Tom Landry: Producer Notes Part 1

A Football Life, Behind the Scenes, Dallas Cowboys, Neil Zender, Sneak Peek

The Original Man in the Hat

Long before George Lucas dreamed up Indiana Jones, there was only one “Man in the Hat” and that was the head coach of America’s Team, Tom Landry. Unfortunately, that’s how most people remember Landry today; the snappy dresser who wore a coat, a tie and a fedora on the sidelines. A man who exuded class. Landry dressed for an event. The coaches of today, decked out in khakis and polo shirts, seemed dressed to flip burgers at a backyard barbecue.

What’s the first image of Tom Landry you think of? It’s probably one of NFL Films signature shots – the silhouette of the man and his fedora backlit by the heavenly glow of Texas Stadium. That’s the Landry image. The stoic, bloodless genius who could, as Don Rickles once quipped, win a staring contest with Mount Rushmore. And that’s why the mention of his name, to this day can still send a tingle down your spine.

Landry was always a larger than life figure cloaked in mystery. Even his players had a hard time understanding his sphinx-like persona. Halfback Duane Thomas dubbed him a “plastic man” and John Facenda said that Landry, with his gunfighter stare, looked like a regional director of the FBI. So, as we set out to document Landry for A Football Life, we faced two challenges. First, how do you separate the man from the myth? Beneath that stoic façade, who was the real Tom Landry? And second, how did the myth come to be? How did a flesh and blood person wind up being the mythic figure enshrined in football’s pantheon? How, exactly, does the magic of myth work?

The first thing to understand is that Tom Landry didn’t become a legend by winning. He became a legend by persevering. He failed to win a single game his first season as a head coach. It took him seven years before he recorded a winning season. Throughout most of the 1960’s, he coached in empty stadiums with crowds as small as five-thousand. When he started winning, he lost so many big games the media dubbed the Cowboys “Next Year’s Champions”. Until he won Super Bowl VI, people thought he was a choker. If he hadn’t won a Super Bowl, they’d think he was a choker today.

Almost all of Landry’s great games ended in defeat. His Cowboys were the dramatic foil in The Ice Bowl, The Levitating Leap and Jim O’Brien’s game winning field goal in Super Bowl V. When Dwight Clark plucked The Catch out of the air and launched a 49ers dynasty, it was Landry who was the loser. Even Johnny Unitas’ drive to glory in The Greatest Game Ever Played came at Landry’s expense. Landry was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship. Landry once said, “The only way a person can really become strong is to have setbacks.” It was an observation born of experience. Landry persevered and because he persevered he prevailed. That’s why his lasting achievements are monuments to endurance. He coached the same team for twenty-nine seasons. He set an NFL record with twenty consecutive winning seasons. He won more playoff games than any coach in NFL history.  

He was able to endure because Landry, unlike many coaches, understood life was bigger than football. Which brings us to the second thing to understand about Landry – his faith. Landry was a devout Christian – and that, above all else, was what mattered to him. That was how he was able to stomach so many heartbreaking defeats. In the early 1970’s, he seriously considered retiring from football. The only thing that stopped him, according to Landry’s wife Alicia, was her husband’s conviction that he’d been given a platform for a reason. He was the coach of America’s Team and if he could use that platform to be an example for people – it was his obligation to do so. During the off-season, he toured the country with the Billy Graham crusade witnessing his faith. At the same time, he found it difficult to show emotion to his players. If he did that, he would lose his authority as a coach. Football was business and at times, he could be cold-hearted. When Don Meredith, after playing with a punctured lung, performed poorly in a big game, Landry, clinical as always, eviscerated him in a film session. Meredith was so upset – he retired. Landry’s program – “The System”, as it was called, was dehumanizing. Players were stripped of their individuality and reduced to being spare parts. Each man was a cog in a machine – a cog that Landry believed was replaceable.

Tom Landry going over X's and O's with QB Roger Staubach (AP)

The third thing to understand is that Tom Landry was a genius. The term genius gets overused in football but Tom Landry was a gridiron savant, a brilliant innovator who unlike any coach in the modern era, changed the way football is played on offense and defense. A trained engineer, he had such command of X’s and O’s he was named defensive coordinator of the New York Giants when he was still a player. Landry was the first NFL coach to build an entire defense around film study and keys. By looking for offensive tells, he could decipher what play an opponent would run. It was Landry who created the modern 4-3 defense (initially, it was a stratagem to shut down Jim Brown). Every great middle linebacker; Sam Huff, Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Jack Lambert and Ray Lewis – owes their existence to Landry because he created the position.

Check back to TCIPF tomorrow for Part 2 of our Producer Notes for “Tom Landry: A Football Life.”

Check out our entire Anthology of “A Football Life” posts here.

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