God’s Coach – Tom Landry (3-3-21)

Skip Bayless writes in his 1990 book God’s Coach: The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry’s Cowboys:

* Landry only wanted to study film of opponents. Landry wasn’t much of a college or even pro football fan. Landry didn’t even know the names of a lot of college stars. Landry’s attitude seemed to be, “Just give me players who can play my system. ” Landry wanted to dedicate his time to designing and perfecting an offense and defense. Young Landry seemed to believe the systems were more important than any one player playing them.

A Cowboy scout says, “Tom’s ego dictated that he make the choices, but he relied heavily on Gil’s reports.” Didn’t Landry take time to research Brandt’s background? No, Landry never got to know Brandt. Maybe, after a while, he didn’t want to know much about Brandt. Landry once said, “Nobody knows Gil very well. He doesn’t sit down long enough for anyone to know him.” Landry had an almost inhuman capacity for blocking out everything around him except his religion, his family, and his game plan. He often came off as small-town: “Heck, I’m too busy to know about any of that.” But perhaps he was naive by design. For sure he wanted to do as little on-the-road scouting as possible.

* If the public had also known the inside story about the Cow-belles, the original Cowboy cheerleaders, [Cowboys owner Clint] Murchison would have been pursued by vigilantes. Murchison focused his binoculars on Cowbelle tryouts just as he watched Braniff graduations. Cowbelles were high school girls. Murchison made it known to his favorites that they’d be a cinch for the squad if they got to know him a little.

* And without Staubach, there probably would have been no America’s Team. Without him it’s doubtful Landry would have won a single Super Bowl. Staubach was the key. And without Schramm’s hunch and Brandt’s hustle, Staubach almost certainly would have been a Chief.

* Dallas had the most interesting team in the NFL. Its coach didn’t appear to have much life, but it sure did. It had SMU’s own Don Meredith going bombs away to Bob Hayes, the “world’s fastest human” who was revolutionizing NFL offense. It had ex-basketball players at cornerback (Cornell Green) and tight end (Pete Gent), and an ex-track man (Mike Gaechter) at safety. Defensive lineman Bob Lilly out of TCU was beginning to leave lilies on blockers’ chests. Middle linebacker Lee Roy Jordan from Alabama, a ruggedly handsome leader who just looked and sounded like a Dallas Cowboy, was fitting into Landry’s Flex as if it were the Marlboro Man’s leather jacket. The team had stars on its helmets and shoulders, and the fans had a few in their eyes.

There was just one hitch: Before Meredith took the snap, his linemen stood up in unison, then returned to their stances. “The Hitch,” Landry called it. Landry’s offense looked like a Chinese fire drill. Landry wasn’t afraid to try trick plays he called “exotics.” Cowboy games were like some wild new bar or restaurant, the place to be. This was a team on the rise and verge. It was easy for Dallasites to invest emotionally in this team because it just seemed to have so much talent.

* Landry’s Cowboys were beginning to put the fear of God in their opponents. The joke circulated that you could take a page of Landry’s playbook to a Chinese laundry and exchange it for a bundle of shirts. Pete Gent’s classic warning to a rookie opening a playbook was: “Don’t bother reading it. Everybody gets killed in the end.” Very little about the Cowboys was normal, most of all their defense. Was the Flex beginning to work, or were its cogs making it work? Did Brandt’s drafts make the Flex? Or did it make Brandt’s drafts? Jerry Tubbs, who played and coached the Flex for twenty-nine years, speaks for most players and assistants when saying, “By 1965 we just got more players than other teams had. Of course, Gil was spending three times as much as any other team to find them, and the players we had were getting to know the System. But players—that’s the name of the game. [Bob] Lilly had turned into a terror, an unbelievable combination of quickness, agility, and strength. [Linebacker] Chuck Howley was coming into his own. Lee Roy [Jordan] was starting to play in place of me…”

* The best explanation I ever heard came from Dextor Clinkscale, Landry’s defensive quarterback and strong safety from 1982 to 1985. “Dextor,” said Landry, “was as smart as anyone we ever had.” Clinkscale says, What opponents didn’t understand with the Flex was that it was stupidly simple. Growing up as a huge Cowboy fan, I always read how complicated the Flex was, but all it really had was a lot of fancy names and terms. If you just looked at the playbook, it was intimidating. It was like taking advanced placement English and having the teacher assign you this 450-page book by some guy named Dickerson or Dickens. You say, “Damn, this big book?” I wasn’t well-read (as an honors student at South Carolina State), and neither were most players who played the Flex. Most only read their press clippings. But you always heard Summerall and Madden talk about how intricate the Flex was and how Landry was such a scholar and theologian. You (as a rookie) are thinking, “I can’t be looking at a coach. He’s not draped in blue and white [team colors]. He looks astute. He’s a thinker.” Then you try to read his playbook, and these things are just tearing up your mind. You try to figure out little things like the technique on [a safety’s] end-run force, and it becomes a logic game like on an SAT test. It’s not like that. The Flex is probably the simplest defense in the world because unless you’re the middle linebacker, you have only one thing to do. You just have one gap to control. Of the front seven, the middle linebacker is the only one with two gaps. The object is to control every gap. There are only so many gaps an offensive line can create for a ball carrier, so by their initial movements, the center and two guards tell the middle linebacker where to go. They are his keys. The defensive linemen keep the offensive linemen off the middle linebacker so he can make the tackle. The middle linebacker has one gap and one “tango,” usually to the weak side of the Flex. He can “tango” weak, meaning an immediate “scrape” by the middle linebacker to get to an outside gap.

You see, it was necessary to set two of our four defensive linemen a yard off the line of scrimmage in a frog stance because this allowed them to sit back and see what was going on. They could read the actions of the offensive line, which would tell them which specific area they would control. You didn’t control a man, you controlled an area. In the regular 4-3 [four linemen, three linebackers], you tried to control a man, but the Flex took away your natural instincts of pursuit. In effect, you held your ground and waited for the ball to come to you. In the ’60s and ’70s this was an absolutely brilliant concept. Lee Roy Jordan was a student of the game and very quick and agile at around 200 pounds. Then came Bob Breunig in 1976, who was very smart and had some jets on him so he could get outside. He wasn’t big (maybe 220) or strong, but he at least could pull down a ball carrier. When he retired [in 1984] all Landry had was Eugene Lockhart, a poor middle linebacker for the Flex. Eugene doesn’t have the speed or agility to get outside, and he isn’t a thinker like Breunig and Lee Roy. The Flex might have been more dominant in the ’80s if the Cowboys hadn’t passed over [Baylor’s] Mike Singletary (in the 1981 draft). Gil, as I recall, decided Singletary was too short.

