By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
His priorities had changed, and he no longer wanted to get ground up in the day-to-day routine of running a soccer franchise. He had already devoted more than a decade to the team, giving it mouth-to-mouth every couple of years when owners would drop out and the money would disappear. Time to leave this team and its troubles to a younger man with younger legs, a younger heart, younger desires.
In the world of sports--especially Dallas sports, where coaches come and go like summer thunderstorms--Jago is an anomaly. He decided to retire voluntarily. He was not fired or forced from the sidelines by an impetuous owner or irrational sportswriters or foolish fans. He had longevity in a world where job security doesn't exist. He won a title during his team's fourth year of existence, then tacked on another just a few years later. He turned a young Brazilian kid named Tatu into a superstar talent.
And Jago did nothing to embarrass his franchise. He did not point fingers when his team lost. He did not let his players run rampant like children. He never brought a gun into an airport. He got along with the team's ever-changing cast of owners. Gordon Jago is the Anti-Switzer, a man who placed his team before anything else and decided he could do it no more.
"I always put club before me," Jago says. "I've always said to the players that the names on the back of the jersey--including mine--will change, but the one on the front will never, and that's the one that matters. If I go out and do something stupid like [Barry] Switzer did, it would be in the paper; and it would not only say Gordon Jago--it would also say Dallas Sidekicks. And that's the thing that has to be protected."
To do that, Jago leaves the game he's played ever since he was a young man sacrificing his body for Queen and country. He retires, he insists, in the best interests of a franchise that has begun to stagger under too much dead weight. He retires to spend time with his wife. He retires because he is 65 and because he has been playing and coaching for 40 years.
He retires because he can.
"There were no second thoughts; there was no second-guessing," he says emphatically. The omnipresent smile briefly leaves his face. His accent becomes, for a moment, more pronounced. "It was a decision that I knew to be right when I made it, and nothing will change it."
In June 1987, the Sidekicks beat the Tacoma Stars in seven thrilling games to capture the title of the now-defunct Major Indoor Soccer League. To win the series, the Sidekicks became the first team in MISL history to overcome a two-games-to-none deficit en route to a title, and they had to go through MISL all-time scoring champ Steve Zungal to do it.
The stunning moment was captured by Sports Illustrated in a story headlined "The Big D Stands for Destiny"--yes, there was a time when the Sidekicks weren't banished to the last page of the sports section. An astonishing crowd of 10,000 turned out for a victory parade through the streets of downtown Dallas, the likes of which would not be seen again till the Dallas Cowboys captured the Lombardi Trophy years later. The Sidekicks were champions in a sport few in town even knew existed till 1983, when then-Mavericks owner Donald Carter started the franchise and brought the MISL to Dallas--if only to fill up Reunion Arena when the Mavs weren't using it.
"There's the possibility that, as we did in '87, we can come from nowhere and win," Jago says 24 hours before his team will lose the first playoff game to Monterrey by the score of 7-3. He speaks with the weak optimism of someone merely staving off inevitable disaster.
This is not a team of champions, he realizes, but of old men playing below their record-book legends and of young men who do not yet know how to triumph. Jago knows his team will lose. Yet he still hopes. "It's possible it could happen again," he says, trying to convince no one. "I'd love to go all the way and have a dream season with a fairy-tale ending."
Instead, it just has an ending--a period, no exclamation mark. On Sunday, La Raza kicks the Sidekicks out of title contention--in Reunion Arena, no less, once the home of so many Sidekicks victory celebrations. A crowd of 6,081 shows up to watch, one far smaller than the team's season average of 9,000. Those who do witness it see the Sidekicks win the second game of the playoffs with a thrilling 10-5 victory...and then lose in overtime of the third, shorter game held just moments later. Sidekick David Doyle misses his shot, Monterrey's Genoni Martinez makes his, and you realize why they call it sudden death.
Just like that, Gordon Jago's coaching career is over.
Jago wasn't even supposed to have been the coach of the Dallas Sidekicks. Kyle Rote Jr.--son of SMU Mustangs and New York Giants legend Kyle Rote Sr., himself once a high school football star at Highland Park and pride of Lamar Hunt's Dallas Tornado team during the early 1970s--was to have taken the job. But Rote would never commit, having started a sports agency that would become enormously successful. When few candidates were to be found, Carter brought in Jago, who'd been coaching the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the North American Soccer League--which, for a brief moment, had been one of the most competitive sports leagues in the country.