Legendary football coach Tom Landry (1924-2000) was the founding coach of the Dallas Cowboys who brought the team from a winless first season into a dominating force in the National Football League (NFL). Over 29 seasons, Landry guided the Cowboys to 20 consecutive winning seasons, 19 NFL playoff appearances, 13 division titles, five Super Bowl appearances, and two Super Bowl victories. His overall record was 271-180-6. "From the late 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s," contended Washington Post staff writer Bart Barnes, "the Cow boys under Landry were a perennial power in the NFL, with a mystique that transcended the sports community and Texas."
Landry also helped restore the image of Dallas, dubbed the City of Hate after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, into a city known for its winning all-American football team. The coach's strong work ethic and Christian belief fueled the success of his team and earned the Cowboys the nickname "America's Team." Landry is the third-winningest coach in NFL history, behind Don Shula and George Halas. Yet the coach is equally well known for his style. Standing on the sidelines with folded arms and a stoic expression, Landry wore his signature fedora hat, sports coat, and tie to games. A bronze statue, unveiled in October 2001, captured this pose and is displayed outside the Dallas Cowboy's home stadium in Texas. Landry remains a national icon of control and loyalty.
Tom Landry was born Thomas Wade Landry in Mission, Texas, on September 11, 1924. He was the son of Ron Landry, who worked as an auto mechanic, served as the town's fire chief, and supervised Sunday school at First Methodist Church in Mission, Texas. At Mission High School, Landry was an A-student, president of his class, and a member of the National Honor Society. He also excelled on the football field, playing all-regional fullback on a team that outscored its opponents 322-0 during his senior year. A devout Christian, Landry took part in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Landry served in the Army Air Forces in World War II, participating in 30 B-17 combat missions over Europe and even surviving a crash landing. In 1945 Landry was discharged as a first lieutenant and enrolled in the University of Texas, where he resumed playing fullback and some quarterback and defensive back for the Longhorns football team. During his junior year he made the all-Southwestern Conference second team, and in his senior year, he served as co-captain. In 1948, Texas won the Sugar Bowl, and in 1949 his team won the Orange Bowl. In 1949, Landry graduated with a degree in business administration from the University of Texas and later earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston.
Landry began his professional football career playing cornerback for the New York Yankees in the All-American Football Conference. After the 1949 season, the team merged with the New York Giants, where he continued to play cornerback for the next six seasons, making the All-Pro defensive team in 1954. When Jim Lee Howell became head coach of the Giants, Landry became a player-coach under him for the 1954 season. He left the field permanently as a player in 1955 when he took a position as the team's defensive coordinator. From 1956 to 1959, he worked as assistant coach alongside offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, who later rose to fame as coach the Green Bay Packers.
During his time with the Giants, Landry developed his famous 4-3 defense that became the NFL standard, later evolving that into the Flex. The strategy replaced the "umbrella defense—a six-man line with a roving line-backer—with a four-man line and three linebackers." Landry said "My industrial engineering degree shaped my coaching," reported Keith Whitmire in the Chicago Tribune. "The whole coordinated defense, the Flex defense came out of that idea, of putting everybody together with certain responsibilities. It was a very technical approach to football." In Landry's four years as defensive coach, the Giants earned a record of 33-14-1, with two Eastern Conference division titles and one NFL championship, in 1956.
Landry left New York in 1960 to take a job as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys expansion team. A Dallas group headed by owner Clint Murchison Jr. and General manager Tex Schramm recruited Landry for the top job, signing him on for 5 years at $34,000 a season. Landry ran an insurance business in Dallas during the off-season and the offer gave him a chance to move closer to home.
In his first season as head coach, Landry failed to win a single game. The team posted a 0-11-1 record. Landry offset the team's lack of talent with an innovative offensive strategy that called for multiple formations based on the strengths and weaknesses of his own players and those of his opponents. A 1968 NFL press release described Landry's offense as using "10 or 11 formations a game, with up to six variations of each. This is several times as much offense as the NFL average … the Landry defense, on the other hand, is a one-formation machine. It is as complex as a computer, and its individual parts are coordinated like the works of a clock." "He was renowned in the NFL for his ability to think ahead," noted Washington Post staff writer Bart Barnes. "not just for the next down but to the next series of downs."
