The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Technically speaking, the phone call to Jim Garrett was supposed to be about his son Jason's head-coaching gig with the Dallas Cowboys. And, it was to some degree. Like any conversation with the elder Garrett, though, it was so much more. It was educational, insightful and ridiculously entertaining. It was the kind of discussion that you don’t want to end, to the point of making up the last few questions on the fly in the hopes of learning something else.
We spoke last Wednesday, the day before Garrett turned 84 years young. This was not the first time we spoke – believe it was the fifth occasion over the years – but it was our first chat since Garrett suffered a stroke last year. Both Jason and his mother, Jane, informed me of his condition beforehand, saying that while he was limited physically his mind was as sharp as ever. This indeed was the case.
We talked about Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. Not because everyone in football likes to reference these legends. No, Jim Garrett actually played for both with the New York Giants in 1956, when they served as the team’s coordinators. He was also an NFL assistant coach for 15 seasons and a scout for the Cowboys for nearly two decades. He was also a head coach at multiple stops, including Columbia and the Houston franchise of the World Football League.
Then there's his famed backyard in Monmouth Beach, N.J., where Jim has worked out local high school players for more than half a century, including Miles Austin. Few have lived more of a football life than Jim Garrett.
And few, if any, have a better understanding of the 48-year-old Jason Garrett than his father. The two have always and continue to be close, talking a few times a week. Jason also visits his parents in New Jersey several times a year, most recently earlier in the month for an annual football camp.
"I learn something from him every time we talk," Jason recently told me.
It's not a secret that Jason is entering the final year of his contract. This isn't speculation; it's a fact. And while Jerry Jones wants to keep Garrett around long term, make him his Tom Landry in terms of longevity, another 8-8 finish or worse and, well, we all know how that's going to end.
"Let's be honest about this. Tom Landry had to win, Bill Parcells had to win, Joe Girardi with the Yankees, he has to win. That's the mentality of ownership in professional sports, especially at the highest level like the Cowboys or the Yankees,” Jim Garrett said. “And, you know what? It should be.
"If I were an owner, Jason is the kind of guy I'd want. He never complains, he works as hard as he can, and at the end of the day, even if he's fired, Jason is never going to be that guy who says, 'I was screwed.' He's not going to make excuses."
The most frustrating aspect of Jason Garrett's coaching tenure here in Dallas is the public perception of him. He's not robotic. He's consistent. There's a big difference. The first words one see when walking into the coaches' offices, up on the wall, are “Keep it Simple,” and that kind of sums up Jason's method of communication. This is an Ivy League-educated guy with an advanced vocabulary, yet he speaks in a clear and concise manner for one and all to understand.
Here's another issue with the robot nonsense. Jason shows his emotion as much as any head coach I've been around in sports. We were talking about his memorable Thanksgiving Day start a few years back and he recalled a phone call Barry Switzer made to his father the following morning. He decided it would be best to have Jim tell me the story, but just thinking about it brought tears to Jason’s eyes. I thought that was pretty cool. Showed how deep the bond was between Jason and Jim.
(As for the phone call, Switzer told Jim Garrett, "This isn't a coach calling a scout or a coach calling a father, this is one dad calling another dad and telling him that his kid did great yesterday. I just wanted you to know how proud you should be of that son of yours.")
The Garretts talk about each other differently from most fathers and sons, at least those I've been around. Certainly there was some tough love growing up, especially when Jim was coaching three of his sons, Jason included, in college. But at this point in life, the two speak quite freely about their admiration for one another.
"There is not one moment in Jason's life where he has fought with his parents or been disobedient, not in school, not playing sports," said Jim Garrett, who has 27 grandchildren. "There has never been a behavior issue with him. It's quite amazing, really. And he's never sarcastic either, and I think players like that.
"Jason is a remarkable man. He has never put a mask on once in his life. He has never tried to be someone else. Know what else? Jason is the kindest human being I've been around in my life. He really is."
There is no way of knowing how this season turns out for the Cowboys and what Jason Garrett's future holds beyond 2014. Fans seem to be divided on him, some thinking he's the answer long term and Jones should sign him to an extension here and now, and others thinking he should have been dismissed after last season.
There is no debate, however, that he has represented the franchise with class and honor since taking the offensive coordinator's position in January 2007. Still, as both father and son acknowledge, it's about the wins and losses. And the time to win is now.
If that doesn't happen, Jim Garrett will be the first one to tell his son how proud he is. Yeah, proud of Jason Garrett the football coach, but more so, proud of Jason Garrett the human being.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.