Coach Landry was a genius of preparation and technique. On film he could see tiny little mistakes I knew I’d made. His strength is simply knowledge of the game. He knew his opponents better than they probably knew themselves. On offense he knew how to dress something up. He knew what gave his defense trouble, so he came up with all that “multiple” offense crap in the ’60s. Take the Raiders, for instance. They’d run a fullback dive over left guard, but the Cowboys would come out in a weird formation, shift into another weird formation, throw a wideout in motion one way, then a back would take off in motion the other way, then they’d run a fullback dive over left guard. It was the same thing with the Hitch. It was just a gimmick to distract the defense before the snap. It was militaristic. It showed discipline. It was intimidating. In the ’60s and ’70s it was always in perfect unison, but by the ’80s it looked like a bad halftime show, where the girls aren’t all together. But the point of everything was deception. It was a mask for what you really were going to do, which was simple. The easiest way to beat the Flex was just to blow off the ball and block it, the way the Steelers and Raiders finally did. But in the ’60s and ’70s other teams kept trying to figure it out, and they’d fall prey to the Flex itself. You look across the line at Lilly or Randy White or Ed Jones in his Darth Vader helmet lined up in these weird places and stances, and it just looks like doom.

Tom Landry: When I created the Flex in about 1964, it was a completely different concept because it actually was based on engineering principles, which is why it was called the Flex. It took a real commitment from the players to play it because it took away a lot of natural instincts. Lombardi wrote Run to Daylight, and we wanted to take away the daylight. When you just go after the ball, bouncing off blocks, there’s just going to be some daylight. Lombardi took to Green Bay the idea of pulling a lineman to get the flow going one way, then the back would take a counter step back into the hole. But we wanted guys to hold their position, control their area, see the point of attack, then have three or four guys close in. It took a lot of character to play the Flex. A guy like Bob Lilly could have just pushed people off him and gone for the ball, but he didn’t. And we had a great defense through the ’70s. It’s a defense that would still work today if the players would play it.

* You wonder how much better Landry’s teams would have been, especially in the late ’70s and ’80s, had he encouraged his more talented players to just play football. What, ultimately, was the goal of the Flex? Merely to win football games? Or to win a “genius” title for Landry? Was Landry still competing against fellow assistant Lombardi for head-of-the-class honors? Landry wasn’t just asking his players to sacrifice their bodies for him. He wanted their very competitive instincts. “You simply had to annihilate your instincts,” says Toomay. “You had to focus elsewhere, on a precise key, while the Art Shell across from you was going to kill you.” But how many of Landry’s good players might have been great if they had been allowed a little more freedom? Wasn’t the mark of a great coach that he adapted his system to the talent available and kept on winning?

How many of Brandt’s draftees of the ’80s would have lived up to their publicity if Landry hadn’t so inflexibly stuck with the Flex? Again and again we were told that a high draft pick had failed to “grasp the Flex.” Was that subconsciously what Landry wanted? To prevail with inferior talent? To win with Clinkscales? To inspire sportswriters everywhere to shake their heads and say, “Man, that Landry can win with whatever the cat or Gil Brandt drags in”? Was Landry quietly building a monument to himself? Was the Flex his graven image? While Landry’s life well may have been “in God’s hands,” his Cowboys were absolutely in his.

* Meredith began to see a stoic who was susceptible to panic. Holy smoke, Meredith would think, Mount Landry is human. Some days Meredith hated Landry for his hypocritical, holier-than-thou image and the way he surgically removed the pride of Meredith’s teammates during two-drink-minimum film sessions. Other days Meredith felt sorry for a Landry who put inhuman pressure on himself to run the defense, call the plays, and live up to The Image. Pete Gent, who was one of Meredith’s closest friends, says, “Tom was great until game time. Then he was a mess. I always got a kick out of the public perception of Tom as cool as a cucumber. Believe me, I know he wasn’t because I was a play messenger for him. He’d send me in with goal line plays at midfield and long-yardage plays on the goal line. He’d call plays we didn’t have for players we didn’t have. Sometimes Meredith would just wave the play messenger back to the sidelines.

* The Cowboys had beaten Cleveland three straight times, including 52-14 in the 67 playoffs, but Landry prepared as if the Cowboys were in trouble. They sometimes were, when Landry overcoached.

* This would inspire the line from offensive guard (and Stanford grad) Blaine Nye that epitomized Landry’s Cowboys: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but who gets the blame.”

* Most ex-players say there was only one man—Staubach—who could have taken Landry over the top. I told Meredith about an interview I’d just had with Staubach, about how he and Drew Pearson changed or modified Landry’s calls on so many big plays. Meredith seemed to know all about that. He chuckled and said, “Every time I see Roger I kid him and say, ‘I thought only Protestants had guilt.’”

* “Tom,” says psychologist Don Beck, “always needed an external event to motivate his team. He couldn’t really inspire players by anything he said or did. He needed something dramatic to happen to bring the team together.” A man who would inspire so many from the pulpit couldn’t seem to find the words to lift a football team. He needed some shocking development beyond his control.

* what drew so many intelligent, talented “robots” with one loose screw to Landry’s Cowboys? Were the Cowboys, with their Hitch, something right out of Hitchcock? Or were less publicized teams better able to cover up their share of “incidents”? These were, after all, child-men trained to wreak havoc.

* Staubach would help keep the Lid from flying off Landry’s pressure cooker. Staubach may have been more loved by black teammates than white. Says Thomas Henderson, “He is the genuine article.” What would Landry have done without him?

