Jim Dey: Book recounts the life of a stoic Cowboy

Complicated football coach lived a fascinating life

Tom Landry was the unflappable head football coach of the Dallas Cowboys for nearly three decades. He believed in God, family and football, the order of those priorities depending on the immediate issue at hand.

Stoic to the point of appearing unfeeling, almost inhuman, Landry rode the wave of the National Football League's popularity until his unceremonious dismissal in 1989 by new team owner Jerry Jones.

But as Mark Ribowsky makes clear in "The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry," the coach was a complicated character who lived a fascinating life in interesting times. That's why Ribowsky's book is much more than just another story of a coach who's smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it matters.

Readers who like their sports laced with social history will enjoy "The Last Cowboy." It's the story of a futile franchise built up to a powerhouse level, but, ironically, marked more by agonizing defeats in legendary contests than eventual Super Bowl triumphs.

It's hard to think of a coach more bitterly criticized by some of his players. Notorious NFL rebel Duane Thomas, the Cowboys' star running back, called Landry the "plastic man." Landry's quarterback, Don Meredith, the future star of ABC's "Monday Night Football," suffered under Landry's tutelage, desperately seeking the approval Landry usually withheld. Even squeaky-clean Roger Staubach, the quarterback who led so many of the Cowboys' legendary come-from-behind wins, chafed under Landry's strong leadership.

"You'll never understand me," he once told Landry.

He was a son of Mission, Texas, one of three children born to Ray and Ruth Landry. His dad ran a paint and body shop, led the local volunteer firefighters and was a respected man about town. Landry's mother was kind, freely offering meals to homeless men during the Great Depression, but not inclined to show emotion. Landry recalled that "neither of my parents were overtly affectionate, with each other or with their children."

Landry was a good student and a natural athlete, excelling in football and winning a scholarship to the University of Texas. Because of the Longhorns' success on the gridiron and its huge fan following, he became a big man on campus.

But Landry was emotionally scarred when his older brother, Robert, a B-17 bomber pilot, was declared missing in action and then dead during World War II after his plane exploded near the coast of Iceland in November 1942.

Ribowsky wrote that the entire Landry family was "stolid as ever that grim day, but the family had been blown apart."

"Robert dead? It couldn't be. ...The big brother I had looked up to all my life was forever gone from the face of the earth — without my ever having told him how much he meant to me," Landry later wrote.

But what was there to do but move ahead?

"I tried to shut it out," he recalled.

But actions speak louder than words. Landry enlisted in the military, trained as a B-17 pilot, and in his late teens became "one of the Air Force's youngest pilots."

As a co-pilot on 30 missions over Europe, Landry was nothing less than heroic. He and co-pilot Ken Sainz and members of their crew survived repeated brushes with death, including a crash landing that left the plane in ruins. But, Landry recalled, "every member of our crew" survived "without a scratch."

When the subject of his close shaves came up, Ribowsky reports, Landry routinely downplayed his role while "bragging about the cool-headed decisions of (co-pilot) Sainz."

By age 21, Landry was back at Texas playing football, describing himself as "no longer a scared freshman" but a "grizzled war veteran" who had "a confidence in myself I had never known before."

Playing defensive back and backup quarterback to the legendary Bobby Lane, Landry attracted the attention of pro scouts, laying the groundwork for his future as a pro player and coach.

He also won the heart of campus beauty and future wife Alicia Wiggs.

Their relationship spawned some strikingly un-Landrylike correspondence.

"Have I told you how much I love you? I would like to tell you a million more times than I do. I guess today I miss you more than ever. To think that today we two have become three is really something. I could almost get sentimental, but you would never believe it," he wrote her after the birth of their first child.

As these highly personal stories reveal, "The Last Cowboy" is about more than games and Xs and Os. It's about a mysterious personality intertwined with professional sports in a time of great social change.

After college, Landry ended up in New York, playing first in the old All American Football Conference, which eventually merged with the NFL. He went from being a Yankee to a Giant.

Always fascinated by the intricacies of the game and the possibility of out-thinking the opposition, Landry was a student of the game — to the point that the Giants' coaches would ask him to explain defensive concepts to his teammates.

Eventually, the Giants' ownership persuaded Landry to stop playing and start coaching full time.

He became what now is called the defensive coordinator for the Giants opposite offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi under a head coach, Jim Lee Howell, who was smart enough not to interfere.

The Giants thrived under Landry, Lombardi and Howell, laying the groundwork for the rivalry that would follow Landry and Lombardi when they became head coaches of the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, respectively.

Landry and Lombardi left New York after each tired of hearing promises from Giants' ownership that he would be the next Giants' head coach.

Lombardi went first, taking over in Green Bay, a down team that had surprising talent. Landry, eschewing offers from the new American Football League, took over the new NFL franchise in Dallas and started from scratch.

Most football fans know the story from here. Lombardi's teams became dominant quickly while Landry's slowly but steadily improved.

In 1966 and '67, their teams met in classic championship contests, the Cowboys losing each by a hair. The Packers went on from winning those NFL titles to victories in the first two Super Bowls against Kansas City and Oakland.

Landry's teams eventually won two Super Bowls while losing three. But he and the Cowboys were better known for heartbreaking losses, including those two against the Packers. A third came against the San Francisco 49ers when Niners quarterback Joe Montana threw a last-minute touchdown pass to Dwight Clark, a score that instantly became known as "The Catch."

But those games are just breaks in the personal drama that became Landry's life as an aloof football coach whose job was to take a wide variety of player personalities and mold them into a winning football team. His apparent lack of humanity grated on his players, a fault that even Landry occasionally acknowledged. Some players might have questioned his personal style, but few doubted his coaching genius. And all seemed to vie for his approval.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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