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Memory Lane: The Cowboys made Chan Gailey the fourth coach in team history

Chan Gailey had enormous shoes to fill when he was named the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys to follow the likes of Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, and Barry Switzer
Credit: AP
Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey smiles during a news confernece anouncing his hiring as the new head coach for the Dallas Cowboys in Irving, Texas, Thursday, Feb. 12, 1998. The next time the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons meet on the gridiron, they will have more in common than an even number of players on the field. They will have Gailey and Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves, two former Americus High School quarterbacks, calling the plays from the sidelines.(AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

DALLAS — On this day 22 years ago, the Dallas Cowboys hired Chan Gailey to be their fourth head coach in team history. He was also the third since Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989 and the second since Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson "mutually decided" to split in 1994.

Gailey, who had last served as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator from 1996-1997, was hired to bring innovation to an offense that still featured Super Bowl winners in quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, receiver Michael Irvin, and a good collection of the Great Wall of Dallas still on the offensive line.

Even though there was scrutiny in Pittsburgh for the way Gailey called the Steelers' 24-21 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game that January, Jones was impressed with the way Gailey developed receiver Kordell Stewart from his "slash" role as a gadget player to a full-fledged starting quarterback.

The Cowboys also hired Gailey to bring back the discipline they seemed to have lost during the Barry Switzer tenure from 1994-1997, even though the former Oklahoma Sooners coach led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win in 1995. Additionally, there was a perception that Jones was having a bigger influence on the coaching than he had when Johnson was on the sidelines. Gailey was to fix that perception.

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"We needed someone to come in who could make it clear to everyone, including the players, that Jerry does not call the plays," Jones told the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 27, 1998. "Would Jerry Jones have brought Chan Gailey in if he wanted to call the plays?"

The hiring of Gailey was somewhat surprising. The Cowboys had met with former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, who led the Niners to two Super Bowl wins, and Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis. However, there was a third candidate that almost became the Cowboys' fourth-ever coach.

Dallas was about to announce a press conference introducing Terry Donahue as coach. Donahue had previously been at UCLA from 1976-95 and was Aikman's college coach. However, Donahue and Jones could not agree on language in his contract regarding an insubordination clause — in other words, a firewall on how much he could badmouth the organization publicly so as to prevent another Johnson situation.

After a five-week coaching search, the Cowboys announced Gailey as coach just five days after he had met with the Joneses at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. While at the combine, Gailey had a two-hour "get to know you" session with the Joneses.

Even though their time at the combine was abbreviated, connecting the degrees of separation helped. From 1979-1982, Gailey was an assistant coach for Ken Hatfield at Air Force. Hatfield was a member of the Arkansas Razorbacks' 1964 national championship team, the same one Jones was a co-captain. If anyone could vouch for Gailey to the Joneses, it would be Hatfield.

"Before I talked to Jerry, sure I had concerns,” Gailey told the LA Times on Aug. 27, 1998. "Anybody who was listening to the perception and what was being said on the streets would have had questions. But after three or four sessions with the man, I had those questions answered. We don’t have to be chummy buddies to work together. But we have to have a mutual respect, and that’s what has developed."

In training camp, with a season fresh and new, with the blue star regaining its luster as they were 0-0 the same as every other team, Jones was selling the fan base on Gailey.

"I thought I had a good one in Chan," said Jones. "I was wrong. He was better than I could have ever imagined."

Gailey didn't get to last long in Dallas with just two seasons. Even though the Cowboys made the playoffs both years and earned an NFC East crown in '98 that featured the sweeping of all of their divisional foes, they didn't win a playoff game. Gailey was continuing the playoff win drought that started parching the Cowboys on Jan. 5, 1997, when they lost to the Carolina Panthers 26-17.

Gailey may have been a good coach in another NFL city that lacked the constant spotlight and star power Dallas has had since Tex Schramm invited it in the 1960s. Maybe he didn't get a fair shot in Dallas, but he was fired on Jan. 12, 2000, just three days after the Cowboys' 27-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the 1999 NFC wildcard game.

Jones claimed the firing of Gailey was related to football decisions.

"This decision I had to make is about football," Jones said via the Associated Press. "It wasn’t about egos. It wasn’t about contentiousness."

In 2020, the Cowboys didn't have a five-week coaching search for Jason Garrett's successor, nor did they wait until the combine to start talking to candidates. However, it was a relatively quick visit with Mike McCarthy as it was with Gailey. Nevertheless, McCarthy has one thing Gailey never did: a world championship, with a Super Bowl win as head coach of the Packers.

The Joneses and Cowboys fans everywhere are hopeful by not going the Gailey route and hiring the hottest offensive coordinator, they will find championship rewards by going the Seifert route and taking the experienced winner.

If they do indeed exist at all, what are your favorite memories of the Chan Gailey era in Dallas? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.

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