* Staubach was a little too hot-blooded for Landry—too quick to call an audible, bolt from the pocket, look for a secondary receiver. Staubach didn’t grasp technical concepts quickly enough. He didn’t always have the right answer in QB class. Staubach wasn’t Landry’s idea of the ideal quarterback-as-extension. Staubach was too confounded emotional and instinctive. He had the nerve to openly challenge Landry in quarterback meetings about why he wasn’t getting a fair chance to win the job. Landry kept saying it takes every quarterback at least three years to learn the pro game. But Staubach didn’t really have three years. He was already twenty-nine. After Super Bowl V he planned to ask Landry for a trade.

* Landry. “What,” I asked, “did you exactly mean by the plastic man’ quote?” I thought Thomas meant Landry was devoid of emotion. “What I was saying,” Thomas said, “was that his image wasn’t the reality.”

* Duane Thomas: “Tom Landry: … An illusionist who used Christianity for his own vanity, greed, and power. A John Birch mentality. Used the computer to create Landry’s Humanoids and recruited predominantly Southern players, both black and white, to keep separation active and maintain total control. Large ego. White supremacist mentality. His philosophy was intimidation, intimidation, intimidation, of the mind and body.”

* Thomas had thrown Thomas Wade Landry for a loss. For Landry, Thomas was a one-man Watts riot. He was the first of many black stars who would openly defy Landry’s rule. Pro Bowl corner-back Everson Walls, whose rookie year was 1981, would tell Thomas, “You paved the way for a lot of us.”

* Allow [Pat] Toomay to put 1970 to 1974 into wry perspective: I had hair down to my shoulders, and they assumed I was on dope. The irony was, I was the only one who wasn’t. All their “character” guys—their Southern good of boys—were experimenting with pot. But Ernie Stautner [the defensive line coach] gave me the lecture about how marijuana leaves a residue on the brain. He was talking to the wrong guy. Drug use was prevalent because of the way we were treated behind closed doors versus the way we were treated out in public. There just wasn’t that much money then [Toomay made $21,000 in his fourth year], I mean, Lee Roy Jordan didn’t make $100,000 until his [fourteenth and] last season. For, say, $250,000 you can take any shit anybody wants to dish out. But when you’re barely making more than you could on the outside, and they’re telling you, “You should be happy with that because we’re going to make you somebody,” well, it’s tough. Inside [the locker room] we were treated with disdain and disrespect and cynicism. There was this constant atmosphere of fear, of losing your job. You have a mortgage and a family, and you’re not really that far from having a middle-class income. You’re at risk. You’re sweating it. Then you go out on the street, and you’re treated like this incredible fucking hero. You say, “Who am I?” Drugs became the mediator between the two worlds. That was one way to anesthetize yourself. I think Bob Hayes [convicted in 1979 of trafficking in narcotics; later pardoned] was an example of that. “Who am I?” … One time Schramm was talking to the team and actually called us his “product.” … Everything with Landry was image. The image defined the person. He said, “Roger is the kind of image we want in professional football.” He didn’t say the kind of person.

* “You lived for Tom to call you a ‘pro’ [in front of the team],” Toomay recalls. “That meant you would play when you were hurt. You would take pills, injections, whatever it took. You had to learn not to feel pain. Your body had to become something that wasn’t part of you, like a piece of furniture. So you saw guys getting hooked on Demerol [a painkiller]. You saw guys going on this incredible odyssey of injuries through the season. You were amazed a guy like Walt Garrison was still alive. He played the NFC championship game in ’70 with back spasms, a sprained knee, sprained ankle, and fractured clavicle, and had to be carried off the field. But he still ran for fifty yards and caught a couple of key passes. He was the ultimate ‘pro.’ It was like, you got to heaven if you played with pain.

* Landry resented the growing credit Staubach received for saving so many days.

* In the hurry-up offense Staubach was able to call many of his own plays. Landry, who later admitted “I thought we’d lost,” was reduced to a spectator. Staubach was winging it. No more robot QB.

* The following week Landry reasserted himself with a new passing-down package for the Redskins. Staubach says, “This confused me and the receivers.” Staubach didn’t play well. Washington did. The Cowboys were eliminated, 26-3. Asked why he stuck with Staubach, Landry reacted with one of the inscrutable responses that would plague me for ten years: “I left Roger in because we didn’t move the ball at all. If we had been moving the ball but having the breaks go against us, I would have put Morton in.” Huh?

* When Staubach’s impromptu changes resulted in big plays, Landry wouldn’t congratulate the quarterback. He wouldn’t even ask Staubach to replay his thinking so Landry could see what his quarterback saw.

* he? Pat Toomay says, “Roger is fooling himself if he actually believes Tom felt anything for him at all. Tom is incapable of relationships.” For sure, Staubach still hasn’t quite come to grips with why, on his way to the Hall of Fame, he never was entrusted with the play-calling. A childish peeve? No; for Landry, choosing the play was like choosing the words for the classic he was writing. Staubach was only supposed to type, not edit. For Landry, choosing the play was his way of playing quarterback forever.

* One thing about Staubach: I never heard one of his teammates accuse him of turning religious only when necessary.

* Bradshaw told me, “Shoot, there was no big mystery about how to beat the Flex. You threw on first down. The corners were almost always man-to-man on first down because the Flex was geared to stop the run. I almost felt sorry for their cornerbacks. I had Lynn Swann and John Stallworth out there, and all I had to do was throw it and they’d go get it.”

“You see, the rules had changed, and holding was all but legalized. So it negated a lot of their quickness in their pass rush. They just couldn’t get the pressure they had the year before (in Super XII, when defensive linemen Harvey Martin and Randy White were co-MVPs against Denver). We had such strong, massive linemen, and they weren’t spooked by the Flex. On running plays we just tried to blow the Cowboys off the ball.”

The rules changes were turning pass-rushing end Harvey “Too Mean” Martin into more of Harvey the invisible rabbit. His league-leading twenty-three quarterback sacks in 1977 had fallen to sixteen in ’78 and would bottom out at ten in ’79. At 260 pounds Martin simply had outquicked left tackles in ’77 when he was the Associated Press NFL player of the year. But Martin was not terribly strong. Despite his Too Mean image—“I didn’t start that,” he told me, “that was a P.R. gimmick”—Martin had grown up in South Dallas as something of a mama’s boy. Thomas Henderson says, “Harvey is not someone I’d want at my back in an alley fight.” Once Harvey could be legally latched onto by blockers, he often couldn’t fight free. The Steelers were the first to “Martinize” Harvey. The Steelers were the first to expose Landry’s great and powerful scheme as mostly smoke and neon—as the ex-Flex.

