Mr. Cowboy

Updated: May 2, 2006, 10:01 PM ET
By Mike Puma | Special to ESPN.com

"Coach Landry was the entire image for America's Team. He represented the very best in all of us," says Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He might have been the only coach identifiable by his silhouette. But Tom Landry's trademark fedora was only part of what separated him from the others. Few coaches in NFL history won as many games, earned as much respect and became the embodiment of one franchise the way Landry did.

In 29 seasons as the Dallas Cowboys head coach, "The Great Stoneface" seldom changed his expression. His stare alone could make 300-pound linemen cower in fear. But Dallas' opponents weren't smiling, either. Under Landry, the Cowboys became "America's Team," the NFL standard in the 1970s after emerging as a force in the late 1960s.

Landry's teams went 270-178-6, making him the third winningest coach in NFL history. Under him, the Cowboys won two Super Bowls, five NFC championships, 13 division titles and set an NFL record with 20 consecutive winning seasons, starting in 1966. As a defensive assistant with the Giants, Landry teamed with offensive assistant Vince Lombardi to help win an NFL championship in 1956.

But Landry's innovations, such as the flex defense and the multiple offense, are almost as much his legacy as his leadership skills. It was Landry's teams that perfected the shotgun offense, a formation first used and discarded by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1960s.

"I honestly believe his contributions to the technical side of the game were greater than anyone who has ever coached," said Mike Ditka, a tight end and assistant coach under Landry.

The Cowboys' decline under Landry began in 1986 with a 7-9 season. Two years later, they finished 3-13 and the following February were sold to Arkansas oil man Jerry Jones, who fired Landry.

A deeply religious man - he became a born-again Christian in 1959 - Landry rarely let down his guard. "People ask me, did I ever see coach Landry smile?" former Cowboys running back Walt Garrison said. "And I tell them, 'No, but I only played there nine years.' "

The third of Ray and Ruth Landry's four children, Tom was born on Sept. 11, 1924 in Mission, Tex. Ray ran an auto-repair shop and served as a volunteer fireman and Sunday School superintendent. Ruth was heavily involved with the First United Methodist Church.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Landry emerged as a standout quarterback, fullback and safety at Mission High School, leading the team to a 12-0 record and a regional championship as a senior.

Declining scholarship offers from SMU, Rice and Mississippi, he attended Texas in 1942 while also enlisting in the Army reserves. After one semester, he was called into World War II as a co-pilot and tail gunner on a B-17 with the Eighth Air Force. Landry flew 30 missions, including one in which he was forced to crash-land his plane in Belgium after a bombing run in Germany. In November 1945, Landry was discharged as a first lieutenant.

He returned to Texas, earning All-Southwest Conference honors as a junior fullback for a team that defeated Alabama in the 1948 Sugar Bowl. As a senior, he rushed for 117 yards on 17 carries in a victory over Georgia in the Orange Bowl.

After marrying his college sweetheart Alicia Wiggs, and earning a degree in business in 1949, Landry signed with the New York Yankees of the upstart All-America Football Conference as a punter and defensive back. When the league folded the following year, Landry joined the NFL's Giants. His best season came in 1954, when he had eight interceptions and was named All-Pro while also serving as an assistant coach.

After one more year as a player-coach, Landry quit playing and assumed control of the defense on a coaching staff that included Lombardi. The Giants won the NFL championship, routing the Chicago Bears 47-7 in the title game.

With a 4-3 defensive scheme that featured Sam Huff as the middle linebacker, the Giants became more celebrated for defense than offense. That defensive dominance continued through the decade.

Still, Landry couldn't write his own coaching ticket. In 1958, he interviewed for the Texas A&M head-coaching job vacated by Bear Bryant, but wasn't offered the position. The next year, the Houston Oilers wanted to make him their first head coach, but Landry passed, believing the fledgling American Football League a risky proposition.

Landry waited. Finally, on Dec. 27, 1959, he signed a five-year personal-services contract with Clint Murchison Jr. and Bedford Wynne that paid him $34,500 annually. The intention was to name Landry head coach once the pair was awarded an NFL expansion franchise. A month later, the Dallas Cowboys were born and Landry was their coach.

But he was hardly an instant hit. The Cowboys went 0-11-1 in their first season, and improvement came slowly.

Following the 1963 season, the team was 13-38-3, making Landry's firing seem imminent. But ownership responded with the ultimate vote of confidence, giving Landry, who had a year remaining on his contract, a 10-year extension.

Dallas' first winning campaign came in 1966, when it went 10-3-1 and won the Eastern Conference. However, the season ended with an excruciating 34-27 loss to Lombardi's Packers in the NFL title game.

The following season concluded with an even tougher loss. After going 9-5 to win the Capitol Division and then routing the Browns, 52-14, to win the Eastern Conference, the Cowboys lost the "Ice Bowl" to the Packers, 21-17, when Bart Starr scored with 13 seconds left.

In 1968 and 1969, the Cowboys won two more division titles but lost to Cleveland both years for the Eastern Conference crown. In the 1970 season, Landry finally made it to the Super Bowl. However, the Cowboys were defeated, 16-13, by Baltimore on Dan O'Brien's last-second field goal.

The following year they went all the way. They won their last seven regular-season games to finish 11-3, beat Minnesota and San Francisco in the playoffs to repeat as NFC champions, and then dominated Miami, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI.

The Cowboys' streak of eight straight playoff appearances ended with an 8-6 season in 1974, but Landry guided the team back to the postseason the following year. Roger Staubach's "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson beat the Vikings, en route to a berth in Super Bowl X, a 21-17 loss to Pittsburgh.

Two seasons later, the Cowboys were champions again, crushing Denver 27-10 in Super Bowl XII. Their bid to win consecutive Super Bowls was thwarted by the Steelers, who won 35-31.

In the 1981 season, Dallas seemed headed to Super Bowl XVI, but Dwight Clark made "The Catch" for the 49ers in the final minute. The next year, the Cowboys again lost in the NFC title game, this time to Washington.

After finishing fourth in the NFC East in 1984, the Cowboys rebounded the next year to go 10-6 for Landry's last division title. But then Landry and the team fell on hard times, going 17-30 from 1986 to 1988.

Landry wanted to coach into the 1990s, but on Feb. 25, 1989, Jones bought the Cowboys from H.R. "Bum" Bright and then interrupted Landry's golf game to inform the coach he was being replaced by Jimmy Johnson.

Angered by the move, Landry held a grudge against Jones until 1993. The cold war ended when Landry agreed to appear at Texas Stadium for induction into the Cowboys' ring of honor.

After his forced retirement, Landry became a limited owner of the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football and a pitch man for Abercrombie & Fitch's classic clothing line. In 1990, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In May 1999, Landry was diagnosed with leukemia. He died on Feb. 12, 2000 in Dallas. He was 75.

"The whole Cowboys image came from him," Staubach said. "Tom will always make the Dallas Cowboys more than a football team."

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