A SALUTE How Tom Landry Learned to Win

Before he was a coach, he was a warrior.

Easily two decades before broadcasters began using the terminology of total war to dramatize the carnage of their NFL telecasts with words like “bomb” and “blitz,” Tom Landry was experiencing game-day stress in situations that did not include time-outs for commercial breaks. Picture Landry, the naif, still not old enough to vote, the recent product of a little high school in the Rio Grande Valley (where he was forced to participate in interscholastic choir competition and ordered to mouth the words because of his profound inability to carry a tune), now strapped into the copilot’s seat of a B-17-the storied Flying Fortress that, in reality, was merely a gasoline can with wings.

What must be remembered about Tom Landry is that, long before the opponent was Vince Lombardi or George Allen or Don Shula, his man to beat was Hermann Goering. Landry’s team was the 493rd Squadron of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. They had a tight song, Mors Ab Alto. It meant “Death From the Sky.” By the winter of 1944. when young Landry was finally allowed into the game. Goering’s Luftwaffe was in retreat. But the gun emplacements that protected him and Germany were dug in, and they weren’t going anywhere. On 30 combat missions, Landry would sail blindly into an aerial mine field of terrifying black clouds of an exploding flak reinforced by antiaircraft thunder from below. The goal that season was not to make the playoffs hut to deliver and drop a load of explosives onto Germany’s Mersburg oil fields and then, by the grace of God, make it back to England. In an era that predated the football careers of the Bob Lillys and LeeRoy Jordans, the Germans gave Tom Landry a personal seminar in Doomsday Defense.

Creature comfort wasn’t the primary concern for the people who designed those B-17s. Nor, in fact, was the personal safety of the people who occupied the aircraft. Unsafe at Any Speed. And everyone who climbed into one knew it: Two years before Landry got his wings, his older brother Robert was declared MIA when his B-17 vanished somewhere near Iceland. It was not an uncommon fate.

Nor was it uncommon for B-17 crewmen to experience the angst, after the bombs had been dropped, of riding home to safety on the invisible wings of fumes. An unexpected headwind or the slightest off-course deviation meant that the hereafter was beckoning. On more than one occasion, Landry’s airplane would dip beneath clouds and cruise barely above the beaches of Suffolk while he searched for the mouth of the Stour River before turning right, culling the engines, and literally coasting in to the runway.

Landry’s most fearsome wartime memory happened when, over enemy territory, all four engines slopped simultaneously. The crew prepared to bail out. realizing that, if they survived the jump, their only reward would be certain capture by the enemy. As a final and las) resort, Landry clutched the knob of an instrument that controlled fuel mixture and shoved with every bit of strength he had. The engines sputtered back to life. Landry pulled the bomber out of its dive and, in his words, “headed for home so close to (he ground that we had to zigzag to avoid the gunfire from the Germans in Amsterdam.”

On a later occasion, the engines would not retire. Landry located a small clearing in a forest, a solitary hope, and made a belly landing. The plane would not slop skidding until it reached the trees at the end of the glade, which ripped both wings off the aircraft. The crew plunged from the nearest escape hatches, fearing the carcass of the plane might explode at any second. The explosion never occurred, of course, because there was not a drop of gasoline left in the bomber. So the crew hitchhiked back to the base at Ipswich, where its members were given another B-17 and work continued as usual.

After experiencing these and similar adventures, Landry returned to UT for his sophomore year. In his 1990 autobiography. Landry would write, “I knew what it meant to look my own fear in the face-and do my duty because the lives of my crew and the destiny of my country depended on it. War tested me. but I had survived. And the experience had given me not only a broader perspective on life, but a confidence in myself I had never known before.”

Given his subsequent achievements, he brought back more than self-confidence. At an age when most men couldn’t be trusted with a decision on an issue more vital than facial hair, Landry had already established a system of core values that would inform his leadership skills for the rest of his life. Fortunately for North Texas. Landry chose to apply those skills to overseeing the on-the-field operations of a local football team.

We approach the 11th anniversary of the occasion when Tom Landry was retired as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Thanks to the perspective offered by the passage of time, the extent of what Landry accomplished can now be fully comprehended.

What set Tom Landry1 apart? The five individuals who are best qualified to analyze the Landry dynamic were asked the question. They are former Cowboys GM Tex Schramm, scouting director Gil Brandt, who worked with Landry for 29 years: his two most valued assistants, Ernie Stautner and Mike Ditka. and Tom Landry Jr., now 50, who runs Landry Investments Company. They identify five key elements that provided the winning formula for the Landry Doctrine.