* A great thought from psychologist Don Beck and his partners on Landry, who collects classic cars: “Tom built a great ’63 Buick, but it just wasn’t in his nature to change.”

* Terry Bradshaw’s record-breaking Super Bowl had shaken Waters’s faith. Harris’s, too. They were in L.A. to prepare for the Pro Bowl, but their psyches were still in Miami. They surprised me by encouraging me to write a column about what was wrong with the Flex. They shared their deepest, darkest criticisms—the same I would hear from Bradshaw—but asked that I not use their names in the column. Harris said, “Our ass will be grass if the coaches find out where this came from.” But: “Hey, after a while, any great NFL defensive alignment that doesn’t change will be overcome and annihilated.”

* Landry’s image was of lab rats and bubbling test tubes. Yet he was experimental only on offense. His offensive concept hadn’t changed since the early ’60s. He wasn’t an innovator the way, say, San Francisco coach Bill Walsh was. But Landry was fascinated with trick plays—“exotics”—for which he would set up a defense and exploit its animal instincts. Landry’s exotics became his offensive claim to fame.

* After Super Bowl XII several Cowboys also complained about Landry’s trick plays. On the Cowboys’ opening drive, the line had opened repeated holes for Tony Dorsett when Landry called a flanker reverse pass, thrown by Drew Pearson. Pearson fumbled the exchange. The Cowboys lost an opportunity to score first in what became a scoring battle. Had Landry’s ego gotten the best of him?

* Soon D. D. Lewis joined Alcoholics Anonymous, where one motto is “Check your bullshit at the door.” The meetings were so humbling for Lewis that at one point he considered growing his hair into a ponytail and becoming a carpenter.

* Landry enjoyed being Himself, the celebrity coach. Perhaps Landry had some “Hollywood” in him. In 1983, with Alicia’s encouragement, he surely surprised some fans by doing an American Express commercial: “You don’t know me, but I’m the most famous cowboy in Texas … Landry, dressed in long-rider cowboy garb, stood in an Old West saloon. He concludes, “You never know when you’ll be surrounded by … Redskins.” And, as he’s surrounded by Redskin football players, he warily says, “Howdy.” This opened the locker room door for Dallas-area TV reporters to dare to have fun with Landry. Says former KXAS-TV reporter Mike Fernandez, “One year I wanted to do a light story giving Landry a hair dryer for his birthday. Producers and other reporters at the station said absolutely not. But I had a feeling he’d go along with it, and he did. In fact, when I gave him the hair dryer on camera, he had a funny line. He said, And I wanted a curling iron.’ Everybody at the station was shocked. I don’t think any coach in football would go along with the things Landry did. He’d do just about anything. Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, Don Shula—none of those guys would do that stuff. They would have said it made ’em look silly or stupid.” For another Dallas TV station Landry ducked into a phone booth as if he were changing into Superman attire. Landry went along with an April Fools ruse—Cowboys Trade for Draft Rights to John Elway—that created switchboard hysteria. Landry often did goofy bits to help promote radio stations, things like: Hi, I’m Tom Landry, and even I listen to K-Rock.

* Certainly, by age fifty-five in 1980, Landry had earned the right to build a retirement fortune if he chose. But the question was: How could he possibly juggle his religious, business, and football commitments without the latter suffering? How could he devote the fewest year-round hours to football of any NFL coach and continue winning? The answer, of course, was that he couldn’t.

* Among writers, locally and nationally, Landry was considered a saint because he promptly returned phone calls and because he answered questions with civility after losses.

* Not once did Landry say one word to me about anything I had written, pro or con. And in the end, my prose often was con. Still, he called back. He talked.

* Is ex-“malcontent” Butch Johnson, a bright man who owns a car dealership in Denver, imagining things when he says, “Tom knew exactly how to play the camera angles during games. He’d turn away and say under his breath, Goddamn it.’”

* Had Landry the coach become addicted to his adulation? Dallas worshiped its heroes as if they were gods. For Dallas, Landry was the ultimate status symbol, its greatest claim to fame. As an armchair shrink, I sometimes wondered if Landry were suffering from delusions of grandeur—not so much his but his millions of fans’. If, every day, you read and heard that you were God’s Coach, wouldn’t you start believing you were infallible? If you were just a guy from Mission who nearly became an insurance salesman, and suddenly Billy Graham was calling you his “John the Baptist,” wouldn’t it be easy to lose sight of who you were?

* intelligence. Clinkscale says, “By 1980 we were through with the great and wonderful ’70s. Roger was gone. Players were starting to understand that P.R. could be used for personal gain as well as management gain. They were realizing that if you just blindly played your technique you could wind up in surgery the way so many of the ’70s Cowboys did—that there were ways to preserve yourself. Players were saying, ‘What is Tom doing? Why is he keeping all these old coaches around him?’ We were getting negativity from the outside just like the Raiders got—other teams hating us. But unlike the Raiders, we had negativity within, too. The Raiders’ management told them, ‘Be on time for practice and let’s win the game. ’ We were told, ‘Be on time, keep your fingernails clean, and wipe your feet on the mat before you enter this rinky-dink practice field.’ ”

* Can a corporate CEO be a Christian? A Donald Trump? I suppose it can be done, but the nature of the sport is so violent that it takes you back to Roman times. We weren’t people. We were gladiators. Is it Christian for me to want to blast the crap out of somebody for the pleasure of those in the stands? It’s not the same as, say, hitting a tennis ball with the same type of fury. The only thing we didn’t do was kill each other, though we sometimes caused paralysis. At my last NFLPA meeting [Clinkscale was the Players Association representative for the Cowboys] we discussed how the average life expectancy for an ex-NFL player is around fifty-two or fifty-three. You’re doing so much banging of the brain and tearing of the limbs and damaging of the organs, and who knows what cancers you were causing when you ingested all the things they wanted you to ingest. For example, Coach Landry was down on [wide receiver] Doug Donley because he wouldn’t take an injection and play with pain. I told Donley, “Don’t take one. Don’t worry about it.” He took one, anyway. In my dealings with all the people I met in Dallas, the one I don’t know as a person is Tom Landry. There are certain people, if they don’t tell you they’re a Christian, you just know it by the way they act, even in their business. But he was just a football coach, and whatever went along with that. In his dealings with players, they often called him a liar—a Zeus, a mythological god, a false god. But to me he was a coach with no exceptions, a coach whose strengths were very exaggerated. You know, sometimes I wished I had just walked up to him at rookie orientation and introduced myself and gone on back home and held on to my image of him.

