gone. I never lived it, and probably never will. And while I’m glad about that, I’m also curious. It’s sorta like shrooming. I’ve always been curious what it’d be like to shroom, but I never had the guts to try. So whenever I talk to anyone who has shroomed, I ask for every possible detail. How’d it feel? What’d you see? Etc. Same with high-flying athletes. I want to know what it was like.

Do you find teams like these, while flawed, have an attitude that is an essential element for on-field success?

I don’t. You can win thumping bibles and you can win drinking large quantities of alcohol. What matters most is the unity. Are the players united? Are they on the same page? Do they have similar ideals? Etc. That’s what matters when it comes to winning vs. losing. At least that’s what I believe.

You noted in this one that you spoke with over 146 members of the Cowboys organization. What issues do you run into researching subjects who may be wary of how they may be portrayed?

Well, there’s a lot of skepticism over the media in general, so you have to convince people that it’s not your goal to kill or rip anyone. And it truly wasn’t my goal, and never is. I like discovering who people are; what makes them tick; etc. I feel like if you’re honest and open, people generally will talk. Generally.

With Jimmy Johnson, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Moose Johnston all reinventing themselves post-playing (and coaching) career, do you ever look at these guys on TV and shake your head in a sense of “Where do they get off being so critical?”

Never. It’s their job. And, if we’re going to be 100% honest, they have much more of a right to say what they say than I do as an columnist. Look, last year I called for Joe Torre to be fired by the Yankees. How many pitches have I thrown since Babe Ruth League? How many games have I managed? I certainly study sports and love sports, but these guys have been there, and they’ve succeeded. They have every right to criticize.

How shortsighted was Cowboy fan memory over the dismissal of legendary coach Tom Landry once the winning began? How do fans view his legacy with that of the dynasty you covered? Are they mutually exclusive?

I don’t think Cowboy fans were shortsighted, RE: Landry—I just think they moved on. Which made sense. You can only stay bitter for so long. As for his legacy, I’d say he’s still the all-time king of the Dallas Cowboys. Fans may admire Jerry Jones and/or Jimmy Johnson, but nobody can touch what Landry did for Dallas. And, yes, they’re exclusive.

Today we see many college coaches struggle in their transition to the pros. How was Johnson able to portray the demeanor of fierce disciplinarian in his first camp in light of his teams’ reputations coming from Miami? He openly dismissed a negative attitude among the players, while in the same breath perpetuating negative behavior.

Well, when you’re screaming at players and threatening to cut them, they’re not exactly in a position to debate your collegiate legacy. So, really, once Jimmy set the tone at that first camp, his Miami rep was insignificant. Also, you have to remember that coaches and players are entitled to a completely divergent set of behavioral rules. Jimmy dismissed a negative attitude among his players because he saw that as a cancer for the young guys coming in. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t scream and yell and threaten to kill you. Players don’t look at coaches and say, “If he can be that way, so can I.”

Throughout the book, we see Jerry Jones as an ego-trip hell bent on doing things his way, yet it seems Johnson got a lot of leniency in hiring/firing players and personnel. What gave him so much faith in Johnson, and subsequently, after Johnson left the Cowboys, for what reason has Jones steered away from Johnson-like coaches that have allowed for him more a hands-on role in football operations?

Well, Jerry didn’t know what the heck he was doing at first, so Jimmy was a security blanket-and Jerry knew it. He probably wouldn’t have admitted it, but he knew it. Jimmy could analyze talent, grade drafts, consider trades, and Jerry wanted to feel involved. That’s really his only desire. He trusted Jimmy; just wanted him as a partner. The problem is, with the Super Bowls Jerry got cocky. He took credit for decisions he didn’t make; began to watch Jimmy operate and thought, “I can do that, too.” That’s one of the reasons he’s never—with the brief exception of Bill Parcells—hired another Jimmy. He thinks he knows best.

How much was and continues to be the players’ attitudes and behavior an extension of the owners and coaches?

