When the first issue of this magazine was published, the Dallas Cowboys were at the peak of their First Dynasty. They had two recent Super Bowl appearances and one championship in their back pocket, and three more Super Bowls and another championship a few years in the future. Between 1966 and 1981 they posted a remarkable 171–59–2 record and never came
close to suffering a losing season.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. To be living in Texas, and
especially Dallas, at that time was to feel a certain electricity in the air every September to January. Cowboys fans took no small amount of pride in the fact that a team from Texas—a place viewed by many as an exotic outpost on the far reaches of American civilization—was suddenly regarded as America’s Team. Imagine, today, the next Facebook or Amazon or Google emerging from the frozen tundra of Anchorage, and you’ll have an idea of how transformational the whole thing was.
There were many factors at play. Over at Monday Night Football, the biggest sports show on television, Cowboys alum and East Texas native “Dandy” Don Meredith was throwing down with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. His quick-witted quips and insider observations, delivered in a thick drawl, forced a national audience to deep-six a hundred cornpone stereotypes of Texans.
There was an interesting tension at work on the field that you just couldn’t avert your eyes from. On the one hand, the Cowboys projected a clean, wholesome image. Coach Tom Landry (“God’s Coach”) was an early supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and appeared with evangelist Billy Graham at the opening of Texas Stadium, in Irving. Quarterback Roger Staubach—U.S. Naval Academy grad, devout Catholic, and gutsy field general—earned the nickname “Captain America.” Linebacker D. D. Lewis once declared that the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium had been put there “so God can watch his favorite team.” This was the Texas of Sunday morning church crowds rushing home for kickoff, the Texas whose loyalties were defined by the T-shirt slogan “God, Family, Cowboys.”
And then there were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose girls-next-door image strained to compete with their skimpy tops and hot pants. Along with a good number of the players, who painted the town red on a regular basis, America’s Girls hinted at the other side of the sacred-and-profane Cowboys.
Big D was God and go-go girls, the new Texas contradiction of a church on every corner and newfangled singles apartment buildings with hot tubs and tanning decks just down the block; of housewives with beehive hairdos brushing past Jack Ruby’s topless dancers in the produce aisle at Tom Thumb. Who didn’t want to know a lot more about that?
Above all, the Cowboys won and won and won. Captain America was slinging TDs, the Doomsday Defense was stopping the enemy at the goal line, and the victories kept piling up. For Dallas, still trying to crawl out from under the dark shadow of the Kennedy assassination, the Cowboys represented a long-awaited redemption: This wasn’t the city of hate, where Cora Lacy Frederickson, the wife of an insurance executive and part of Congressman Bruce Alger’s Mink Coat Mob, had once brought a protest sign down on the head of United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Dallas was home to the winningest, cockiest crew of badasses to ever pull on football helmets and the only ones ballsy enough to put a big star on each one. The city, much to the chamber of commerce’s relief, would never be the same.
But then the winning stopped.
All dynasties, of course, run their course. It was perhaps inevitable that the Cowboys would come back to earth, beginning the eighties with three straight NFC conference championship losses. The team’s financially
overextended owner, Clint Murchison Jr., sold the Cowboys for $83 million in 1984 to Dallas business tycoon Bum Bright, who proved too cheap for the franchise’s good. After some success early in Bright’s tenure, the team stumbled through a string of three losing seasons, including a dismal 3–13 record in 1988. Only the cheerleaders seemed to rise above the mess.
Bright, caught up in the national savings and loan collapse and hurting for money, flipped the team, selling the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million—a profit of almost $60 million. The buyer was Jerry Jones, an Arkansas oil and gas executive who had played football for the University of Arkansas.
On his first day, Jones named his old teammate Jimmy Johnson, the Port Arthur–born coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes, head coach and fired Landry on an Austin-area golf course. The abrupt dismissal of the Only Coach the Cowboys Ever Had heaped a dump truck of well-deserved ill will on the new owner. But all was forgiven and forgotten four years later with the first of two consecutive Super Bowl victories. At the heart of this Second Dynasty were quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, and running back Emmitt Smith. Irvin was the ringleader at the White House, a rental property near the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters that was the biggest party pad in the NFL, where women and piles of cocaine were frequently on the menu. (Irvin also once attacked a teammate with a pair of scissors but wasn’t charged for any crimes in the incident and declared himself a born-again Christian.)
