Berry Tramel


Tom Landry: Looking back 25 years later

by Berry Tramel Modified: February 26, 2014 at 12:40 pm •  Published: February 26, 2014
Jim Litke Football
Jim Litke Football

Twenty-five years ago today, the NFL was hit with a tidal wave. Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry.

The Man With the Hat had coached the Dallas Cowboys for 29 seasons, 1960-88, and for those of us on the tail end of the Baby Boom, there was no Dallas Cowboys without Tom Landry. I was born in 1961; by Feb. 26, 1989, my daughter was in elementary school.

When Jones bought the Cowboys on Feb. 25, 1989, nobody knew much what to think. Some guy from Arkansas, with Oklahoma oil ties, had bought America’s Team. Cool beans.

Then the next day, Jones flew to Austin, found Landry on a golf course and fired him. And from that moment, Jones became one of sports’ arch-villains. Three early Super Bowl titles eased that reputation, but now Dallas has one playoff victory in 18 years, so Jones is back to being seen as a bumbler. And Landry’s reputation remains pristine.

Jones says he regrets the way Landry’s dismissal went down. But he’s just talking. He’s told Dallas-area media he wishes he had waited a year to fire Landry. But Jones told ESPN the other day that former owner Bum Bright offered to fire Landry, and Jones regrets not taking the offer. So who knows?

Landry was stoic. Old school. A bastion of stability, with the fedora and suit on the sideline. Sunday after autumn Sunday, Landry led the Cowboys to remarkable consistency. What the Patriots are today in terms of quality year after year, the Cowboys were from 1966 well into the 1980s. The Cowboys were a constant. Same owner (Clint Murchison), same general manager (Tex Schramm), same coach (Landry), same chief scout (Gil Brandt). They were America’s Team. Then Murchison sold to Bright, who sold to Jones, and the Cowboys have become something other than America’s Team. Hard to tell exactly what. Still popular. Still interesting. Still polarizing. But not stately.

Landry died in 2000. But here in 2014, the Dallas Cowboys still have played more games with Tom Landry coaching than without him. All the games of Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett don’t add up to the 454 Cowboy games coached by Tom Landry.

In honor of this dubious anniversary, here are 25 things you either know or ought to know about Tom Landry:

1. Landry still ranks fourth in NFL history for years of service as a head coach. George Halas coached the Bears for 40 years. Curly Lambeau coached the Packers for 33 years. Don Shula coached the Colts and Dolphins for 33 years. Landry coached the Cowboys for 29 years. No current coach has gone longer than 19 years (Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher).

2. Landry often is credited with inventing the 4-3 defense, as coordinator of the New York Giants in the 1950s. That’s probably not true — football inventions are a many splendored thing — but the Giants were the first high-profile team to adopt the 4-3 as their base defense.

3. Landry still holds the NFL record for playoff victories, with 20. Shula and Belichick each have 19. Shula and Landry are tied for the NFL record with 36 playoff games each.

4. Landry’s brother, Robert, was killed in World War II when his plane was shot down. Tom Landry joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, became a pilot himself and flew 30 missions in Europe; he survived a crash landing in Belgium after his bomber ran out of fuel.

5. Landry’s 454 games rank third in NFL history. Shula coached 526 games; Halas coached 506. The trio ranks the same in victories — Shula 347, Halas 324, Landry 270.

6. Landry’s first season as a pro football player was in 1949, for the New York Yankees of the All American Football Conference. That team and league folded after the ’49 season.

7. In Landry’s first five seasons in Dallas, the Cowboys went 18-46-4. They were 0-11-1, 4-9-1, 5-8-1, 4-10, 5-8-1. In the modern NFL, Landry would have been out on the streets after such a start. Murchison gave him a 10-year contract extension.

8. When Landry died in 2000, those who eulogized him at the funeral included commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Schramm, Cowboy legends Don Perkins, Bob Lilly, Drew Pearson, Randy White, Dan Reeves, Rayfield Wright and Roger Staubach.

9. The Cowboys had 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-85. No franchise in NFL history comes close. The Patriots have a current streak of 13.

10. Landry’s devotion to the Cowboys ended that day. His widow, Alicia, admitted in a book last year that her husband switched allegiances and rooted for the New York Giants the rest of his life.

11. The Cowboys under Landry were offensive innovators. In the early ’70s, they brought back the shotgun formation, which was used in the old single-wing days but had not been used much in modern times.

12. Landry played six seasons for the Giants. His coach the first four seasons was the legendary Steve Owen, from Freedom, Okla., who himself had invented the zone defense.

13. Landry built quality staffs.From 1973-80, Landry’s staff included Dan Reeves, Gene Stallings and Mike Ditka. In 1986, five of the other 27 NFL franchises were coached by former Landry assistants — Stallings, Ditka, Reeves, Raymond Berry and John Mackovic.

14. Only Shula has more conference titles than does Landry. Shula had six. Landry and Belichick are next with five.

15. Landry was a player-coach for the Giants in 1954 and 1955. In six Giant seasons, he had 31 interceptions in 70 games.

16. A bronze statue of Landry stood outside Texas Stadium and now stands in front of JerryWorld.

17. Landry absolutely invented the Flex defense, which the Cowboys employed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to counter the Green Bay Packer power sweep, which was the in-vogue play of that time period. Two of Dallas’ four defensive linemen would back off a yard from the line of scrimmage, to give themselves better pursuit angles.

18. The Cowboys under Landry brought massive shifting on offense to the NFL. Amos Alonzo Stagg had introduced men in motion decades before, but Landry and staff added subterfuge. Landry’s offensive linemen would squat down, but not put their hands on the ground, and when a receiver or running back went in motion, the linemen would stand up, then get down in their stance with hands on the ground. The hope was that the linemen movement would keep defenses from good vision of where the shifting was taking place.

19. In 1959, Landry participated on the TV game show “To Tell the Truth.” He pretended to be a Catholic missionary priest.

20. The Cowboys played in 12 NFL or NFC championship games from 1966 through 1982. The NFC championship game debuted in 1970. The Cowboys played in 10 of the first 13. The current Patriots have played in eight of the last 13 AFC title games.

21. From 1954 through 1958, the Giant coaching staff, led by Jim Lee Howell, included Landry as defensive coordinator and Vince Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Those Giants won the 1956 NFL title.

22. Landry uncorked a 71-yard quick kick in the 1947 OU-Texas game. For those who don’t know, Landry was playing for the Longhorns. And for those who don’t know what a quick kick is, it’s a surprise punt, before fourth down.

23. If you don’t like the height favortism in the NFL, you can blame Landry. He pioneered the desire of tall defensive linemen. The Cowboys drafted 6-foot-6 George Andrie out of Marquette in 1962, 6-foot-7 Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth City State in 1965 and 6-foot-9 Ed “Too Tall” Jones out of Tennessee State in 1974. All became premier NFL defensive linemen.

24. In 2001, the Texas Legislature christened a stretch of I-30 between Dallas and Fort Worth as the Tom Landry Highway.

25. In that Alicia Landry book, The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry, by Long Island author Mark Ribowsky, Alicia Landry also says Jones took away the Landry family’s suite at Texas Stadium.

by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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