Well, I can’t speak for the modern Cowboys, but back in the 90s the swagger of Jimmy Johnson was the swagger of the Cowboys. Players saw Jimmy guaranteeing wins and talking shit about opposing teams, and they felt it appropriate to speak and think similarly. When you have, say, a Dan Reeves or Art Shell as coach, you sort of whisper through the league. Those Cowboys, under Jimmy, roared.

Something that struck me as an Eagles fan…When speaking of the Philadelphia faithful, right after mention of Santa Claus always comes a piece about cheering as Michael Irvin is being carted off the field (which was eventually portrayed in the book). In Chapter 11, you write mention in a meeting against the Skins, Michael Irvin explicitly threatening to go after Darrell Green’s broken right forearm. While Irvin walked the walk after talking the talk and it’s hard not to appreciate his work ethic, can we finally give Eagles fans a pass at simply acknowledging a creep getting his due?

Uh, no. I don’t care if it’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—you don’t cheer for paralysis.

Fair enough.

Johnson had a penchant for embarrassing and cutting mediocre players in front of as big an audience as he could find. Robert Jones had an interesting quote when he said: “He never messed with his bread-and-butter guys, because he was a bully. Bullies only pick on the guys they can mess with.” Was Johnson as physically and emotionally intimidated by his abrasive stars like Irvin and Hailey, as much as he knew they were indispensable?

Nooooo—he wasn’t intimidated by stars. He simply knew he needed them, and to cut them/humiliate them/fine them/etc served no real purpose. As long as he had the John Ropers and Curvin Richards to beat on, why mess with Troy and Emmitt? As my dad, an executive search professional, said to me recently, “That Jimmy Johnson would make one hell of a CEO, because he knows which buttons to press.” I agree.

Do you feel that the charges of racism were warranted in the Emmitt Smith contract talks?

I don’t.

Speaking of racism, why does Troy Aikman hate his black teammates?

Because they stole his cheese.

Much is made in the book about the near misses with dismissing different key elements to the team – for example: Shula wanting to cut Irvin, Johnson’s infatuation with Steve Walsh, etc. How much would team’s success have been affected by one of these potential omissions from the squad? Was each piece of the puzzle an absolute necessity in your opinion?

H-u-g-e-l-y. Let’s say Steve Walsh quarterbacks the Cowboys into the 1990s. Well, suddenly those deep bombs to Alvin Harper and those 20-yard outs to Michael Irvin never exist, because Walsh had Chad Pennington’s arm. Let’s say the Cowboys don’t draft Emmitt Smith—does Curvin Richards or Derrick Lassic pick up the load? Sure, there are receivers who put up Irvin’s numbers. But the toughness and determination were hallmarks of those teams. So, in terms of the stars, each piece was needed.

Who wins in a sword fight – Charles Haley or Rafael Santana?

Id’ say Raffy Santana, because Ed Heard did describe his penis as “cock as big as a bat.” But I imagine Charles Haley wouldn’t hesitate to literally rip it off.

At the time the Boys were running rampant in Dallas and in Super Bowl cities across the country, much of their antics were swept under the carpet and/or kept under wraps. With the explosion of the internet and blogs, their behavior would have been daily fodder for online armchair pundits. Was the free-for-all attitude portrayed by the 1990’s Cowboys unique to that them and have team’s since cracked down on the debauchery, or are players and executives just better at this point at hiding it from the public?

I don’t think teams have cracked down, but I believe players have. Nowadays, every boob with a camera on his cell phone or Blackberry is an internet reporter. So I’d say players are aware of the jeopardy/likelihood of being caught should anything go wrong. They really limit themselves much more than long ago.

Where can I get copies of and make fun of Skip Bayless’ old “newsletters?”

I don’t know Skip, but I’m guessing they serve as wallpaper in his Skip Bayless-themed living room.

What can we look for next from Jeff Pearlman?

I’m working on a biography about John Milton Hay, the 12th U.S. assistant secretary of state.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fred Goodwin January 8, 2011 at 12:48 am

Jeff, I just read the interview. As far as I can tell, while many have faulted Jerry Jones on his GM “skills” (or lack thereof), you’re the first and only reporter / columnist with the cojones to actually state on the record that Jimmy was Jerry’s security blanket, and for that I thank you very much!

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