Those glory days would be short-lived. Johnson resigned as coach after the 1994 Super Bowl, following a pissing match with Jones over who deserved what degree of credit for the Cowboys’ greatness. Replacement coach Barry Switzer oversaw the Cowboys’ 1996 Super Bowl win—the third since Jones bought the team—mostly with Johnson’s players and playbook.
And the 27 years since then? Long-suffering Cowboys fans know the stats all too well: four playoff wins, zero Super Bowl appearances, no championships.
In another era, that would have spelled the end of a team’s cultural dominance. But fortunately for Jones, the National Football League today operates by different metrics than it did fifty years ago. Victories are great, but money is the name of the game, and Jerry Jones has proved as brilliant at the balance sheet as he is hapless on the gridiron. The game’s best-known owner has found revenue streams that no one had ever thought of: Pepsi became the official soft drink of Texas Stadium and the Cowboys, for hefty fees. Prices were jacked up for parking, tailgating, merchandise, and luxury-box rentals. Jones negotiated Texas Stadium sponsorships with Nike and American Express when no other team had such deals, blowing off the idea of league revenue-sharing. He led the NFL owners in renegotiating television contracts.
And the franchise continues innovating. Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, now dubbed AT&T Stadium, is the prototype for all modern football arenas, with the world’s largest single-span roof, the world’s largest HDTV screen (when the facility opened; it has since been surpassed), the world’s largest retractable glass doors, the biggest walk-in beer cooler in Texas, augmented reality to enhance the pregame and postgame experience, world-class art on display, and the flexibility to host rodeos, concerts, conventions, and Texas high school football championships. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, meanwhile, remain the only pro football dance squad that matters.
Amazingly, despite their relative weakness on the field, no team attracts television viewers like the Cowboys do. They lead the league in NFL-licensed merchandise sales, and their fan base is the biggest in all of football. In 2016 the Cowboys were valued at $4 billion, making them the most valuable franchise not just in the NFL but in all of global professional sports.
Jerry Jones’s business acumen notwithstanding, how can that be? How can a team that hasn’t made it to the big game—much less won it—in more than a quarter of a century still elicit that sort of loyalty from hometown fans and draw the fascination of everyone else? How, after all these years, are the Cowboys still America’s Team?
One reason fans stay glued to the TV screen all the way through December is because the Cowboys are usually competitive enough that there’s a chance that this year will be the year. The Cowboys still feel like a championship team, even if they aren’t really. (Longhorn and Aggie fans might find this description familiar.)
But it’s also true that no franchise does drama better. In today’s NFL, it’s the story lines and entertainment—“popcorn”—that keep people coming back for more. And no organization comes close to the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to selling that product. Consider: The signing and three-year stint of Terrell Owens, described as the most misunderstood player in the league, over the objection of then-coach Bill Parcells, who would publicly refer to Owens only as “the player.” Dez Bryant’s getting kicked out of NorthPark mall because someone in his group—possibly Bryant— was wearing his pants too low. The streaky heartbreak of Tony Romo, beginning with his last-second fumbled field goal snap in the playoffs against Seattle. The multiple arrests of former Cowboys Quincy Carter and Rolando McClain. Lineman Randy Gregory’s addiction issues. The intoxicated manslaughter charges filed against defensive lineman Josh Brent after the car he was driving rolled over, killing teammate Jerry Brown. The running question of how much rope Jones would give then-coach Jason Garrett. Jones’s refusal to hire a general manager because he thought he could do the job himself. Jones’s paternity lawsuits.
Pop, pop, pop.
Here’s the thing about popcorn, though: it may be irresistible, but it never quite satisfies. Every January, those same rabid fans, still trying to stay high on three-decade-old fumes, still humming Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” to themselves, are forced to wake up to reality. And if the team’s fortunes on the gridiron don’t turn around anytime soon, you might imagine that at some point, those loyal fans might start wondering just what it is they’re so loyal to. A name? A gloried history? Jones’s bank account? They might start wondering whether that loyalty has been repaid in kind.
For now, the season ticket holders and skybox owners and devoted television viewers seem to be holding steady. When the Cowboys are playing,
Dallasites—and plenty of other Texans, along with more than a few people in the rest of the world—still pause, all eyes turned in the team’s direction. The sweet smell of success from many seasons ago faintly lingers.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “America’s Team, Still.” Subscribe today.