For 29 unforgettable years, in suit and tie, he walked the sidelines with class and with a measure of dignity sorely lacking in today’s sports world. He was in control of any situation, emotions kept in check, game plan in his hand or under his folded arms. His trademark fedora once immediately gave away his identity in an NFL Films shot of a shadowy, silhouetted figure standing alone against the backdrop of a cascade of light entering the opened roof of Texas Stadium.
He was known for many things: the inventor of the 4-3 defense and, later, its variant, the Flex, a gap-control defense designed to answer Green Bay’s famed “Run to Daylight” offense; the man who made the shotgun a legitimate offensive weapon; the man who brought multiple sets and pre-snap shifts to the NFL; the man who had his offensive line stand straight up in unison before their final set as the backs shifted in the backfield, designed to disrupt the view of and gain the slightest of advantages over defensive linemen in their three-point stance; the man who brought winning consistency to another level of excellence; the man in the funny hat, as he was once affectionately called — these all tell a lot about Tom Landry the football coach, matched in esteem and respect by Vince Lombardi alone and matched in creativity and knowledge of X’s and O’s by perhaps only Bill Walsh.
But Tom Landry was more than just a great coach. He was a decorated pilot, flying B-17s over Europe during WWII, the same type of bomber his brother Robert died in earlier during the war. He was a man of religious and moral conviction and a family man. He was a man of profound faith, having come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ in 1959, the year before Clint Murchison brought him on board as the first head coach of the NFL expansion team in Dallas. He worked closely with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization whose impact has touched the lives of athletes in every sport, and he maintained a decades-long friendship with evangelist Billy Graham. He loved football and he loved winning, but nothing to him compared to his relationship with Christ.
He won 270 games, including a record 20 playoff games. From 1966 to 1985, he posted an unprecedented 20 consecutive winning seasons. His teams won 13 divisional titles, and from 1970 to 1982, he led the Cowboys to 10 NFC championship games and five Super Bowl appearances. Coach Landry put the Cowboys on the map, taking them from a ragtag band of misfits in 1960 to contending for NFL supremacy with Lombardi’s great Packers teams in the mid-60s to being a Super Bowl staple in the 70s. In 1971 and 1977, he fielded defensive teams that were among the greatest ever, hitting peak stride at the start of the playoffs, and routing their Super Bowl opponents. Although the Cowboys roll includes some of the greatest names in NFL history – Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Tony Dorsett, Drew Pearson, Rayfield Wright, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Larry Allen – it is Coach Landry who has and will always serve as the key figure in team history.
As a young boy growing up on Chicago’s west side, I would watch football on an old black and white television with my older brothers. And while Gale Sayers was my first football hero, I soon found myself mesmerized by the Cowboys – their shiny uniforms and lone star helmets, the multiple formations and the exciting way they played, and the plethora of stars on both sides of the ball. I found myself through the years drawn more to the Cowboys than to my childhood team, the Bears.
There was a lot of winning and celebrating to be sure, but being a lifelong Cowboys fan has also produced great pain; indeed, it has been a bittersweet experience. I doubt I will ever get over the pain of losing Super Bowl XIII. The Cowboys ran Tony Dorsett three times for 38 yards to begin the game. Donnie Shell had to make a shoestring, touchdown-saving, tackle on Dorsett on the second play of that drive. And then, inexplicably, on first down at the Steelers’ 34 yard line, Coach Landry called for a reverse. Pearson fumbled the handoff from Dorsett and Pittsburgh recovered. That was one of the most painful memories of a day filled with painful memories, and one of the few times I found myself disagreeing with Coach Landry. No, he was not perfect. But he was a perfectionist. And he was good at everything he did, from drafting players and running the war room to developing unknown players to preparing his team to face some of the greatest teams and greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in championship games.
Toward the end of the 1986 season, before the Cowboys were preparing to play the defending champion Chicago Bears, I wrote to Coach Landry. I had studied the Bears tendencies, having watched each of their games and studied game tapes in detail for hours, fueled by the 44-0 beating the Bears laid on the Cowboys the year before. I sent Coach Landry formations and plays to run and diagrammed some of the Bears’ key plays and goal line formations. The Bears beat the Cowboys 24-10 on December 21, 1986. The Cowboys did not make the playoffs that year. But three weeks later I received a letter dated January 8, 1987, from Tom Landry. He thanked me for my letter and expressed his appreciation of my support of the Cowboys. I have always cherished that letter and the fact that one of the greatest coaches in NFL history would take the time to read a letter sent to him by a fan from Chicago. Another coach, especially a high profile coach, might have simply scoffed at such a letter, but Coach Landry took the time to personally write to me. He rose to the pinnacle of the NFL but yet he made time for the common fan. I’ve sometimes thought of Rudyard Kipling’s words when thinking of Coach Landry:
"“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch…”"
Seeing the Cowboys win three more Super Bowls in the 1990s was a thrill, but even so, it did not match the experience of the 70s for me because, for me, there will never again be the almost magical experience of watching Tom Landry walk the sidelines during the big games, even the heart-breaking losses. There will never be another Tom Landry. Although we need more men like him in sports, we will never see his kind again.