Jimmy Johnson's post-college plan to become an industrial psychologist didn't come to fruition. Johnson did, however, put his psychology degree to good use in a coaching career that on Aug. 7 will be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The first coach to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl title, Johnson was a big believer of the Pygmalion effect, a "psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations lead to improved performance in a given era." Johnson also used the self-fulfilling prophecy, as he often created or predicted big things for his players and teams that more often than not reached fruition.
"Our approach was completely different [than other coaches]," Johnson said during a recent virtual media session. "Our approach was, 'Hey guys, we're gonna kick their ass because we're better than they are.'"
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That didn't necessarily mean that Johnson's team was always the best team. Johnson admitted that the 49ers were a better team than his Cowboys crew he brought to San Francisco for the 1992 NFC Championship Game. The Cowboys, however, entered Candlestick Park with enough confidence to fill several AT&T Stadiums. Johnson's team then outplayed the top-seeded 49ers, defeating them 30-20 en route to a blowout victory over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.
While they may have been underdogs in '92, Johnson firmly believed the Cowboys had surpassed the 49ers heading into their NFC title game rematch the following season. Johnson decided not to keep his optimism to himself after listening to a local radio station debate who would win the highly anticipated rematch.
"That's why I called in and said, 'Hey, I'll clear this up. We're gonna win the game. You can put it in three-inch headlines. We're gonna win the game,'" Johnson said. "Well that was the Pygmalion effect. I know when I walked in the complex the next day I didn't realize that it was going to cause such a stir, but Emmitt [Smith] looked and me and he said, 'Coach, you wrote the check, I guess we're going to have to cash it.'"
Indeed, Johnson's team cashed the check. Despite an in-game injury to quarterback Troy Aikman, the Cowboys coasted to a 38-21 win over Steve Young, Jerry Rice and the rest of the 49ers. A week later, Dallas wrote its place in history by becoming the sixth team to win back-to-back titles. Making the Cowboys' success even more impressive was the fact that they won just one game during Johnson's first season in 1989.
The talent Johnson acquired was obviously a major part of the Cowboys' success during that era. Dallas not only had The Triplets of Smith, Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin, but it also boasted a mammoth offensive line as well and a defense that had a knack for forcing turnovers. That being said, Johnson's psychological approach to coaching certainly contributed to Dallas' dynasty during the 1990s.
"I put the pressure on the players," Johnson said, "and I put the expectation on them. 'This is what I expect from you.' And so, there was never any doubt in my mind that we were going to win, and I wanted them to think the same thing."