For years people on TV said Jim Bakker was a Christian, but his friends knew he didn’t always do Christian things. But just looking at TV I presumed Tom Landry was a Christian because Pat Summerall and John Madden were always talking about his relationship with Jesus Christ. As players, what was said on TV and written in the papers was all we knew. He was that detached from us. When I’d hear people say what a great Christian speaker Coach Landry was, I’d think, “Man, I wish he’d talk to us like that.” Maybe that’s what was missing.

* “The Cowboys seem to be really hung up on image, whereas the Steelers are more concerned with the end result, which is winning.”

* While having a high-voltage, on-off affair with a prominent married assistant coach, mostly in road hotels, she was seeing a rookie wide receiver and a TV sportscaster who traveled with the team. One pre-game night in San Francisco, she felt understandably abused and confused and tried to drown herself in hospitality suite booze. I ran into her around midnight in the lobby of the team hotel, the St. Francis, and we stood by the elevators and talked for a few minutes. I asked why she put herself through all this. I was so amazed by her answer that I soon returned to my room and jotted it down, for future reference. She said, “There’s just something about this team that makes a woman lose her head. It seems like they only draft beautiful guys. They wear the sexiest uniforms. It’s like this incredible power fuck. “And it’s weird, but you don’t feel so guilty about it because of Tom. Tom makes it okay—you know, being such a Christian and all.” What a concept: God looked the other way for God’s Team. Under Landry, all sins were waived?

* the Cowboys played the ’80s with almost no fresh bullets. It was mostly Landry’s System versus the world, and the world began to win.

* “By 1982,” Johnson says, “we really were no longer a football team. We had become rock stars with people lining up at hotels to see us. It was insane. Every player on the team had developed his own image, down to his attire. The biggest competition was dressing for the team plane. If you didn’t have a mink or an Armani or something really sharp, other players would really talk bad about you. Hey, Tom had his image, too. We’d be warming up before games and look over at him in cold weather, and he’d have on his full-length cashmere coat and fur-lined hat. No sweatshirts for him. In the early years I’d look over and think, ‘Damn, we got to win with this man dressed like this.’ “But by 1982 we had become reflections of reflections.”

* Randy White was the most successful of several Cowboy steroid users in the late ’70s and early ’80s. White came to the Cowboys in 1975 as a middle linebacker at maybe 235 pounds. When the Flex overwhelmed him, even at strong-side linebacker, White was moved to defensive tackle. Landry had to find someplace for the second pick in the entire draft. And White, driven maniacally to succeed in football, had to find some way. Injecting steroids, coupled with lifting massive amounts of weight, helped White bulk up to around 270 pounds and turn into a raging Incredible Hulk. He told me, “Man, I’d look across the line at those Steelers with their sleeves rolled up on those huge arms and, well, I had to do something. I figured they were using steroids, too.” Larry Cole, who played next to White, said, “Randy was a ‘little man’ who became a big man.” A “Manster,” as Charlie Waters called him—half man, half monster. White was so strong, so quick, so crazed during games that he often blew through a blocker as if the poor fellow had the molecule density of a ghost. White was Dr. Bob [Ward]’s most devoted disciple.

* Ward said about 25 percent of the Cowboys had used or were using steroids. Ward said, “Man was not created equal, so why shouldn’t he use every form of technology to get better?” Ex-defensive end Pat Toomay, who left Dallas just before Ward arrived, said, “Tex just brought in Ward because he envisioned the day all players would be bionic.”

* The day after my column appeared, a Cowboy star asked me, “If we’re supposed to take steroids to get bigger and stronger and shots to play with pain, why wouldn’t we be tempted to use a little cocaine at night to forget all the pain and pressure?”

* I had interviewed Danny White about what it was like to play quarterback for Landry. He said, “I very sincerely believe that one of the hardest things about being a Dallas Cowboy quarterback is making a decision whether to do what Coach Landry tells you to do or what he means.” White told of how play messenger Doug Cosbie sometimes brought in “36 switch” and told White, “I think he means 37.” White said, “It can create confusion.” On the play that turned the Redskin game—and Cowboy season—White suddenly decided to do what he thought Landry meant. This time Landry thought otherwise. Chaos, and Washington, reigned. On fourth and one, White audibled to a play sending fullback Ron Springs off tackle. Against what amounted to an eleven-man line, the play took too long to unfold. Springs was thrown for a loss, as was Landry. A CBS camera captured a rare flash of emotion, which was replayed repeatedly through the coming weeks. “No, Danny!” Landry yelled as White audibled. “No, no!” That became an epitaph for White’s career. Washington 31-10.

* After the 1985 season new Cowboy offensive coordinator Paul Hackett reviewed the two upsets of Washington and the two of New York and said, “For that team to win the NFC East was one of the all-time great upsets in the history of sports. People just couldn’t see it because it happened over several games instead of in just one.”

* The ’85 Cowboys weren’t very good, but they stole the NFC East. Rather, the Thieves did. The Thieves made possible a franchise-record sixty-two sacks—seven and a half by blitzing defensive backs. Many sacks by Cowboy linemen were “coverage” sacks—nobody open, quarterback finally goes down. The Thieves were a remarkable bunch of rejects. Particularly Everson Walls, who in ’85 became the first player ever to lead the NFL in interceptions three times. In 1981 he was one of 117 rookies, including 25 defensive backs, Brandt brought to camp. At the first exhibition game in Dallas, Walls was identified on press box rosters as “Emerson” Walls. The Cowboy P.R. department hadn’t even realized that Walls was from Dallas. Not only that, but Walls grew up in the lone black neighborhood in North Dallas, Hamilton Park, just up the street from the Cowboy practice field. Talk about right under your upturned nose.

