Commentary : Firing Landry as Coach Is Not Only Impossible, It's Not Even Smart

United Press International

Nobody is going to fire Tom Landry.

Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the Dallas Cowboys the past quarter-century should realize that firing the only coach the team has ever had would be as acceptable as firing Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

Legends might be fired. Institutions are not.

Last week, however, that specter was raised by the current club owner, touching off a tempest that caused as much conversation in the city as the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

Cowboys owner Bum Bright never used the word "fired," but immediately after Dallas' 21-10 loss to Atlanta last Sunday, said: "I was horrified by the play calling. It seems like nobody over there knows what they are doing except Tex (Schramm, the club president)."

Bright also questioned why rookie defensive lineman Danny Noonan did not play more and why Herschel Walker did not run more, apparently not noticing that every time Walker touched the ball three defenders were in his face.

The shock waves rattled across Dallas all week. Could the unthinkable happen? Would Bright actually dismiss Landry? Would Landry, irate at criticism, say the heck with it?

As reason began to take hold, all the answers appeared almost certainly to be "no."

Landry, 63, signed a three-year contract at the beginning of this season and there is every likelihood he will fulfill it.

"I don't believe he will quit," Schramm said. "He likes the challenge."

And if Landry likes a challenge, he's got one now. The Cowboys are heading for their second straight losing season. They will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in 22 years. Attendance is down, hitting a Texas Stadium low for the Atlanta game.

Landry's quarterback has a bad wrist and there is no guarantee it will get better. His backup quarterback is short on experience and yet to prove he has the stuff to make it in the NFL.

Landry does have Walker, potentially the league's best running back. But the guys playing in front of Walker can't open holes. Landry has a defense that gives up too many big plays.

Most of all, he has a team that has grown used to losing and shown little heart the past two years. And things are probably going to get tougher before they get better.

"I signed a three-year contract because I thought it would take three years to get things turned around," Landry said. "We are a very inexperienced football team. You don't gain experience overnight."

Bright bought the Cowboys four years ago from the team's founder, the late Clint Murchison. Landry and Murchison enjoyed a relationship built on true friendship. When Landry was criticized early in his career, Murchison responded by signing his coach to a new 10-year contract.

The franchise was run like no other in the NFL. The owner spent the money, the president (Schramm) managed the front office and the coach ran the team. Murchison and Schramm never questioned Landry's decisions on the field or in the draft room, and obviously had no reason to since the Cowboys piled up one winning season after another.

It took just one losing campaign and a poor start in another to bring a change in the way ownership and management viewed how things were done on the field.

Earlier this year, Schramm questioned whether the coaches were doing all they could to stem the tide of losses.

"The players can't learn if the coaches don't coach," he said.

And then came Bright's remarks.

Bright, an oilman who has felt the pinch of the economy like most people in his business, has had limited dealings with the media. He does not have Schramm's expertise at tempering his speech when controversy is in the wind.

Once reporters picked up on his comments and he began to realize how his remarks were being interpreted, Bright tried to back off his original statement. But it was too late, no matter how many clarifications he attempted.

When Schramm was asked whether Bright learned a lesson in media relations, he said: "He probably did."

Bright also touched a nerve in the Dallas fans, who for years have taken the Cowboys coach for granted.

"I would just like to say to Mr. Bright," one fan wrote to a local newspaper in a letter typical of many, "that Coach Landry is about the only thing we have left to be proud of in the Cowboy organization."

"If Bum is so bright," said another, "then let him coach the Cowboys."

This is Landry's 28th year as a head coach in the NFL. Only two men have had longer tenures--George Halas and Earl (Curly) Lambeau. He has won 265 games. Only Halas and Don Shula have won more.

Beginning with the 1966 season, Landry's teams won more games than they lost for 20 straight years. No other team in the league has ever done that.

But Landry's role in the community goes far deeper than that. He is probably the most well-known person in Dallas. If a cause needed help, he has been there. He often has been mentioned as a possible political candidate.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, an event that cast the city of Dallas in the harshest light.

Three years after the assassination, the Cowboys began to capture the imagination of the town and football fans across the country. Schramm has often contended the Cowboys helped lift the city from the pervasive gloom following Kennedy's murder.

And if Schramm is accurate in his belief, Landry is the one responsible. Landry, it might be argued, has done more good for Dallas than any politician in the city's history.

Even if that is too strong an argument, there is the indisputable evidence that Landry has succeeded on the football field.

Does the Cowboys management want a young college coach to lead the team back to the top? Or do they want someone with experience who has demonstrated the capability of putting together the longest stretch of success in pro football?

Such reflection was rampant in Dallas the past week and brought to light just how ludicrous is the idea of dismissing Landry.

Coaches around the league rallied on his behalf.

"He's like every coach in the NFL wants to be," said Washington's Joe Gibbs.

"He is a tough-minded man," said former pupil Dan Reeves. "But this business can't be any fun for him."

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