IN THE DAY AFTER Tom Landry was buried in a private ceremony, his family, friends, and admirers gathered at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas to pay their respects to the longtime Dallas Cowboys coach, who succumbed to leukemia on February 12 at age 75. I arrived three hours early and took my place in line with people wearing dark suits and ties, sandals and shorts, and even the occasional Michael Irvin jersey. Once inside, I chatted with the man next to me, and we began elbowing each other when various stars took their seats: Sam Huff, Rayfield Wright, Tony Dorsett, Troy Aikman. When I asked him the ridiculous question of whether he had followed Landry’s career, he turned to me and said, “I was born a fan.”

I knew exactly what he meant. I got to know Landry the way most people did: by watching him on television on fall afternoons. I grew up believing that the good guys wore stars on their helmets, and I thought that Landry was an honorable man because my dad thought he was. Yes, some people didn’t like the Cowboys, but I figured they all lived in places like New York or Philadelphia. In the neighborhood north of Dallas where I grew up, loyalty was a given. It still is. On the garage door of a house near my mother’s home, someone has painted two silver football helmets with the familiar blue stars; in between them, it says “America’s Team,” “Cowboys,” and “1992-93 World Champions & 95.” I fault the artist only for not including the other two seasons the Cowboys won it all: 1971 and 1977. But maybe he came to the neighborhood late.

I wasn’t even alive in January 1972, when Landry won his first Super Bowl. But I was there in January 1978, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, when the Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos for their second title. Like a lot of other kids, I idolized Roger Staubach, Billy Joe DuPree, Charlie Waters, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Even at age five, though, I knew they were the world champions because of the man in the hat. Intense, reserved, and confident, Landry was a figure the entire state could be proud of.

Born in the South Texas town of Mission in 1924, he led his high school to a regional championship in 1941. After that, he headed north to Austin, where he played football for the University of Texas (his time there was broken up by his service in World War II), and then on to New York, where he played and coached for two teams from 1949 to 1959. A conversation with Tex Schramm persuaded him to return to Texas and head up Dallas’ fledgling team. He did so for 29 seasons, but his legacy isn’t simply the number of games he won (270; only Don Shula and George Halas won more), or the number of division titles (13), or the number of winning seasons (20), or even the number of Super Bowl victories (2). He will be remembered for his character, his faith, and his impact on the city, whose image had been tarnished — fairly or not — by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his conservative suit and tie, he projected the qualities we so desperately wanted to be known for: intelligence, class, and, above all, success.

What made Landry even more interesting was how he handled defeat. Relentless in his desire for perfection on the field — and often criticized for the mechanical way he pursued it — he lost more championship games than he won. As much as the shotgun formation and the Hail Mary pass are a part of the Cowboys’ history, so are Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl, Baltimore’s last-second field goal in Super Bowl V, and Jackie Smith’s dropped pass in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII. Landry, though, was always ready to fight for another shot at the title.

It was easy to be a fan during the seventies, but the eighties marked tough times for true believers. San Francisco’s Dwight Clark made that catch in the back of the end zone in the 1981 NFC championship game. In 1984 the Cowboys missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, and two years later they recorded their first losing season since 1964. In 1988 Landry won only three games, his worst record since his first year as the head coach. He recommitted himself to turning the team around, but people started talking about the “future.” One of my friends in high school, who had moved to the Metroplex just a few years before, insisted that Landry needed to go. But I didn’t need someone from Indiana to tell me what was best. And I certainly didn’t need a businessman from Arkansas to do so.

It’s hard to explain what it was like when Jerry Jones came to town in February 1989, firing the only coach the Cowboys had ever had. Sportswriters would later point out that our collective outrage was lessened when he made the team winners again, but that misses the point. When Jones first took over, people hated him for dumping Landry so unceremoniously. As the years passed, they hated him simply for being himself. Perhaps that’s the greatest irony of all: Landry, a real Texan, defied the stereotype of what we’re supposed to be like — loudmouthed, egotistical, power-hungry — while Jones, an interloper, affirmed it. And who could have ever imagined that just five years after Landry left, Barry Switzer would stand in his place? This season, Dave Campo takes over as head coach of the Cowboys, and I wish him well, but he should know that he isn’t filling Chan Gailey’s shoes, or Switzer’s, or even Jimmy Johnson’s. He’s filling Landry’s.

On the morning of the memorial service, I drove to Texas Stadium as a kind of pilgrimage, because it symbolizes Landry more than anyone else. Hanging on the east side of the building was a huge photo of him: stern face, eyes burning with intensity, brim of his hat bent just so. When I turned to see what he was looking at, I saw downtown Dallas off in the distance. How fitting that he was watching the city he gave so much to. Professional sports are ultimately nothing more than a diversion, but Landry gave us something we needed: a home team to root for, a reason to feel like a community. I thought of the growing movement to rename the stadium after him, a notion that was first talked about in 1989. Given the value that naming rights command on the open market, I doubt it will happen. Still, the stadium will always belong to Coach Landry. As I was told over and over again growing up, God watched America’s Team through the hole in the roof. I can’t help thinking that when the 2000 season begins, He’ll have company.