RULE #1: Always Be Cool

Shouting, cursing, savagery. passion, mayhem, chaos: Welcome to the sideline of a typical NFL regular season game. Here is the realm of the guided muscle, where pro football’s basic theory of physics is proven on any given Sunday: V+M.xl=Y. Velocity plus mass times impact equals yardage.

This is an easy place to lose one’s head-literally, It is just as easy in the more conventional application of the term. People charged with making decisions often, in the energy of the moment, take leave of their senses. “What is it that they say in that poem about the guy who doesn’t go nuts when all hell’s breaking loose? Well, that’s Tom Landry,” contends Ernie Stautner, who coached the defensive line. “He was criticized for never showing any emotion on the sideline. In truth, the coach who shows emotion on the sideline is the coach who is sometimes out of control: he’s the coach who panics. Tom never showed any emotion because he was too busy thinking ahead to the next play, the next series of downs.”

Stautner remembers one single occasion when Landry raised his voice. That happened in 1950. when Stautner was playing for Pittsburgh and Landry, ordinarily a defensive back, was tilling in at quarterback for the New York Criants after the starter had been knocked out of the game. “I rushed Tom and. well, I doubled up my fist and hit him in the face and bloodied his nose. I shouldn’t have done it. But 1 did it. And Tom let me know that he wasn’t happy about it.” Stautner recalls.

“When I signed the contract to join his staff in Dallas. Tom asked me, ’Do you know why I’m hiring you?” I said, ’No,’ And lie said, Tin hiring you so that I can fire you.’ 1 knew he was talking about that cheap shot. He remembered. But I stayed with him for 24 years.

and what I most admired was that element of calm that he maintained. Before every game 1 would give myself a little pep talk-trying to make myself more like him.”

Ditka, who has been coaching the New Orleans Saints after winning a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, is convinced that Landry’s combat experience led to the sangfroid he would demonstrate on the sideline. “He used to tell us stories about clearing the cliffs of Dover by only a few feet while the engines on his bomber were sputtering,” says Ditka. “Those bomber guys were the real heroes; the ones who put their asses on the line day after day.” As a head coach, nobody ever accused Ditka of never blowing his top. He acknowledges that. “But then. 1 was never a bomber pilot either,” he explains.

Rule #2: To Win Often, Win Early

A bombing run was only successful if it accomplished its mission. The mission had two parts: First, get into position to drop the payload on the target. and second, drop it. (The third part, turning the plane around and somehow getting back to base, didn’t even rale a mention with the Army Air Corps,) Tom Landry learned early that getting to the target was as crucial as obliterating it: without the first, there was no second. He applied dial lesson well.

Gil Brandi worked with Landry for 29 years. “Why did he win so much? Because, while he would keep the team on an even keel over the course of a 16-game season, the one game he would point to was the regular season opener. That was the one that counted most,” says Brandt. “Tom knew thai, when you won the opener, it gave the rookies the message that they were going to he involved with a winning tradition. And il got the media and fans in the right kind of mood its well.”

Brandt presents a statistic that fortifies Landry’s emphasis on winning that opener. “Since they started playing the Super Bowl in January of 1967, the teams that made the Super Bowl have had an opening game record of 57-7-2, and teams that won the Super Bowl have-are you ready for this?-an opening day record of 29-3-1. And what was Landry’s opening game record? Starling in 1965, he won 17 straight. Seventeen straight! Nobody will ever equal that.”

How was that accomplished? “In training camp.” explains Stautner. “He’d take the learn out to California for six weeks, and everything was geared to winning that opener. Those camps were tough, loo, He made them that way, realizing that the players couldn’t wait to get that over with and get the regular season underway.”

Rule #3: Go With m Talent

A B-17 crew was a team: pilot, bombardier, navigator, gunners. But without a pilot, everybody died.

In 1941 Tom Landry’s coach at Mission High School presented his team with a motto: “Eleven brothers are tough to whip.” Sure enough. that team went unbeaten, because ten brothers had one star they could count on. As a high school senior, Landry ran, Landry passed, and Landry punted. As a bomber pilot, he got his guys home alive.

Teamwork is a lovely ideal, but Landry learned in a B-17 that a team’s success depends on the ability of its best members. Talent is what wins championships. That became the backbone of the Landry System in Dallas: When the outcome was in doubt in the final two minutes, have the best players in position to gel their hands on the ball and win the game.

“Tom won two Super Bowls with essentially two separate casts of players,” says Schramm. “The one constant was Roger Staubach. He had the talent and ability and he knew how to win. and Landry utilized him to the max. When Roger might be having an off day, then Landry would tell him to keep handing off to Tony Dorsett.

