It was his first time at a Dallas Cowboys football game. It was 1988, and the then-oil tycoon and his family joined former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach at a suite inside Texas Stadium in Irving. Coach Bill Parcells was leading the New York Giants to victory on one side of the field, and Tom Landry was fighting the good fight with the Cowboys on the other. The game had started with about 20,000 fans packed into the stands, but as the scoreboard hacked away at any hope for a Cowboys win, the crowd dwindled to about 5,000. It was then that he chose to leave the suite. He climbed down rows and rows of stairs to sit in some abandoned seats. Snacks, coolers, liquor, and beer bottles and cans—back then guests could bring in their own alcohol—lay strewn across the aisles. He sat in the mess, quietly taking it all in, and then asked himself a question that would forever change the course of his life, that of his family, and the future of the NFL. “I asked, ‘If you had already bought [this team], and there was no turning back—you had burned your ships—how are you going to be able to handle this?” he remembers, wispy-eyed. “I really sat in it. I got up and said, ‘I can handle it.’”
With no experience in owning a sports franchise, and little strategy beforehand, Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million in 1989. The team was bleeding cash—losing more than $1 million a month—and had dropped to fifth in the standings in the NFL’s NFC East division. But with Jones’ willingness to risk it all on a dicey deal, and his determination to make it work, he and his family transformed the struggling franchise into the world’s most valuable sports team—worth $4.2 billion, according to Forbes’ 2017 rankings. He’s continued to invest in the team, constructing some of the most impressive facilities and sports venues in the country. Last year, about seven years after building Arlington’s $1.15 billion AT&T Stadium, one of the most expensive sports stadiums in the NFL, Jones opened the $1.5 billion Frisco Star. The Cowboys practice facility doubles as a game-day stadium for Frisco ISD schools, serves as the Cowboys headquarters, provides office space, and in the past year, has beefed up Frisco’s retail and restaurant presence. He’s become a hotelier with the new 16-story Omni Hotel that opened at the Star in July, and is working with Staubach to develop a 17-story luxury apartment tower in Frisco. To top off a strong 2017, Jones received the highest honor in professional football in July, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. For all these reasons, D CEO has named Jones Dallas-Fort Worth’s CEO of the Year for 2017. (Please see stories about the six runners-up for the honor here.)
“I have a high tolerance for risk,” Jones says. “I just plan on working and selling my way out of [problems] when it doesn’t go as planned.”
North Texas has benefited from the hard work of Jones and his family. “He’s a visionary, hardworking, an innovator,” says Dale Petroskey, president and CEO of the Dallas Regional Chamber. The Cowboys have helped add excitement to the community and aided with companies’ recruiting efforts, Petroskey says, adding of Jones: “He embodies the best of Dallas.” Jim Gandy, executive director of the Frisco Economic Development Corp., says he’s enjoyed watching the spotlight turn to Frisco since The Star was developed. “The ripple effect has just been unbelievable,” Gandy says. “It certainly has increased the awareness and notoriety of Frisco.”
And while Jones has spent the last couple of decades changing the game for the Cowboys, the 75-year-old raconteur, football fan, and expert salesman is not planning to slow down any time soon. “My one takeaway is he’s always looking for what’s next, and that’s done very well for him,” says Ron Patterson, Frisco’s assistant city manager.
Grit for the Game
Jones started developing his chops for sales and a strong work ethic at a young age. His father owned Pat’s Supermarket in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and Jones was already doing his part at age 9. “My mother … put a little bowtie on me and put me out in front,” recalls Jones, who with his family lived above the store. “I would greet all the shoppers, and she’d wink at me when someone would come through that she knew would give me a little tip if I pushed their basket for them.” When he turned 11, his father required that Jones work in the store two hours each day. That became more difficult as Jones later got into football, basketball, baseball, and track, but he never missed a day at the store. “It was not a punishment-type thing. It was what you did,” says Jones, a former football player at the University of Arkansas. “I remember him saying, ‘I want you to work, and I want it to just be part of your makeup and not resent it in any way.’”
Hard work comes naturally now. From following his entrepreneur father to his insurance company, to running a pizza franchise, to selling mobile homes, to finally earning big payoffs in the oil and gas industry, Jones has rarely backed down from a challenge. Jerry Jones Jr., Jones’ youngest son, who serves as the Cowboys chief sales and marketing officer, says his father never really stops working. He’s always building relationships that could create new business opportunities in the future, Jerry Jr. says. And he makes sure those around him, including his three children—all of whom serve in critical roles in the business—know the value of hard work, too.