* By 1985 it appeared Landry preferred to win with inferior cogs. How much satisfaction or credit could he gain with superior talent? Clinkscale, Thurman’s favorite partner in crime, says, “There was so much decay. Even on the coaching staff. Coach Landry was more comfortable with the old-school coaches, the Southern gentlemen. Even Gene [Stallings, the defensive backs coach] was a racist from way back. When Gene was coaching at Texas A&M, he supposedly said, There’s not a colored boy in America could play for me on scholarship. Man, did Gene change. He matured and we matured right along with him.”

* Gil [Brandt preferred to lose with his guys than win with other people’s recommendations.

* … They [Landry and Brandt] even talked bad about Jerry Rice. Jerry Rice! The best receiver in football today.

* Doughnuts. Thurman and Clinkscale remember boxes and boxes of doughnuts on locker-room tables. This was before the divisional playoff game against the Rams in Anaheim. “Lots of guys,” says Clinkscale, “were kicked back eating doughnuts. We had the look of a loser.” Especially Tony Hill, the one-time Pro Bowl receiver. Without Drew Pearson and Butch Johnson to push him, Hill often failed to push away from the table. His weight was as high as 235, earning him the nickname Fridge. The Thieves did a low number on Ram quarterback Dieter Brock, who hit just six of twenty-two passes for fifty yards. But Eric Dickerson ran through the Flex at silent-movie speed for 248 yards on thirty-four carries. Danny White was a fright. Rams 20, Cowboys 0.

* Hackett was underwhelmed with quarterback Danny White’s talent. But White was perhaps one of the few QBs in history who could have coped mentally with Hackett/Landry. Hackett believed in the Walshian philosophy made famous by Montana: The QB looks to receiver Number 1, then 2, then 3. “Basically,” said Hackett, “you don’t really care what the defense is doing. If the first option is covered, you go to the second.” Basically, in Landry’s scheme, the quarterback and receivers read and reacted to the defense. Combining the two systems was like combining solar systems. Planets collided in White’s mind, but he didn’t crack. “It was amazing how much we threw at Danny,” Hackett said. “He was the buffer.” But wouldn’t White need Bufferin? I kept asking Hackett how White could think and duck at the same time. I’d seen too much. White had a reputation for being “brittle,” easily injured.

* “We cannot win in this league with the tackles we have,” Hackett said, plunging into blackness after the game. “It is staggering how poorly this team has drafted for the last eight years. You compare this team to the 49ers, man for man, two-deep, and it’s a joke.”

* Hackett couldn’t believe Landry and staff called it a day by 6 P.M. Some assistants did arrive earlier than Hackett, who was in by 8 A.M. But he came to believe that was as much to impress Landry as to accomplish much. Hackett wanted the staff to stay late together two or three nights a week. “Let me tell you,” Hackett said, “every other staff is working later than we are, and just about every team is practicing longer and harder than we are. How can we compete in this dog-eat-dog league?” Hackett suggested having dinner catered on just one night, Wednesday, so the staff could put in a few extra hours. But the idea, he said, was greeted with little more than cleared throats, from Landry on down. “All I hear is, ‘It’s just not done that way here,’” Hackett said. “Nothing has changed around here in twenty-seven years. That was fine when the Cowboys were winning. But we’re not winning.” Sometimes after lunch I’d walk past assistants’ offices and see them nodding off at their desks. Occasionally, said Hackett, Landry dozed during coaches’ meetings.

* The week before the Washington game at RFK Stadium, I bumped into ex-Steeler quarterback and CBS commentator Terry Bradshaw. He lived just outside Dallas and worked out at the same club I did. In the hall outside the locker room Bradshaw literally pinned me against the wall, gripping my shoulders to squeeze home his point. “Look, the sad truth is that the game has passed Tom Landry by,” Bradshaw said. “It is a young man’s game. Tom just isn’t willing to put in the hours these other guys do. Why should he, at his age? He had a great run, but he should have gotten out of it several years ago. You know it and I know it. You have got to tell the people in your business to quit treating Tom like such a god and making it even harder for him to quit.”

* Was God’s Coach a great coach? In ’60s and ’70s results, yes. In reality, no. Staubach, Brandt, Schramm, and even Murchison deserve credit for Landry’s first-ballot Hall of Fame election.

From Tulsa World, Sep. 28, 1990:

Bayless, who followed the Cowboys as he grew up in Oklahoma City, writes early in the book that he is a born-again Christian. “My editors and I debated whether to bring that out,” Bayless said in a telephone interview. “I wanted some credibility, that this wasn’t some secular attack on Landry’s faith.”

Bayless uses comments from former players and coaches to detail Landry’s “dark side” in which he lied to players about their injuries and playing status and humiliated them in team meetings. “It appeared he had to check his Christianity at the locker-room door,” Bayless said.

Although some may debate whether it is possible to be a winning coach and good Christian, Bayless disagrees, noting
such examples as Joe Gibbs and Dan Reeves. Bayless said they differ from Landry in that they admit their faults as human beings while Landry basks in his “sainthood.”

Bayless also attacks the myth that Landry was a great coach, calling him an ordinary coach who won with great players
such as quarterback Roger Staubach, who changed many of Landry’s calls at the line.

In his final years with the Cowboys, Landry turned “senile” as a coach, Bayless wrote. “He would just lose it on the sidelines and often get overwhelmed in calling plays,” Bayless said.

…Bayless admitted he was apprehensive how the book would be received in football-crazy Texas. His most frightening
moment came while appearing on a talk show in Austin, where Landry had played cornerback and running back for the University of Texas.

“I thought I’d need police protection to get out of the studio,” he said. “The host was shocked by the hostility of the calls and the number of calls I’d gotten.” After at first receiving a lot of of hate mail, “mostly veiled death threats” from Texans, Bayless said the response has improved.

