Iconic coach, TV analyst and avid boater, the man with three championship rings is the quintessential South Florida fishing nut
Photos by Andy Newman
Jimmy Johnson has won Super Bowls, but the catches that excite him today are the ones he makes in the Florida Keys.
NFL coach Jimmy Johnson had just won his second consecutive Super Bowl after the 1993 season and was celebrating with his Dallas Cowboys team in the locker room when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones jammed a phone in his ear. The caller was Bill Clinton, then president of the United States.“He said, ‘Coach Johnson, I want you to come to the White House, and congratulations on winning the Super Bowl,’ ” recalls Johnson, 67, who also coached the Miami Dolphins and led the University of Miami to a national championship. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President, I’m going to the Florida Keys. I’m going fishing.’ ”
Standing next to him, Jones was shocked that Johnson had refused an invitation from the president. “Jerry Jones grabbed the phone, and he says, ‘Yes, Mr. President, we will be at the White House,’ ” Johnson says, laughing. “I wasn’t even thinking, but that was my mindset. I wanted to go to the Florida Keys.”
Johnson has had a residence in the Keys since just after that second Super Bowl victory. He moved to his current home in Islamorada 11 years ago, and his name graces Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill at Fisherman’s Cove, a dining and entertainment complex, as well as a private residence club in Key Largo.
Johnson began visiting the Keys in the mid-1980s while he was head coach at the University of Miami. Toward the end of his time at the university he earned his dive certification and developed a lasting love of the subtropical island chain. “I came down to the Keys for my final open-water dive and just fell in love with the place, the people and all the things you could do down here,” he says.
While he was coaching the Cowboys he decided that he eventually wanted to live in the Keys. “We were kind of landlocked,” Johnson says of his time in Dallas. “I bought a 39-foot Larson and put it on Lake Lewisville, and [we would] go round and round in circles on my day off. We looked at the black water, and I had memories of how beautiful the water was in the Florida Keys.”
When he left the Cowboys, Johnson sought to live somewhere out of the limelight. “I wanted to get away from all of the hustle and bustle and autograph seekers, and go to an area where I could just lay back and enjoy life,” he says. “[In the Keys] I can go out anywhere and not be bothered.”
These days, Keys sportfishing has become an additional passion. “I got into the fishing 10 years or so ago and absolutely love going out on the ocean,” he says.
Behind his Islamorada estate, he keeps a 39-foot SeaVee center console with twin Cummins diesels and a 34-foot Venture with a pair of Mercury Verados. “I have to have a backup boat,” Johnson says. Both are dubbed Three Rings after his three coaching championships.
A room houses an extensive collection of rods, reels, lures and other tackle. Photos in the room — and on his iPhone — showcase notable catches, including a big bull dolphin (mahi-mahi), a large wahoo and, most recently, an estimated 235-pound blue marlin he caught while fishing alone. In fact, Johnson usually fishes alone, a testament to the reason he enjoys the sport. “I fish for fun and relaxation,” he says. “I don’t fish for meat. I don’t fish to brag to everybody what I can catch.”
Johnson has a close circle of Keys friends who occasionally go with him. “When I have my friends on board, we have a ball,” he says. “We laugh and cut up and talk about fish they lost or laugh about getting lines tangled up.”
Generally, however, he enjoys the freedom of solo angling, with no schedule or pressure to catch anything. Sometimes he doesn’t even put a line in the water. “When I was coaching, everything about my entire life was so regimented,” Johnson says. “Now, going out by myself fishing, I don’t have a schedule. I load the boat and I go out and stay as long as I want to stay.”
That’s where he usually can be found — except during the NFL season, when he travels weekly to Los Angeles to help anchor “Fox NFL Sunday” with Curt Menefee, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jay Glazer.
“There’s only two things that get me away from the Keys,” Johnson says. “The Fox TV show and if someone gives me a big check.”
This article originally appeared in the Southern Waters section of the November 2011 issue.