Deep in the Heart of Thousand Oaks : City Still Loves Dallas Cowboys but Fears Team No Longer Feels the Same

<i> Mackey is a Granada Hills free-lance writer</i>

When the city of Thousand Oaks learned in February that Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry and general manager Tex Schramm had been abruptly replaced by a new management team, anyone who was listening closely could have heard a collective gasp.

The change signified the end of an era for the Cowboys, which had known no coach other than Landry since 1960. And Thousand Oaks residents wondered if it signified changes for them as well.

For the last 26 years, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks has been the summer training camp for the Cowboys. It has provided not only a dry climate and modern dormitories but also loyal fans--many of them awe-struck children--who come out daily to stand by the edge of the university’s open athletic field and watch the players practice.

And through those years, some enduring relationships and traditions have been formed:

* Relationships such as those between Landry and members of the Community Leaders Club--a local group that helps raise funds for the university--who gave him a standing ovation at a Beverly Hills dinner in May.


* Traditions such as the annual welcome barbecue on the university’s campus, where each year the public has had a chance to eat steak and potato salad with the likes of Herschel Walker and Ed (Too Tall) Jones. Children could get their favorite player’s autograph.

* Traditions such as the annual cocktail party for the team’s coaching staff, held each year at the homes of Community Leaders Club members.

Although it now seems likely that the Cowboys will return to Cal Lutheran next summer, this year those relationships and traditions no longer have gone unquestioned or been taken for granted. Speculation that the Cowboys might move their summer camp has highlighted its importance in the community.

University officials say Cal Lutheran financially breaks even by housing the team each summer, but they point out other benefits of the team’s presence. Those benefits include the nationwide attention that the city receives as the Cowboys’ summer home and the large number of out-of-town visitors who come to see the team practice.

According to Barbara Gilmore, director of community relations for Cal Lutheran, under the present contract with the Cowboys the university would have to be notified by Sept. 1 if the team planned to make a change in its summer training schedule. (The contract specifies that if either party wants out, the team would return to the school for at least two more summers.) If the team severed its relationship with the university, she said, attorneys for the school would need to review the contract to determine what financial reimbursement, if any, was called for.

“We’re not trying to second-guess them because we simply don’t know,” Gilmore said. “One day we hear definitely yes, the next day definitely no, but it’s not from any official source, and so we don’t react to it. They are simply rumors that get started. The only thing Jerry Jones has said is that he will make an announcement before camp breaks on Aug. 25.” Jones is the Cowboys’ owner.

Speculation that the team might pull up stakes from the private university wasn’t helped by comments made in the first weeks of training camp. Head Coach Jimmy Johnson voiced his preference for the blistering heat and humidity of Texas, which he believes gets athletes into condition more quickly than the dry climate of Southern California. At one point, Greg Aiello, public relations director for the Cowboys, said “all facets” of the training camp were being re-evaluated, including the financial value of transporting the team to California each summer.

“Coming out here, everyone did think it would be the last year in Thousand Oaks,” Aiello said, adding that Johnson “had an open mind but that was the assumption.”

Many Thousand Oaks residents apparently assumed the same thing. “I just don’t think they’re coming back,” Dan Hoffman said as he stood beside the field at a recent practice and watched the Cowboys scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers. “It’s a different camp than it’s been in the past.”

Other locals, however, had difficulty considering the possibility seriously. “I just can’t believe he’d take them away from here,” said Bill DePiazza, whose son is a helmet boy for Everson Walls, one of the highest paid players with an annual salary of $1.4 million.

“There’s great weather here, and where else can they go for as many teams like the Raiders and the Chargers to scrimmage against?” he asked.

“A month ago, I would have said they’d be holding summer camp next year in Texas,” said Jerry Miller, university president. “Now I’m not so sure. The only ones who can answer that question, though, are the coach or owner.”

In the absence of any additional words from either Jones or Johnson, residents turned to two logical places to look for signs of hope: the annual barbecue, held Aug. 4, and the annual cocktail party, held Aug. 9.

As the players and coaches began walking off the playing field a short distance away, 900 people who each paid $25 for the barbecue began making their way to the rows of tables at the university’s Mount Clef Stadium. Many--their plates piled high with steaks, coleslaw and hot rolls--could be heard speculating about the city’s future with the team.

The crowd listened quietly as city officials read proclamation after proclamation, the whereases and wherefores expressing gratitude for the relationship that has endured between the Cowboys and Thousand Oaks.

Then Johnson stepped up to the microphone. “The Dallas Cowboys are proud to have been a part of Thousand Oaks,” he said. “We really have enjoyed the hospitality of everyone.”

The audience clapped feebly, as if they had been deflated. “He spoke in past tense,” one attendee remarked.

Not long afterward, team members were asked to step up to the microphone and introduce themselves. The team was running late, the crowd was told, and the players would have to leave immediately for a meeting.

“The players always used to stand up at their seats and introduce themselves so the kids could come up and get autographs. That’s why I brought my brother,” said Ed Schnopp, a self-described Cowboys fan who has come to the annual barbecue nine years in a row. As he watched the players jog away from the microphone and disappear, Schnopp said: “Now it’s like a token appearance.”

At the home of David Engan, where the annual cocktail party for the Dallas coaching staff was held the next week, the speculation and uncertainty continued. Jones expressed his regrets and said he was unable to attend. Johnson, dressed in blue shorts and arriving from the playing field, said he would only stay for a short time.

As Community Leaders Club members extended their hands to Johnson, wishing him and his team luck, Johnson looked like an out-of-town house guest at a family reunion.

“I don’t know anyone here,” he said a few minutes later, out of earshot of party attendees. “I can imagine other places I’d rather be.”

Johnson acknowledged that the relationships among the 200 people at the cocktail party were cemented by Landry and not him. (Bill Hamm, a longtime Community Leaders Club member who is president of a small college in Iowa, said he traveled 1,800 miles to attend the event. Other attendees said the friendships they had formed over the years had been, in part, due to the Cowboys.)

Johnson added that his attention is more directed toward revitalizing the slumping Cowboys--who won only nine of their last 37 non-striking games--than the population of Thousand Oaks.

“I’m more concerned with being focused than I am on the nuances of relationships,” he said.

At the same time, Johnson said, he has appreciated the city’s attention to the team. According to Aiello, Landry always believed that the Cowboys practiced harder when residents came to watch them.

Residents say they are doing everything in their power to make the Cowboys’ new coaches and owner feel comfortable. But comfort alone, Johnson said, will not be the deciding factor in whether the team comes back next year.

Said Johnson: “I still think a hotter climate is better for training. But there’s better media exposure here.”

After a moment, he glanced briefly at the people circulating around him, many of them calling out or waving to friends. “The only obligation I have,” Johnson said, smiling amicably, “is to win football games.”