Skip Bayless writes for ESPN in 2014:

The rise and fall of Landry and Jerry also have this in common: Each benefited greatly — even was made by — one franchise-changing force. For Landry, it was the transcendent leadership and “Hail Mary” miracle-making of quarterback Roger Staubach, who created many of his most famous plays by changing Landry’s play call. For Jones, it was coach Jimmy Johnson’s rage to win.

Landry’s teams began their slide after concussions forced Staubach into retirement. Jerry’s descent began soon after he fired a Johnson who could no longer stand working for him.

Yet here’s the painful irony: In the end, Jerry was the greatest thing that could have happened to Landry. He needed “Jethro” Jones from Arkansas to free him and turn him back into the celebrated martyr he deserved to be.

Jerry needs a Jerry to fire Jerry. But, even at 71, he is more dug in than ever, insisting that he won’t even fire himself as GM, and he certainly has no plans to sell the team. So, generations of Cowboys fans remain Jerry’s prisoners, still flaunting their blue caps and jerseys and vintage arrogance, even in New York during Super Bowl week.

From EW.com:

To hear the embittered chorus of ex-Cowboys interviewed here, Landry’s coaching prowess was vastly overrated. Many of the Cowboys’ ”miracle” wins hinged less upon Landry’s brilliant strategy than upon the improvisations of quarterbacks such as Don Meredith and Roger Staubach and their receivers. When things went well, Landry took full credit. When they didn’t, he blamed the players. ”It’s not whether you win or lose,” comments one bitter ex-player, ”but who gets the blame.”

According to Bayless, having achieved the status of a Sunday afternoon icon, the eagle-eyed Texan in the hat began to mistake media hype for reality. Hypnotized by the myth of his own genius, Landry treated assistants tyrannically, listened to nobody, and failed to keep up with the tactical and rule changes that made his earlier innovations obsolete. After years of running some of the most original offensive and defensive schemes in the NFL, the Cowboys ended up playing with a predictability that made them easy picking.

Culturally speaking, Landry never outgrew the authoritarian style typical of small-town Texas coaches during the 1940s and ’50s. He simply couldn’t or wouldn’t try to relate to the more independent-minded (and richer) athletes of the current era — black or white.

Bryan Curtis writes in 2016:

By 1996, Bayless was as polarizing a figure in Dallas as he is now across America. A lot of — perhaps most — local sportswriters didn’t like him. They charged that he was a born controversialist (true) and a loner who didn’t drink with the boys at Louie’s bar (also true — Bayless doesn’t drink much, if at all). Yet in the age when most newspaper columnists spoke only to a single city, Bayless had willed himself into becoming a national figure. He was a regular on ESPN; he’d written two muckraking books; and when his paper, the Dallas Times Herald, went under in 1991, he started faxing his column to readers for $99 a year — a gambit that anticipated the internet.

Hell-Bent was billed as the inside story of a team with two Super Bowl rings that had turned into a Porsche with no brakes. The book’s main feature was fresh reporting about the feud between Aikman and Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. In fact, “the rumor,” as Bayless called it on Page 186, was being circulated by the “Switzer camp”:

This is the first thing recent references to the Bayless-Aikman feud omit: that the rumor, as least as presented in Hell-Bent, was being circulated by the comrades of Aikman’s own head coach. After hearing the rumor, Bayless talked to Aikman’s agent Leigh Steinberg, a Dallas police source, a team source, and Aikman’s sportscaster pal Dale Hansen. They all said there was no evidence Aikman was gay.

Next, Bayless wondered aloud whether such a rumor was newsworthy even if it were true. (“[W]hat should the sexual preference of a pro athlete matter to a journalist?”) He noted how easily rumors can attach themselves to superstar athletes. (“[I]f a stud quarterback speaks openly of how much he loves spending time with his ‘buddies’ … is he automatically branded ‘gay’ in our macho, homophobic society?”) Bayless wrote that Switzer himself sometimes stayed in a hotel in Dallas’s “gay district” — someone with an agenda could start a rumor about him.

But the “Switzer camp” kept telling Bayless the rumor did matter. From Page 188:

The rumor consumes about six of the book’s 290 pages. These pages are studded with whispers from anonymous sources and written in the voice of a reporter trying to figure out what to do. When Bayless couldn’t find evidence the rumor was true, he more or less dropped the subject. In the book, he didn’t claim Aikman was gay.

From Dallasnews.com:

Bayless was named after his father, christened John Edward II, but was always called Skip. He was the oldest of three children and his parents owned a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City. Both of his parents, he says, were alcoholics, and his father was particularly rough with him. “My father was just an evil man,” he says.

Looking back, Bayless says a cold, distant upbringing might have been essential. “It was all meant to be. . . . I was on my own from the start,” he says. “You have to become self-sufficient and emotionally tough. I wouldn’t have been as good growing up under different circumstances.”

Bayless calls himself the black sheep in a family that was all-in on the restaurant business. Bayless’s brother has credited their father and their Hickory House restaurant with his own success. Three years younger, Rick Bayless stuck around food. He became a popular television chef on PBS, published nine books, opened some of Chicago’s best restaurants and is a favorite of the Obamas.

He declined to be interviewed for this story but has never publicly lamented his upbringing and has cited his father as his greatest influence. Among the most well-known siblings on television, Skip and Rick Bayless have virtually no relationship today.

Skip says they were never particularly close — “We had nothing in common except a mom” — and drifted further apart when Skip accepted a scholarship to Vanderbilt and left his two siblings alone in a volatile home. “They resented my leaving them in a lurch,” he says. Bayless’s father died of cirrhosis of the liver while he was away at Vanderbilt on a sportswriting scholarship in the 1970s. He returned to Oklahoma for the funeral but refused to help carry the casket. In the 1990s, Bayless legally changed his name to Skip, cutting off a final tie with his father…

The only time Bayless says he got drunk was with Joe Namath.

In 1977, as a 25-year old sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, Bayless had the exclusive that the legendary quarterback was retiring. Namath agreed to meet at a bar, but Bayless didn’t drink. He ordered red wine to be social and politely sipped his way through two glasses while Namath told old stories and welcomed new friends.

“I looked at my watch and realized I had to leave,” Bayless says. “I got up, planted to turn and completely lost my equilibrium and crashed into a man at the next table, falling on the floor. I looked up and Joe was leaning over me and said in an Alabama accent, ‘Son, you’re drunk.’ ”

It’s one of the few professional missteps Bayless recalls taking. He’s still a teetotaler today.