Despite a sub-par record, Landry had won the confidence of Cowboys owner Clint Murchison. In 1964, Murchison signed Landry for an additional 10 years as head coach of the Cowboys. This marked an unprecedented show of support for a coach with only a 13-38-3 record. But the gamble paid off. By 1965, the team won as many games as they lost. And in 1966, the Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time after posting a 10-3-1 season. That year Landry was named the NFL's Coach of the Year. In 1967 the team won the Eastern Division title. After the 1970 season, the Cowboys advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time, but lost the championship game to the Baltimore Colts. The Cowboys eventually made it to the Super Bowl five times, winning in 1972 and 1978 and losing in 1971, 1976, and 1979. Throughout his career, Landry earned a record of 250-162-6 in the regular season and 20-16 in the playoffs.
In the 1970s, the team gained national popularity and was dubbed "America's Team." Football became the most-watched professional sport in the United States. Super Bowl VI, in which the Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys beat Don Shula's Miami Dolphins 24-3, marked a turning point for the team. They shed forever their image as lovable losers and became a dominating force in the NFL. "The title validated Landry's status and the Cowboys' claim as one of the league's elite teams," wrote David Moore in the Chicago Tribune. "It forever altered the perception of the franchise."
Landry and his players became national celebrities. Moore recounted the defining events of the Dallas Cowboy's celebrity era. In 1975, the Dirty Dozen referred to the 12 rookies who made the team. The 50-yard Hail Mary pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson climaxed a 17-14 playoff victory over Minnesota later that season. Troubled running back Duane Thomas called Landry "a plastic man, no man at all."
The Dallas Cowboy's cheerleading squad had a certain cachet. Former Cowboys wide receiver Pete Gent wrote a best-selling novel, North Dallas Forty based on his time with the team. The book, which was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte, portrayed the organization in a negative light, characterizing the owners as more concerned with the bottom line than with the welfare of the players.
Landry also revolutionized the college draft system by introducing the computer to organize the annual selection process. The coach became an iconic figure, known for wearing a fedora hat and pacing the sidelines with a stoic expression. Admirers saw a caring, warm, and devoutly religious man. But his aloofness also drew criticism. Landry was called "plastic man" and "computer face," and even referred to cynically as Pope Landry I by some of his players. Moreover, Peter Golenbock in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Landry also exhibited racist tendencies. His black players, especially Bob Hayes, Duane Thomas, and Thomas Henderson, "felt they never got the same respect or recognition from either the coach or the city as his favorite white players: Bobby Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, and Roger Staubach," according to Golenbock.
In 1983, Landry appeared in a national commercial for the American Express corporation. By that time, the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry had become legendary. The advertisement showed Landry walking into a tavern filled with large men in burgundy and gold Redskins football uniforms. Golenbock asserted that Landry became a symbol of corporate America. "His national fame grew around the same time this country was enjoying dizzying economic growth. His coaching philosophy centered on sacrifice for the good of the organization and working like a dog for victory at the cost of everything else. Corporate workers were expected to do the same."
By the early 1980s, the Cowboys had begun to fade. The owner sold them to a consortium, and they never seemed to regain strength. Landry's last season with the team was 1988. In 1989, the Cowboy's new owner Jerry Jones fired long-time coach Tom Landry and longtime general manager Tex Schramm. At his firing, he shed public tears, according to Time magazine, which "shocked an America that saw him as the faultlessly tailored, taciturn but brilliant sideline tactician." "The great irony was that in the end Coach Landry became a victim of the same corporate culture he had championed," contended Golenbock.
After his coaching career ended, Landry and his son became partners in an investment firm, and he also served as a goodwill ambassador for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 1993.
In May 1999, Landry began undergoing treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia and died at Baylor University Medical Center in Texas the following February at age 75. He married Alicia Wiggs, whom he met in college, in 1949, and she survives him along with their children, Tom Landry, Jr. and Kitty Phillips. The couple also had another daughter, Lisa Childress, who died of liver cancer in 1995.
The city of Dallas commemorated Landry by renaming one of its main highways. In addition, it commissioned a nine-foot-two bronze likeness of the coach. On October 15, 2001, the statue was unveiled at halftime of the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. It shows the coach on the sidelines wearing his trademark fedora and carrying a game plan placard from a 1983 game against the New York Giants. The statue stands on a star-shaped pedestal at Texas Stadium.
Landry explained his coaching philosophy this way: "The players are basically in my hands—whether they start, whether they play, what they do," according to Whitmire in the Chicago Tribune. "That's an awesome responsibility when you come down to it. Therefore, my feeling is you must have some distance from the players in order for them to do the things they have to do. Once you get close to a player, you give them an out."
Newsmakers, Gale Group, 2000.
Associated Press, October 16, 2001; October 30, 2001.
Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2000; February 20, 2000, p. C3.
Dallas Morning News, October 11, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2000.
New York Times, February 14, 2000.
Time, February 21, 2000.
Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2000.
Washington Post, February 13, 2000.