He Was America’s Coach, a Cowboy in a White Hat

I always figured one of the reasons the Dallas Cowboys were “America’s Team” was Tom Landry.

I mean, Tom was everything you expected a real cowboy to be. He had this prairie squint to his eyes like a guy looking for the dust clouds of an oncoming posse or the smoke signals of a redskin raid. He was laconic, fair, obliging, polite. Tom Landry never thought he was better than anyone else. He respected you. You had to respect him.

I always thought that no other coach could have brought Roger Staubach back into the game of football and brought him along till he became one of the three or four best quarterbacks ever to play the game.

I remember when Staubach showed up at Cowboy camp in Thousand Oaks, a crew-cut lieutenant j.g. who had just spent four years in the Navy, playing mostly what amounted to touch football. And he was trying to beat out some of the registered stars of the game in the quarterbacks, Don Meredith, Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome.


I don’t think any other coach would have given Roger the fair shake he got from Landry. But Landry gave everybody a fair shake. That’s what Tom Landry was all about.

I remember all those years when Landry’s teams seemed to come up a yard short, a placekick shy. I particularly remember that standard TV shot. It showed Landry closing his eyes and looking heavenward in the standard aggrieved grimace of pain as he accepted yet another dose of undeserved misfortune.

It was the Landry Look. The my-God-there-goes-another-one look. But it was gone in an instant. Later, in the locker room, there would be Landry patiently and politely explaining what had happened without tantrums or outbursts or locked doors. Landrys took their medicine.

Tom Landry is a Christian. It’s a term that has come under a certain public obloquy because of the actions of a lot of people who seem to mix up religion with hypocrisy. But Tom Landry was not one of those inquisitorial types.


I never saw him inflict his views on anyone else or even condemn anyone else for behavior that was antithetical to his. If he sometimes seemed like a parson running a wild animal act, he did it with dignity.

When one of his players, frustrated because Landry wouldn’t brawl in public print with him, called him “a plastic man,” Landry just grinned. And kept going to church.

On the field, he was so unflappable, you would have thought he didn’t care. The expression never changed. You couldn’t tell by looking at Tom Landry whether he was behind or ahead, whether he was holding three aces or a busted straight.

He always wore the matching clothes of the middle-class office worker who got two pair of pants with the jacket. I remember a Texas journalist once spotting him in the distance and saying, “It’s either Tom Landry or an FBI agent.”

He wore felt hats long after they were fashionable and sometimes they had little brooms or feathers in them. Comedian Don Rickles once cracked, “There’s 80,000 people in the stands and they’re going crazy, the game is in an uproar and there’s Landry trying to square his hat!”

But that was Landry, too. He didn’t show up in sneakers or running shoes--or jeans and a T-shirt with a picture of Schubert on it. Where Tom came from, the gentry dressed with care and the collar was starched or buttoned down and the necktie matched the socks.

He was meticulous. He always looked as if he had just taken a shower. Landry’s eyes were never bloodshot and neither was his mind.

His teams had a dash and style to them that the public liked. They didn’t out-muscle you, they outwitted you. They were fun to watch. They brought in things such as the “Hail Mary” pass and the “flex” defense--bend but don’t break.


It was not that Tom couldn’t recognize a great football player from a car window. He could. But he wanted to get a Cowboy-type player, not just another troglodyte with a 20-inch neck.

Landry’s teams were in five Super Bowls. They won two, and lost the others by a total of 11 points.

Class is an overworked word. Landry had more than class. He had integrity. He cared about his players. It just wasn’t his nature to gurgle over them. Vince Lombardi used to show his players he cared by yelling at them. Landry wasn’t a yeller. The part of the Rio Grande Valley he came from, only the dogs made noise.

But despite the stoic exterior, I always felt there was a warmth about Tom Landry. His attitude always reminded me of that French general who once said: “There is no use getting angry and raging at facts. It is a matter of indifference to them.”

The Cowboys were Landry’s team, his creation. No one else ever had them. He must have felt about them the way Rodin felt about his sculptures. They kicked this man out into the street in Dallas the other day. Some man who made his money in commerce has bought himself Tom Landry’s statue, the way some butter-and-egg man might buy a Monet.

I guess it was not like Tom to insist on ownership in the franchise. Where Tom comes from, there was a difference, I guess, between owning the ranch and working the cows. Tom was, actually, a humble man. He never wanted to be anything but what he was, coach.

I really wouldn’t want to be the new coach. Jimmy Johnson, by all accounts, isn’t a humble man. He can’t be. He just stood there while they fired America’s Coach and gave him his team. It’s as if the rustlers just shot John Wayne.

I guess we’ll all just have to get another team.