He caught the opinion bug early. At Vanderbilt, Bayless wrote features for the Miami Herald and then the Los Angeles Times before becoming one of the youngest columnists in the country, accepting a job with the Dallas Morning News when he was just 26. He made an immediate splash, skewering Texas sacred cows such as Tom Landry, the legendary Dallas Cowboys coach, and Tex Schramm, the team’s general manager.

“Skip was not well-liked. . . . He had an ego like nobody else in the world, and he was very reclusive,” says Dave Smith, the former sports editor of the Morning News.

…A producer counts down and four cameras begin to dance around the set. In an instant, Bayless, soft-spoken and shy off camera, lights up.

“Good morning, America. . . . It’s ‘First Take,’ I’m Cari Champion. That is Skip Bayless,” says the effervescent studio host, turning to her left. “Good morning, curmudgeon.”

“It’s not a good morning,” he says.

After moving on from Dallas to column-writing gigs in Chicago and San Jose, Bayless jumped to ESPN in 2004 to help save the struggling “Cold Pizza,” the network’s lighthearted morning show. That’s where he met Ernestine Sclafani, a 95-pound firecracker from Long Island who works in public relations and brought “Entourage” actor Kevin Dillon to the studios. She exchanged pleasantries and business cards with Bayless. Over dinner later, Bayless didn’t mince words — “You will never be more important than my job,” he told her — and the two bonded over “I Love Lucy,” Woody Allen and 1960s music.

“He’s got a heart of gold,” she says. “He’s funny, shy, respectful, caring. He’s just a good guy.”

She lives in Manhattan, and he’s mostly in Connecticut. They reunite on weekends, and on Fridays, they’ll watch a week’s worth of “Jeopardy” episodes — “He competes with me,” Sclafani says — before catching a movie.

Even though “Cold Pizza” didn’t last long, Bayless did.

Bayless likes to compare being a television personality to being a vampire. “You get bitten and you turn into a vampire. I don’t want to turn into a vampire,” he says. “I’ve worked with some people and they turn, they become that image on TV and they’re lost in it, lost in who they are. It scares me. I want to stay me, preserve my soul.”

Those who work closely with Bayless don’t fully understand the animosity. They’ve never seen a more tireless worker, someone who takes his job as seriously, someone more invested in winning an argument.

From the New York Times in 1990:

Mr. Landry himself and the Dallas Times Herald sports columnist Skip Bayless declare themselves born-again Methodists…

Like many another American leader, Mr. Landry was at prayer breakfasts a Christian, in business a pagan. A stoic. Able to treat his players like furniture and to accept his fellow executives as things he could not change. Detachment was his forte.

As for Mr. Bayless, he says that when he moved to Dallas in 1978, ”for me, Landry was the most powerful religious figure on earth. No exaggeration: more powerful than the Pope or Billy Graham.” By the time Mr. Landry’s Cowboy career ended last year, Mr. Bayless was thinking of him in terms still religious but now mixed with a certain (I don’t want to say a certain Methodist) irony. As Mr. Bayless puts it, Mr. Landry after being fired was regarded by the still credulous multitudes as ”the most sympathetic figure since B.C. became A.D.”

Skip says in 2009:

I had a month to research and three months to write…

It almost put me in an early grave because I barely slept for four months. Of the three books I wrote, he (Landry) gets the one I’m most proud of and probably the one that got the least acclaim…

The editor put a subtitle on it that I was always squeamish about and I think it was a little bit of a turn off. My friends told me this. The Hyms, Hype and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys was just a little strong…

There is a huge difference between talk radio and talk TV…and I can’t quite explain this because it fascinates and baffles me at the same time…but as a veteran of much talk radio, I can talk to you via your car radio for ten or twelve straight minutes. If you are driving to work or play or wherever you’re going, you’ll listen to me and you’ll hang with me, especially if I’m going someplace you are interested in.

I used to guest host a lot on Jim Rhome’s radio show and they would allow me to go twelve straight minutes. I would have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, with where I was going. I would have to bring it on at the end…and I would, but they believed that via radio, you would let me do that and you wouldn’t turn the station.

On television, if I speak for more than thirty seconds…thirty seconds…at a time, and sometimes I go forty-five…I am pushing it. You will look away because you can’t stand to stare at that talking head for that long. I will lose you. Your mind will wander to the pimple on my forehead or the one hair that’s out of place or that my shirt really doesn’t go with my suit or however it is that I might distract you. Whatever I’m doing will distract you from my point after that thirty seconds. It’s just the nature of the beast.

So I’m bucking odds to try to get my point across. When Wilbon, Albom and I began doing those little segments on Prime Monday, they would tell us…rule of thumb…if a viewer can remember one thing you said tonight, then you have been a success. We spoke and did two 5 minute live segments, so we were on 10 minutes a night. I don’t know how many sentences we spoke, but again, if the viewer remembered anything, then we scored that night.

The point is that they can’t remember one thing you’ve said that night. My goal on my TV show every day is to try to drive home one point a day that somebody can actually remember. It’s hard in the format because it’s so quick.

When you are in the midst of the debate, it seems so fast to your ears and your eyes. I always warn people when they come on the first time that you’re gonna be shocked how fast it seems to go and how frustrated you’ll probably feel at the end because you forgot this and you didn’t go there or you wanted to say this but you didn’t get to that point. Yet, when you watch it on TV it will seem 5 times slower. Your mouth will move more slowly. It’s just the nature of TV. I can’t quite explain it to ya, it just is the fact.

God’s Coach: The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry’s Cowboys, https://www.amazon.com/Gods-Coach-Hypocrisy-Landrys-Cowboys/dp/0671708961
Hell-Bent: the crazy truth about the win or else Dallas Cowboys, https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0011QD3AG/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i4
The Boys: Jones vs Johnson – The Feud that Rocked America’s Team by Skip Bayless
The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry, https://www.amazon.com/Last-Cowboy-Life-Tom-Landry-ebook/dp/B00COQ6X90/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1614805750&sr=1-7

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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