Tom Landry: Melting the Plastic Man

O.K. On the surface he looks like an old computer face, but that's not all that makes him run.
Landry: "When I see a great play from the sidelines, I can’t cheer it. I’m a couple of plays ahead, thinking."  
Photograph by Ron Scott

What was the old world coming to? I asked Tom Landry. Landry was at his desk, his back to an autographed picture of Billy Graham, facing the big, silver Super Bowl VI trophy, impassive as a museum director, fielding questions with technical, theological, thermo-regular certainty, impervious to the demons that my senses told me were present in staggering numbers.

I mean where is it leading us? This obsession with being first, being best, being No.1. Tampered transcripts at Ball High in Galveston, rigged Soap Box Derbies in Akron, highly-subsidized 11-year-old Chinamen making a shambles of the LittleLeague World Series, bribes, kickbacks, burglary, perjury, Watergate. Had the monster of our pioneering escaped in the rose garden? It seemed to me that this preoccupation with being No.1 was rushing us toward the Temple of False Idols, and from there to the paranoiac’s ward.

“I don’t mean football or even sports in particular,” I said, “I’m talking about this country, across the board. This thing, this passion…this belief that in the search for success the means justify the end…”

Yeah, Landry knew what I meant. He had been challenged before, and I had heard him expound his beliefs many times—in interviews, press conferences, damp locker rooms, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquets. “Take away winning,” he had said, “and you take away everything that is strong about America.” But I wanted to hear him say it again.

“You’re talking now about the negative side of winning,” he began, and I fancied that there was a hitch in the toneless economy of his voice. “Generally, achieving goals…which in many cases means winning…is really the ultimate in this life we live in. Being the best at whatever talent you have, that’s what stimulates life. I don’t mean cheating or doing things that are bad. That’s the negative side. But here’s the thing: what are the alternatives? If you don’t believe in winning, you don’t believe in free enterprise, capitalism, our way of life. If you eliminate our way of life, the American way of life, what is the effect…what are the alternatives?”

I said that I couldn’t name them all, but humility was probably one. Peace. Joy. Freedom from the stigma of failure. If this country had the same appetite for peace and brotherly love as it had for war and puritanical vengeance…if free enterprise was more than a code word for greed…we might become the beacon of the world that we imagine ourselves to be.

Tom smiled his ice age smile: I had known him for 14 years and we had had this discussion many times. Tom did not see a contradiction between the terms pride and humility, any more than some politicians and military men see a rift in slogans like Bombs for Peace.

“Achievement builds character,” he told me. “People striving, being knocked down and coming back…this is what builds character in a man. The Bible talks about it at length in Paul, in Romans. Paul says that adversity brings on endurance, endurance brings on character, and character brings on hope.”

“Then hope…not joy, peace or love…hope is the ultimate goal ?”

“That’s right,” he said. “Character is the ability of a person to see a positive end of things. This is the hope that a man of character has. It’s an old cliche in football that losing seasons build character, but there is a great truth in it. I’ve seen very little character in players who have never had to face adversity. This is part of the problem we see in this country today…young people who have never really had to struggle in life, when they do eventually face problems where they need to turn to character, it’s not there. They turn to the alternatives: drugs, alcohol or something.”

Drugs, alcohol or something. Hmmm. I wondered what that something could be. Al Ward, the Cowboys’ assistant general manager who had known Landry since 1945, recalled that Landry’s own life was a progression of goals…to make his team at Mission, Texas High School, to make it at the University of Texas, to make it with the New York Giants. “But each time he reached his goal,” Ward said, “the kick wasn’t there. Then he found religion. Now he is satisfied with life.” Though he had been a Methodist since boyhood, Landry claims he didn’t become a Christian until 1958, two years before he became the Cowboys’ first and only head coach. “I was invited to join a Bible-study breakfast group at the Melrose Hotel in Dallas, and I realized I had never really accepted Christ into my heart. Now I have turned my will over to Jesus Christ,” he explained. There is nothing unusual in getting off on Jesus, or even using Holy Scripture to justify any act or event, but in coming to grips with the alternatives—that is, eliminating them—Landry seemed to have refined the narcotic qualities of Paul’s definition of character.

Landry was relaxed, more than I had ever seen him, strangely relaxed considering that it was less than three hours before game time, perversely relaxed for a man who detests small talk and was now being bombarded with it: 30 minutes, my alloted time, had elapsed and I hadn’t yet mentioned football to the man who is supposed to be the finest brain in the business. Landry’s cobalt eyes studied me, waiting for a question, and I tried to remember what had happened in the year since I saw him last. He appeared warmer, less regimented, even vulnerable. Why?

Well, two things were obvious. The Cowboys had not repeated as Super Bowl champions, thus laying waste all that talk about a Cowboy dynasty. And 15 of the 40 players who did win the Super Bowl had been traded or forced into early retirement. Unlike previous champions—the Giants, the Packers, the Colts—the Cowboys weren’t waiting for the skids, they were rebuilding while they were still near the top.

But there was something else, something Cowboys president Tex Schramm mentioned earlier. We were talking about the criticism that Landry treats his players like so

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