SI Vault
 
Tom Landry 1924-2000
Paul Zimmerman
February 21, 2000
The image—a man stoically standing on the sideline in his trademark headwear—is enduring. "Vie man who wears the funny hat" is how Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach described his coach, Tom Landry, at the player's retirement announcement in 1980. But Landry, who died last Saturday at 75 of leukemia, will be remembered for much more. SI senior writer Paul Zimmerman reflects on Landry's career in professional football.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 21, 2000

Tom Landry 1924-2000

View CoverRead All Articles

The image—a man stoically standing on the sideline in his trademark headwear—is enduring. "Vie man who wears the funny hat" is how Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach described his coach, Tom Landry, at the player's retirement announcement in 1980. But Landry, who died last Saturday at 75 of leukemia, will be remembered for much more. SI senior writer Paul Zimmerman reflects on Landry's career in professional football.

Tom Landry was a New York favorite before he ever put X's and O's to paper. In 1949 he played left cornerback—defensive halfback, as it was called in those days—for the Brooklyn- New York Yankees of the old All-America Conference, and he played the position with a roughneck style that the fans loved. Picture an early-day Mel Blount, and you've got Landry.

A year later folks around the NFL learned that there was a brain to go with the muscle. Landry played that season for the Giants, who were coached by Steve Owen. After watching the Browns, New York's next opponent, annihilate the defending champion Eagles in Philadelphia, Owen returned with a new defensive formation that he had devised, the 4-3. The 26-year-old Landry was the man he chose to break down the scheme on the blackboard for the team. "He can explain it better than I can," Owen said.

The Browns had rolled to a 35-10 victory over the Eagles, but New York shut down Cleveland's high-powered attack in a 6-0 win. The 4-3 remains the NFL's standard defensive set.

Six years later, in 1956, Landry coached the defense and Vince Lombardi oversaw the offense, giving the NFL champion Giants the most dynamic pair of assistant coaches ever to grace one staff. A visitor to the Giants that season described a walk down the corridor where the coaches' offices were located. "The first office I passed belonged to Landry," he said. "He was busy putting in a defense, running his projector, studying film. The next office was Vince Lombardi's. He was breaking down his own film, putting in an offense. The next office was head coach Jim Lee Howell's. He had his feet up on the desk, and he was reading a newspaper."

Upon seeing the visitor, Howell quipped, "With guys like Lombardi and Landry in the building, there isn't much for me to do around here."

Landry would go on to build the Cowboys from an undermanned expansion team into an NFL power, first with a stunning array of offensive formations and maneuvers, then with a solid organizational structure. Perhaps the most unusual thing about Landry's early years in Dallas was that he devised both an offense and defense for his expansion babies. "I realized that I couldn't beat anyone with my personnel," he told me. "So I had to do it with the motion and formations and gadget plays, the kind of stuff that bothered me most when I was a defensive coach." The result was an offense that in 1962 averaged 28.4 points and finished second in the NFL in total yards, remarkable achievements for a team in only its third year.

In 29 seasons under Landry, Dallas won two Super Bowls, played in three other title games and went 20 consecutive years with a winning record. He ranks third in career NFL victories, with 270. In his 40-year pro career Landry was vital in forging a brand of football that the NFL could hang its hat on.

1