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William Oscar Johnson
March 06, 1989
So said Tom Landry after the Cowboys' brash new owner installed a new coach in Dallas
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March 06, 1989

'a Chapter Closed'

So said Tom Landry after the Cowboys' brash new owner installed a new coach in Dallas

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The great stone face flinched and the flinty blue eyes went glassy when Tom Landry heard the verdict: He had been summarily removed as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, after 29 years. There was no appeal, no recourse, no room for negotiation. Landry, 64, gazed in shock at the two men who had brought him the terrible news. He said in disbelief, "You've taken my team away from me."

Precisely. The two messengers of doom had waited until the implacable Landry had finished a round of golf; then they bearded him late Saturday afternoon in his villa off the 18th green of the Hills of Lakeway Golf Course, near Austin. One of the messengers wept a little as he broke the news of the firing. This was Landry's friend and Cowboy colleague for all of those 29 years, club president Tex Schramm, 68. The other was visibly uncomfortable, but he had never met Landry before, and he didn't weep. This was Jerral Jones, 46, a native of Rose City, Ark., who had made a fortune in insurance, gas and oil over the years and who had used most of it to buy the Dallas Cowboys for a reported $140 million on the same day he fired Tom Landry.

Later, at a press conference, Jones ranted in ostensible anguish over Landry's demise. "This man is like Bear Bryant to me, like Vince Lombardi to me. If you love competitors, Tom Landry's an angel!", he said. Nevertheless, he veered not an inch from his decision to dismiss Landry to make way for his old roommate and teammate at the University of Arkansas, Jimmy Johnson, 45, the effervescent coach of the University of Miami's recently splendid football teams. Jones, who makes speeches with the arm-waving fervor of a TV evangelist, cried out to the assembled press. "Jimmy Johnson would be the first to tell you that he couldn't carry Tom Landry's water bucket!" But then Jones made it clear that this didn't matter one whit, shouting at his audience, "I wouldn't have bought the Dallas Cowboys if Jimmy Johnson couldn't be my coach!"

Thus it was that America's Team came up with a new owner (only its third in 29 years), a new coach (only its second), a new high in the gross price paid for a U.S. sports enterprise (next best: the reported $110 million paid for the New England Patriots and their stadium in 1988) and a new low in insulting a living legend (as recently as Feb. 13, Landry proudly declared his intention to coach at least four more years, "because I just don't want to leave the Cowboys when they're down").

The deal that brought Jones, Johnson and all that money to Dallas was in the making for almost six months, but the history of all this goes back to the genesis of pro football as we know it today. In 1960 the Dallas franchise was bought from the NFL for $600,000 by Clint Murchison Jr., then a typical Texas Croesus of those pre-oil-bust days. For most of the next quarter century the Cowboy management remained unchanged: Landry was the brilliantly innovative if stone-faced genius on the sidelines; Schramm was the loquacious front office wheeler-dealer and general manager; and Murchison was the invisible, deep-pockets owner who never even occupied a desk—let alone an office—at the Cowboys' headquarters.

Under this nicely mixed management, the Cowboys were merely magnificent. After a cataclysmic 0-11-1 first season, they charged through the next three decades with a record between 1966 and 1983 of 209-81-2, which included a streak of 18 consecutive winning seasons, 13 division championships, five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories.

Then Murchison fell ill, his fortune became depleted in the great oil and real estate plagues that struck Texas, and in late 1983 he had to put the Cowboys on the market. Schramm was in charge of selecting the most acceptable buyer from a handful of eager candidates. He chose H.R. (Bum) Bright, a Dallas native whose $600 million fortune, built in the oil, banking and real estate businesses, made him one of America's wealthiest men. Bright headed an 11-member all-Texan consortium that put up $86 million for the Cowboys and their leases at Texas Stadium.

Under Bright, both Schramm and Landry retained their accustomed positions of power. The Cowboys, however, did not. Their record during Bright's five-year ownership was a bleak 36-44, with 1988's mark of 3-13 being their worst since 1960, and they didn't win a playoff game. Though Bright gets the rap for this in the minds of many Cowboy fans, it's hard to blame him for such a shoddy performance, because he was no meddler. Indeed, he never pretended to have any real interest in the team beyond its value as an investment. Last week, as he prepared to cash in that investment, Bright said matter-of-factly, "From day one, I made it clear that the Dallas Cowboys were more of a business deal for me. I do regret that we were not more successful, but it was simply time for us to sell." He was also notably unsentimental about Landry's firing: "Since I've owned the football team, I've probably not exchanged 15 words with Tom Landry. Tex was my contact. This is a new generation. It's time for a new generation to take over."

Bright's fortune has declined dramatically in recent years, partly because of the sagging Texas economy, partly because of the stock market crash of October 1987. Forbes magazine reported last year that his net worth had plunged from $600 million in '84 to $300 million in '88. Three weeks ago the centerpiece of his banking operations, Bright Banc Savings Association, a savings and loan institution based in Dallas, was declared insolvent and was taken over by federal regulators.

Bright had been openly seeking Cowboy buyers since last spring. Prospective purchasers included such high-profile sports entrepreneurs as Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Don Carter, proprietor of the Dallas Mavericks. In all, Bright said that more than 75 different purchasers were considered as candidates. One of them was Jones, who began last August to research the possibility of buying the Cowboys.

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