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Why Is This Man Laughing?
Edwin Sharke
September 18, 1972
Believe it or not, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry seethes with emotion. Old Computer Face just believes poise and composure are the keys to victory—even in the Super Bowl
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September 18, 1972

Why Is This Man Laughing?

Believe it or not, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry seethes with emotion. Old Computer Face just believes poise and composure are the keys to victory—even in the Super Bowl

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"Since I had no speed and was playing cornerback, I had to anticipate where the receiver would go," said Landry. "Well, I've always had an analytical mind [he has a business degree from Texas and an industrial engineering degree from the University of Houston]. Things had to fit together. I analyzed offenses and got the idea of a coordinated system of defense in which everybody read certain keys the offense provided and then controlled a specific area. My concept was contrary to everybody else's and still is. Nobody plays defense exactly like we do except San Francisco. The old Eagle defense was a five-man line, but the offenses began to split their linemen and hit the middle and tore up the Eagle defense. Steve Owen conceived the 6-1 with the Giants. Then we turned it into the 4-3.

"But it's getting harder to play the 4-3 these days unless you play it the way we do or unless you have some real strong, penetrating people up front, like Minnesota has and the Rams used to have. Offenses have had 15 years to look at the 4-3 and they're going to destroy it unless you're highly coordinated or else you have two or three Bob Lillys to knock them all down."

After 1955 Landry retired as a player and became a full-time defensive coach for the Giants. In those days the job only took six months a year, and Landry had just moved his home from Houston to Dallas and had gone into the insurance business (as late as 1962 he sold a life-insurance policy to sports announcer Frank Glieber). In 1959 Landry was contacted by Tex Schramm, who was then an assistant director of sports at CBS but had been hired as general manager of the new Dallas Cowboys franchise. They had lunch, and Landry was offered the head coaching job. "I wasn't surprised," Landry said. "Our defense at New York had been very successful, and Vince Lombardi had recently gone from our staff to the head job at Green Bay. But until Tex called me, I really had no intention of remaining in coaching much longer. If I'd been offered a head coaching job anywhere but Dallas, which is where I wanted to live, I wouldn't have taken it."

Believing that suffering builds character, Landry had an opportunity to develop into a superhuman during the first half a dozen years at Dallas. "The NFL gave us the pleasure of selecting three of the worst football players off each team in the league, refused to give us a draft and then said O.K. boys, let's play," he says. Some exceedingly strange things happened to the Cowboys in those early seasons. They lost one game when Eddie LeBaron threw a 99-yard touchdown pass to Frank Clarke, only to have the play called back and a safety awarded the other team because a Cowboy lineman was caught holding in his own end zone. That was the day Landry ran onto the field and screamed at the official. The opposing coach, Buddy Parker of the Steelers, demanded to know why the official didn't penalize Dallas further. "Because I invited Mr. Landry out here," the official replied.

After the 1963 season, when Landry's career record at Dallas stood at 13-38-3, there was a great outcry in Dallas to remove him. Landry's relations with the press had been fairly smooth. He was always easy to approach and talk to, his explanations for defeat always sounded reasonable and he was to veto at least one team vote that would have banned a critical sportswriter from the team plane and locker room. But the crowds at the Cotton Bowl were scanty, and Dallas fans don't like losers any more than fans elsewhere. Something had to be done. So at a press conference Murchison announced he had just signed Landry to a new 10-year contract.

"Tom had been around long enough that I knew he was as good as his advance billing," says Murchison. "I wanted to get away from this matter of peripatetic coaches. The point was we weren't going to operate that way, no matter what. Rather than change coaches, we would correct our other deficiencies. I wanted to impress Landry, the players and the public with this belief. After we won only one of our first six games in 1964, I was having lunch with a friend who told me there was a silver lining to all this, after all. I asked what it was, and he said, 'Landry's only got nine years to go.' "

In 1965 Landry had what he describes as his worst emotional experience. The Cowboys had drafted quarterbacks Morton and Jerry Rhome, and the fans were urging Landry to bench Meredith, who had suffered for years with ragged teams, in favor of Morton or Rhome. After winning the first two games of the season, Dallas then lost four in a row, with Morton at quarterback in the last one. Before the seventh game, against Pittsburgh, Landry decided to start Meredith again. The Cowboys lost 22-13 in one of their worst performances ever. Landry cried in the locker room after the game. "He was crying not so much about the game as about me," says Meredith. "He had wanted me to do well, and I was awful. I stood up and swore I was going to work harder and we would win, but people kept sitting there with their heads down."

The following Tuesday, Landry summoned Meredith to his office and said, "Don, you're my quarterback. I believe in you." They both started crying again. But the Cowboys won five of their remaining seven games, went to the Runner-Up Bowl for the first time and have not had a losing season since.

"The decision to stay with Meredith was much more difficult than the one I made last year to start Staubach over Morton," said Landry. "Staubach and Morton were both doing well. Nobody had any right to criticize either of them. It was the team that was sitting back and not making its move. But public opinion was mostly on Staubach's side. In the Meredith decision, public opinion was mostly against him. It was unfortunate for Don that he had started as a young quarterback with a bad team, and we hadn't had time to build a winner before people turned against him the way people do against quarterbacks. If I had listened to the public that year, I would have chosen Morton or Rhome. But I thought Don was the one who could win for us."

In 1966 the Cowboys were down 14-0 to Green Bay in the championship game before the Dallas offense ever touched the ball. But Dallas got to the Packer goal line at the end of the fourth quarter, behind 27-34 and clearly about to tie the game and put it into overtime. Much has been written about a Dallas tackle, Jim Boeke, jumping offsides, as if that penalty cost Dallas the game. However, three other things happened in that final minute or so that were perhaps even more important to the result. Dallas Halfback Dan Reeves had been poked in the eye and could-barely see but neglected to tell Meredith and wound up dropping a pass he could have scored on. Meredith threw another pass a bit too low to Pettis Norman, who was tackled short of the flag. And on fourth down, for what has to be as much Landry's fault as anyone's, Bob Hayes was in the game. Hayes is always removed for a stronger blocker when the Cowboys are on the goal line, but this time he stayed in, and, instead of being able to run the ball across on a roll-out, Meredith was rushed hard and had to throw a desperate pass that was intercepted.

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