Stephen Jones, Jerry’s oldest son and the Cowboys’ executive vice president, CEO, and director of player personnel, learned that lesson from his father the hard way. Like his father, Stephen was required to “work” as a teenager and struck a deal that appeased his dad: In lieu of taking a regular job, he would work out four to five hours a day during the summer in order to become a better athlete. One day, though, young Jones found himself caught up swimming with his friends in the Jones’ pool. Jerry walked in, spotted his son swimming, and immediately sent him to his room. “He laid out my suit and said, ‘Get in it, we’re going for a job interview,’” Stephen remembers. Then his father drove him to a nearby Wendy’s, where Jerry knew the manager. “I meet Mr. Hamra, and he’s walking me through how you clean grease pits and grills,” Stephen remembers, adding that he hung his head low as he returned to the car with Jerry. “He said, ‘That’s great you got hired! Are you really fired up about the job? Is that what you want to do, or do you want to work out?’ And then he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you one more chance.’ He had several of those life lessons. They made a huge difference in my life.”
But hard work isn’t the only reason Jones has been successful. Most of his greatest achievements were the result of taking high-risk bets—the Cowboys purchase being the riskiest. After being told by advisers that the deal wasn’t any good, Jones needed support in his decision to buy the team. So he went to his family. “He said, ‘This may change our life a little,’” recalls Charlotte Jones Anderson, Jerry’s daughter and the Cowboy’s executive vice president and chief brand officer. Her father wanted the family to know that all the financial success he’d attained to that point could soon be gone: “It was all on the line, and it could absolutely go away.” It was a new revelation for the children, since Jones had previously sheltered them from tough times and tough decisions. Charlotte says that previously, when times got particularly tough, her father couldn’t hold a glass of iced tea without his hand trembling. Still, the tension didn’t keep him from betting the farm.
“I have a very high tolerance for risk,” Jones says. “I just plan on working and selling my way out of [problems] when it doesn’t go as planned.” After all, Jones’ master’s thesis at the University of Arkansas was on the role of communications and selling in modern-day football.
But more often than not, things haven’t gone as planned. From the national financial crisis while the Joneses were building AT&T Stadium to the multitude of fires Jerry had to put out when he inherited the team to the latest controversy regarding the national anthem, there’s always something unexpected in the cards. But the Jones family has learned to take one step at a time—cutting costs where necessary, keeping the organization lean, and making trade agreements to lower expenses. “So many things are born of necessity,” Jones says. And that’s included partnering up with other businesses and investing in sponsorships.
Jones was always willing to stick his neck out for a sale, including breakdancing and rapping for Papa John’s Pizza, whose stores in Dallas, Waco, and Austin are 50 percent owned by the Cowboys. He also relies on his family to help him make the best decisions. The Monday after he told members of the media that he would penalize any player who kneeled during the national anthem, Jones sat in his office strategizing the Cowboys’ message with Charlotte. “The only way to not offend people on the anthem is to separate the two conversations,” she says, noting that the Cowboys had made their statement at the Arizona game, when Jones, the staff, and the players kneeled before the anthem, then stood when it played. Adds Charlotte: “Everyone is in favor of the First Amendment, everyone is in favor of equality, and we have to figure out how we can go and actually do that in the community.”
The way he sees it, he never really “owned” the Cowboys to begin with. “I feel like I’m running with the ball a little while,” Jones says.
Jerry and his family also have made a concerted effort to impact the communities in which they operate. In Frisco, Jerry, who says he is “the largest landowner in North Texas,” started with the Starwood custom home community, for which he bought 550 acres. Now, with The Star, he’s created a new relationship with Frisco ISD and other youth sports. “This whole project is just something that is in the very nature of who he is as a person,” says Jeremy Lyon, the former Frisco ISD superintendent who dealt with the Joneses. “The focus was not just on the football players—it was on marching bands, and arts, and curriculum activities at The Star.” Jones even prioritized students in the design of the field, with the primary markings representing high school standards. He also saw this as an opportunity to inspire young players. “That image of the high school player sitting out there and walking on the field as [Cowboys quarterback] Dak Prescott is walking off, and Dak’s stopping and giving him some pointers”—that’s what it’s all about, Jones says.
There’s no doubt that Jones has come a long way. The football enthusiast still remembers having to sneak his kids and their friends into a Super Bowl XIX pre-party. The big game had come to Stanford University, where Charlotte was attending school, and Jerry had a limited number of tickets and a lot of people he hoped to get in. “We threw Jerry [Jr.], who was probably 9 or 10, over a fence,” Jones laughs. “And we pitched him over about three times, and they’d bring him back kicking like Oliver Twist. But on the third try, he ran and made it.”
Jerry looks out his sweeping office windows that overlook The Star football field, where his Cowboys-branded helicopter is parked. He takes a sip of iced tea and explains how confident he is in where the organization is headed, with his children leading the charge. The way he sees it, he never really “owned” the Cowboys to begin with. “I feel like I’m running with the ball a little while,” he says, paying homage to the original Cowboys president and general manager, Tex Schramm. The biggest compliment he says anyone could give him is something he learned from his days on the football field. And that’s how he hopes he’s remembered. “I do hope that when anybody talks about me,” Jones says through tears, they say, “He was a player.”