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Texas Gentleman
Edwin Shrake
August 05, 2008
Believe it or not, Tom Landry teemed with emotion. He just preferred to be the picture of poise
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August 05, 2008

Texas Gentleman

Believe it or not, Tom Landry teemed with emotion. He just preferred to be the picture of poise

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"I was playing defense with Tom in 1952 and 1953," says Frank Gifford, the ex-Giants halfback. "It was hit or miss. You had an area to watch or a man to guard. But Tom put the same kind of discipline into defense that the offense had. Tom created pro defense as it is played today. I don't know who takes credit for the 4-3 defense, but Tom exploited it. Few people outside pro football realize what a great coach he is. Most coaches should be worshipping at his feet."

The extreme competitiveness of Landry, mixed with a frustrating lack of speed, led him to analyze the teams he faced so he could be in the right place without having to outrun anybody to get there. "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."

After the 1955 season 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 gone into the insurance business. 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."

DRIVING TO HIS HOUSE ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Dallas, Landry talked about how he finds and deals with players. The Cowboys do use computers for compiling figures on their own and other teams, but they have abandoned psychological testing. "I have great faith in people," Landry said. "I won't turn my back on them until I've given them every opportunity to bring out the good. My job would be easier as a coach if I eliminated from the team people who have the hang-ups, have the problems, who are a little detrimental to the team effort, but I won't do that until they have a chance to pull themselves out. Some do and some don't."

Landry parked in his semicircular driveway, and Alicia came to the door—still pretty, very charming and soft. Their daughter Lisa, 14, was sitting at a table in the den. (Daughter Kitty, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Texas, where son Tom, 22, is in law school.) Tom and Alicia still go out regularly one night a week, to a movie or for dinner and dancing, and used to eat lunch together once a week until two years ago when Landry decided he was getting too busy for that.

That night Landry and Miss Teenage America were speakers at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Huddle Club gathering at a high school in nearby Carrollton. Landry opened with a couple of funny stories for the 200 teenagers and the smattering of adults in the audience. He said the Dallas offensive line was so bad in the early 1960s that Eddie LeBaron had to signal for a fair catch to take the snap. They laughed.

Then Landry got serious. He said the Apostle Paul would have been a great halfback. "You could stone him out of town, but he was harder to stop than Walt Garrison," Landry said. He discussed the values of faith and training and hard work. "You must treat your body as an athlete does. Make it do what it should do, rather than what it wants to do." He revealed the secret to a happy life: "Something to hope for, something to do, someone to love." When he was through, the audience clapped, cheered and lined up for autographs.

Outside, a cool wind was stirring the grass in the empty fields around the high school. The sky was clear and crowded with stars, and the night seemed empty and beckoning. Landry leaned against the car door, his head up, smelling the fresh wind.

"As a kid I ran free," he said. "No supervision. That's how you learned. Of course, I was spanked like the devil when I did wrong. Things are changing these days, and so are football players. There's more freedom. But freedom must have boundaries. Man is not made strong enough not to have boundaries. Without boundaries, you have the breakdown of the individual and then of society, and then you have chaos. With boundaries, people are happy."

Landry got into the car and shut the door and the night was sealed off by the glass and the glow from the dashboard. "Knowing that," he said, "I don't really ever worry about anything."

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