My first NFL assignment was helping the Dallas Morning News staff cover the arrival of Jerry Jones, the firing of Tom Landry and the hiring of Jimmy Johnson.
Jones stood at the front of a room crowded with reporters and promised he would manage everything in the Cowboys franchise “from socks to jocks.’’ Fans laughed at him through their tears.
After buying the Cowboys in 1989, Jones quickly proved he could win, capturing three Super Bowls by the mid-1990s. He proved he could overmanage, firing Johnson and ushering in 2½ decades without a title.
The Cowboys haven’t even played in a conference title game since their last Super Bowl victory following the 1995 season. As the team has meandered, Jones has proved he doesn’t need to win big to cash in, taking one of the greatest brands in sports and leveraging it into a gaudy stadium, a gaudy practice facility and merchandise sales and business development initiatives that are the envy of American sports.
When he arrived in 1989, the Cowboys played at Texas Stadium and practiced and worked out of Valley Ranch. Texas Stadium was famous for the hole in the roof; Valley Ranch was a beautiful suburban headquarters. So when I left Dallas to cover the Vikings in 1990, I expected to see similar facilities in Eden Prairie.
The Vikings had a powerhouse team that had just won the NFC Central, two years after going to the NFC title game. Surely they were a modern franchise.
Then I visited Winter Park and the Metrodome. The differences between the Cowboys’ buildings and the Vikings’ were like the difference between Times Square and your local strip ball, the one with the cheap smokes and all-you-can-eat buffet.
The Metrodome was outdated by the time it opened. Winter Park was an old office building with a small locker room, a five-seat press workroom and a couple of practice fields. In frigid weather, the Vikings would inflate a 40-yard dome. Punts would hit the ceiling.
Sunday night, the Vikings will play the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, a venue that hosts one of America’s most popular teams, plus massive concerts and much-hyped college football games.
Even while Jones was redefining what a state-of-the-art football stadium looks like, the Vikings were closing the gap.
U.S. Bank Stadium reveals ideas borrowed from JerryWorld, including on-field suites, massive scoreboards and artwork you would have never guessed would be in a football stadium a decade ago.
Here is what seems strange to someone familiar with the Cowboys and Vikings: The Vikings have the better stadium.
Where JerryWorld impresses with size and audacity, U.S. Bank Stadium combines modern design with beauty. From the outside, the stadium looks something like a ship, befitting the team name. From inside, windows let in light and allow fans to see a downtown park and the city skyline. The Vikings’ new practice facility, the TCO Performance Center, is similarly impressive.
The Vikings can’t claim to be America’s Team, but their fans are more frequently becoming known as America’s guests. Last week in Kansas City, there was almost as much purple as red in the stands, a stunning sight given the Chiefs’ popularity.
Jones and the Wilfs have discovered that when it comes to the business of football, winning championships isn’t everything.
“We do have a relationship with Jerry and the Joneses and they did an outstanding job with their stadium,’’ Vikings President Mark Wilf said. “We reviewed a lot of stadiums around the country and we wanted to make sure we provided our fans the best possible experience. We wanted to be first-class all the way and we used the same architect that Dallas and Indianapolis used, HKS.
“We love a lot of the stuff in AT&T. They have an art collection; we have an art collection, much more focused on Minnesota. They had turf suites, we have turf suites right on the field. There are a lot of similarities, but we wanted to have a building that fit Minnesota and our fans.’’
That the Vikings and Cowboys play and work in similar facilities is a development you would not have been able to predict in 1989, or in 2009.