“As I sit here after 25 years, the thing that bothers me most is that after the excellent blast-off, the excellent start, we haven’t gotten another Super Bowl,” Jones told The Dallas Morning News. “More than one. That’s where we get, and should receive, criticism.”
But that is about Jerry-as-GM. And as much as that dominates chatter during the season, it is only a sliver of why this weekend, Jones will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For as much as Jones is the league’s most recognizable owner — because of his appearances on the sidelines and postgame press conferences in the locker room — and as much as he’s remembered for his ego-fueled split with Jimmy Johnson in the middle of the 1990s Cowboys dynasty, Jones is receiving the game’s highest individual honor because of what he has brought to the NFL off the field, especially to its bottom line, pushing the league to the top of the modern era of sports business.
Jones is the seventh member of the 1990s Cowboys teams to receive a yellow jacket — he was a sometimes-tearful presenter for three others, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Larry Allen. But while the Cowboys haven’t ascended to the same level of success in the standings since the 1990s, Jones has had a nearly uninterrupted run of victories in the business of football since he purchased the Cowboys in 1989 for a now-laughable $140 million.
Less than six months after that, he was one of a group of owners who opposed the pick of league insiders, Jim Finks, to succeed Pete Rozelle as commissioner, leading to the eventual selection of Paul Tagliabue. Shortly after that, Jones helped Fox get the television contract for NFC games, opening a new avenue for lucrative television rights at a time when others were willing to accept a cut in rights fees.
It was the first real indication of Jones’ boundless ambition and big thinking. He was one of the first owners to recognize how important and lucrative it was to build his own brand, so he carved out an agreement with the league that allowed the Cowboys to market their own apparel. Later, he built a billion-dollar stadium that, while considered over-the-top when it opened — it featured an impressive art collection curated by his wife, Gene, along with questionable cage dancers — is now considered the best in the league. Most recently, Jones was a powerful force in the league approving the Rams’ relocation to a new stadium in Los Angeles from St. Louis and the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas from Oakland. Jones had a vision of the NFL that was more aggressive and flashier than that of an earlier breed of owners, and it was that vision that helped push the NFL to the top of the sports and broadcasting landscape.
“He’s obviously built up the league in terms of just the public, and the interest, he talks about football in such a passionate way, the growth of the game, he’s been a large part of that,” said Mark Wilf, the co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings, when Jones received Sports Business Journal’s lifetime achievement award in May.
Jones came by his ambition early. He was a senior offensive lineman at Arkansas when the team took a trip to Houston and got a look at the new Astrodome. Jones was awed by the structure and the big thinking it took to get it built. According to Sports Business Journal, Jones told the story of that visit a few months ago, at a draft party at the Cowboys‘ state-of-the-art new headquarters in Frisco, noting that his AT&T Stadium is six times the size of the old Astrodome.
That story may encapsulate Jones’ business savvy. But, of course, that is not why Jones, now 74, is so famous that he was shouted at — and cursed — by fans when he was standing on a New York sidewalk during the negotiations that ended the NFL’s lockout in 2011. His public persona is simple and appealing to many: He is the rollicking id of the NFL, a very wealthy man who appears to be having more fun than even his best players. No other owner has such an outsize persona that he would appear in a rap video. No other owner alights on the annual NFL Scouting Combine in a gigantic, branded recreational vehicle.
No other owner regularly holds must-see postgame press conferences, competing directly with his head coach for the attention of reporters. Jones’ sometimes-meandering disquisitions entertain reporters — when Tony Romo broke his collarbone in 2015, Jones said he felt as low as a “crippled cricket’s ass” — although other coaches and executives around the league often shake their heads at how Jones seems to undermine his coaches’ authority or seeks to influence league decisions. But it’s hard to imagine an owner better suited to owning America’s team.
That the team has not gotten past the Divisional Round of the playoffs since the Cowboys won the third Super Bowl of that 1990s run may, in fact, be Jones’ great failing, and it clearly rankles him. He has gone through a series of coaches since Johnson, from Barry Switzer to the current coach, Jason Garrett. When former quarterback Tony Romo retired earlier this year, Jones said his greatest disappointment in his time with the Cowboys was not getting Romo to the Super Bowl. Still, with Jones’ son Stephen taking over many of the personnel decisions, the Cowboys seem to be as well-positioned as they’ve been in years for a long stretch of playoff appearances, with quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott entering their second seasons.
That the Cowboys‘ future on the field finally seems bright again is a nice companion to Jones’ enshrinement, although Jones’ impact on football goes far beyond which draft picks pan out. After all, even on the Cowboys‘ worst day, the stadium is always full and the ratings are always high. For Jones, and the NFL, that is what deserves a bust cast in bronze.
“I was a walk-on in college terms, that’s without a scholarship,” Jones said of his life in the NFL, before receiving the Sports Business Journal award. “The NFL inspired me and it made me dream and want to be more than I could have ever dreamed. The other part is to have gotten to have done it with my family and associates. I am truly being recognized for what couldn’t have happened without a great team and my immediate family being the ones closest to me.”
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.