Photo courtesy: AP/LM Otero
Chan Gailey, left, felt the heat almost immediately as Cowboys coach, and was fired after two seasons by Jerry Jones.
It was noon on a late July day in Wichita Falls, and it was already smokin’ hot, and I don’t mean just the weather.
“What a fraud.” “The man’s a liar.” “What a weak attempt at a cover-up.” “He should be fired right now.”
That was Chan Gailey’s “welcome” to our football world by many members of the local media, angrily filing out of an interview session held in the student center at Midwestern State University.
It was Gailey’s first training camp day as head coach of an NFL team, and that team happened to be the most high-profile franchise in the land.
And really, it was his first day as a head coach outside of dusty college map specks such as Troy State and Samford.
And a couple of years as head coach of the Birmingham Fire of the World League could not have come remotely close to preparing him for anything like this pending storm.
The night before the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp opened in 1998, there was an argument about who had “next” for a haircut in the players’ dorm.
The dispute resulted in one of the NFL’s biggest stars, Michael Irvin, taking the sharp edge of a pair of scissors and running it across the neck of a teammate, Everett McIver, who was not seriously injured but required medical attention.
Once the story broke, the media army went into full-tilt boogie. We want answers. We want a suspension. It’s a neck for a neck, and we want Michael’s neck.
Poor Chan. Again, first day of his first NFL training camp, and his scheduled media session for the next morning made him first up on our firing line.
Gailey was overwhelmed. His attempts at answers, attempts at defusing the scene, could not have been worse. Gawd, he was unprepared and awful. The media wrath immediately switched from Irvin to the new head coach.
But as a participant in all that, for once in my overreacting life, I didn’t. Not even Landry, not even the Jimster, and certainly not Switzer, could have emerged from that media scene without blood showing.
Later that afternoon, I happened to pass by Gailey on campus and, as he approached, I said, “You survived that, so you can survive here.” But I never looked back to see if there was a reaction.
Chan, of course, did not survive here. Not for long, anyway. Two seasons total.
But Gailey comes back to town today, again a head coach in the NFL, and his Buffalo Bills have been one of the surprise success stories in the first half of the season.
The Bills’ record is 5-3, playing against a schedule that’s been about equal to the 4-4 Cowboys.
But in the roll call of head coaches Jerry Jones has hired-fired-run-off since 1989, and, of course, that includes some of the most famous names in league history, Gailey stands alone in one regard.
Jerry says firing Chan after two seasons was his biggest mistake.
Not Landry, not Jimmy, not Big Bill… Chan Gailey.
Jerry, of course, is wrong, as he usually always is in evaluating a head coach, but that’s not the point.
Jerry did Chan the biggest favor of Gailey’s coaching life. He fired him at exactly the right time.
Gailey took over a team in 1998 that still had many superstar names from the Dynasty Days, but it was also a club seriously on the talent fade because of age and injuries. There also had been discipline wreckage in the last years of the Switzer era, and Jones would even have to admit he kept Barry around two years too long.
Chan plowed into this scene, certainly not timid, and definitely head strong, not unusual for a first-time head coach attempting to establish himself.
He would soon clash with Troy Aikman over offensive philosophy. The irony is Aikman had given Gailey the largest welcome mat of all in the beginning, hoping a new coach could return discipline to the club.
The Cowboys went 10-6 in Gailey’s first season, but a wild-card playoff loss to Arizona — Arizona — at Texas Stadium signaled the official end of the Dynasty Days.
The next season, the Cowboys made the playoffs, even with an 8-8 record, but were quickly ousted at Minnesota.
Lucky, Chan. Jerry fired him just in time.
Rock bottom hit quickly. What followed, starting in 2000 under Dave Campo, who never had a prayer for head-coaching success, was 5-11, 5-11, 5-11.
Jerry was kidding himself after the ’99 season. So were the Aikmans, Emmitts, Deions, Michaels, etc. They couldn’t play anymore, at least not anything close to the previous standards. Irvin was injured in ’99 and had to retire.
But Chan? He left here, went to the Dolphins as offensive coordinator, then to Georgia Tech as head coach for six seasons, then to the Chiefs as offensive coordinator and that opened the door to another head-coaching shot in the NFL.
His hiring in Buffalo wasn’t well received initially, but no one is complaining now. What the brass in Buffalo saw were two good head-coaching seasons at Valley Ranch, particularly when you factor in all the circumstances, and those “circumstances” were stacked high.
Sure, some problems here were of Gailey’s making, but we’ve all got that on our résumé.
Chan is a good man, and a good coach. He also ought to tattoo a horseshoe on his butt, as a reminder of how lucky he was to be fired here.
All these years later, and Gailey can now even laugh about his first training camp day of his first NFL head-coaching job.
He was definitely up to his neck in it that hot summer morning in Wichita Falls.