You know, Tom Landry was a loser.
I should know, I've followed the Cowboys since the mid-sixties, back when teachers would have to give us eight year old boys 15 minutes of class time to talk about Sunday's game since we were going to do it anyway. Tom Landry became the first coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960 and I can still recall the way the Cowboys were considered in 1966 when Landry had yet to have a winning season. The first six years!
All the while, Tom Landry was on the sidelines in his suit and hat. On cold games he might wear a parka or even a trench coat if it rained. Regardless of the temperature or the outcome of the game, Landry remained stoic. Always the professional, he approached the game with the demeanor of a skilled engineer who expected his creations to work a certain way. When they succeeded, he kept the strategy and when they failed, he would determine why or because of whom it did not. His emotional repertoire was limited to clenching his fist slightly when the play was really successful and glancing back at his clipboard when the results were really bad.
Once they got over that hump, the Cowboys then became the team that could not win the big one. In 1967, Dallas came two yards away from beating Green Bay who under Lombardi went on to win the first Super Bowl. The following year Dallas advanced to the Championship game only to lose again to the Green Bay Packers in the game dubbed the "Ice Bowl". There were calls by fans that he should show more emotion, contrasted at that time by other successful coaches who were quick to cheer and even quicker to yell, berate or demean players. Landry was not one who would get close to his players, he was not the type to allow personal feelings to interfere with decisions that had to be made. Through his manner and dress, he appeared to be more the owner of the team than the chief architect.
But he was an architect, and a masterful one at that. It was Landry who developed and popularized the "Flex" defense and once that was widely imitated, he created offensive schemes to counteract it. It was Landry's defense that first responded to the need for better pass coverage and he filled it with talent and direction that eventually led to the moniker "Doomsday".
The Cowboys under Landry were innovative in many ways, popularizing the half-back pass, the quarterback throwback and a willingness to take it down the field that led to the "Hail Mary" pass. It was under him that the Cowboys took the gamble on a Navy quarterback knowing he would have to serve his military duty first. It was under Landry that the Cowboys took a mid-draft gamble and selected a player knowing that he was already committed to playing in the USFL. It could be argued that the drafting of Roger Staubach and Hershel Walker were possibly the two most important draftees in the Cowboys history and neither played a down for several years. Landry's effect on the team was still felt with the subsequent teams that resulted from the Walker trade to Minnesota.
Still, up until 1972, Tom Landry was a loser.
They had been to the playoffs each year from 1967 but had never managed to even get to the Super Bowl until 1971 when they lost the biggest game in the franchise's history to the Colts. Finally in 1972, the Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins 24-3 to win their first Super Bowl. They repeated as NFL champs in 1977 against the Denver Broncos. By the time that Tom Landry left the game, the Cowboys had a record of 270-178-6.
Dubbed "America's Team" as a marketing ploy, the Cowboys became perennial favorites to get to the playoffs and had 20 straight winning seasons, 13 divisional titles and five Super Bowl appearances. By the early eighties, Dallas was arguably the most loved and most despised team in the league. It started to fail then though, leading to an eventual 3-13 season which prompted the new owner, Jerry Jones, to fire Landry and head off in a new direction. While Landry changed the game and built a true dynasty, his later years led many to believe that the game had passed him by and that he left as a loser.
But realize this - if Tom Landry was ever a "loser", he was the sort that most could only dream of being, the type that lived life with determination, principles, risk-taking, intellect, focus and humility.
He was a man of his own convictions and a stoic rock for a franchise during early years when fans cried for change. He was a man whom cared for his team deeply and when productive and colorful players like Duane Thomas or "Hollywood" Henderson did not adhere to the program, they were shown the door. He was a man that kept his business - running a football team - as the job it should be and left his private life, and feelings, out of the game. He was The Boss and was feared in the sense that he would hold players directly accountable for their production and their contribution to the program. Nothing more and nothing less.
He was a study in adhering to one's own principles and convictions. In life you learn that the quiet guys are the ones to fear the most and Landry's use of innovation, gambles, calculated risks and strategies belied the calm, detached demeanor he displayed. From piloting bombers in World War II to weathering years of vocal fans and critics, Landry conducted his life in a manner that makes a mockery of every guy who ever slapped a "No Fear" decal on his Camaro.
And to a young boy growing up, still looking for heroes out in the world, Tom Landry displayed what it takes to be successful - the calm determination and believe in self. The adherence to principle and the deafness to critics. The dignity and humility in winning and the graciousness and lessons of losing.
In that microcosm of life that is the NFL, things are different now. Results have to be immediate. A team's destiny is for one year and is reliant on the players assembled for that season. Celebration is something that you do each play that is successful and there is no failure that is not related to bad calls or misdeeds by other individuals. Winning is not only everything, but at times even that is not enough. A career is about one big year and cashing in or holding out. Above all, it is the shot for the big fifteen minutes of fame and then well-financed obscurity.
And yet for some, perhaps the only thing that has really changed is the environment, not the approach. For some learned along the way that it matters less when it is or where you are. What matters is staying true to whom you are and what you do. If you are in the game, then innovate, dedicate, keep trying and take the risks. Winning is not overnight and it is not forever. But the head stays down until you've won and when it is finally over, you ride away into the sunset like all good cowboys.