“I remember after we beat the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day in 1974.” Schramm recalls. “Staubach had been knocked out of the game, and they brought in this backup guy. Clint Longley. and he threw a couple of late TDs and won the game. The Mad Bomber. That’s what they called Longley. But Tom was. and I remember this vividly, not at all excited after that game because he knew Longley wasn’t a star. Longley was a fluke.”

Landry got ample recognition for the Flex defense he invented-the ultimate strategic football masterpiece. Interestingly, ask 20 players who played the Landry Flex to défi ne what it was, and there are 20 different explanations. But everyone generally agrees that the Flex alignment was keyed around the activity of one position, the right tackle. And who manned that position for Landry for the better pari of 25 years? First Bob Lilly, then Randy White: two Hall of Famers and arguably the two best defensive linemen in the history of the NFL.

Mike Ditka expands on the efficacy of Landry’s Star System, “Everybody talks about the West Coast Offense these days. It’s all the rage. You know what the West Coast Offense really amounted to? It was Joe Montana throwing the football to Jerry Rice, who ran it in for touchdowns.” Ditka declares. “Before there was Montana and Rice, there was Staubach and Drew Pearson. Hell, Tom Landry was running the West Coast Offense long before it ever appeared on the West Coast.”

Rule #4: Trust Your Instincts (if you’ve developed instincts worthy of trust)

Landry’s instincts were honed in a cockpit where a moment ’s tug to the left or the right would place him dead-center in the path of an incoming antiaircraft round. In such a situation, there is no time to think, only to act. If your instincts are right in that split-second, you live to fly tomorrow. Your instincts won’! be right if you haven’t mentally absorbed the patterns of ground fire, if you don’t know where the next round is coming from.

When Landry entered pro football as a player in 1949. the NFL was an ugly place. Landry offers memories of a character named Hardy “the Hatchet Man” Brown, who played for the Colts and once drove his helmet into the face of a 49ers runner so hard that the ball carrier’s eyeball popped out of the socket and dangled on his cheek by a tendon. Landry himself endured a harrowing post-game experience, having his busted lip sewn up without anesthetic and then having to endure the laughter of teammates when the doctor discovered he’d forgotten to thread the suture and had to sew it all over again.

Otto Graham, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, secured a statistical personal best one afternoon by trashing Landry, the rookie defensive back. Landry learned early that, if he was to survive in this league, il would be accomplished on wits. He watched game films relentlessly. He discovered tendencies. By his second season, Landry knew what the opponent was going to do even before the opponent knew it.

“He applied that as a coach in Dallas as well,” says Brandi. “He was always one step ahead of the game. A lot of that was preparation, of course, but in Tom’s case, a lot of it was sheer instinct.

“Tom got a loi of notoriety pioneering l lie computer thing in preparing a game plan. The computer was a timesaving device. It would spit out how many times Team X ran what play on third down-and-six and so forth. But the computer couldn’t tell you with absolute certainly what the play would be. Tom could. Maybe he guessed, but he guessed right a bunch.”

Unfortunately for Landry, he gained a public perception of being nothing more than a computer himself. “That wasni the case at all.” protests Tom Landry Jr. “As a coach he understood the value of communication with the players and with the coaching staff. Football games are won in the locker room. His learns posted a winning record for 20 seasons.”

Rule #5: Pun Your Work and WOrk Your Plan.

Gustay Flaubert insisted that the most frustrating thing in life is seeing an idiot succeed in an area where you had failed. He might have added thai the second most frustrating thing is working for a boss who cannot make up his mind. Persons under the employ of Tom Landry would never issue that complaint. In Landryville, the trains always ran on time, and the schedule never varied.

Successful people are planners. Like a pilot who has to take into account his aircraft’s bomb tonnage, the weather patterns, expected resistance, the terrain, and the target, successful people plot out their course with all the factors taken into consideration.

“The routine was always the same,” says Ernie Summer. “Tom would start a staff meeting every day, sharp, at five minutes uni il eight. He would sit down with a cup of coffee. We would break at 10:20 to go to the restroom. and 10 minutes later, on the dot, we would start again. Tom had his system in place, and for the 24 years I was there. it stayed in place. If you stuck with the system, every down of every game, you’d win. If you didn’t, you lost.

“That’s the way il was with that Flex defense. It was complicated, and it was tough to teach, and it was even tougher lor players to understand and execute. Your job was to (ill a gap and not chase the ball, That’s alien to the instincts of most defensive players. But when we ran that Flex the way Tom designed it. the thing was impossible to penetrate.”

“There is a comfort zone in knowing what to expect every day when you come to the job. and Tom realized that. You never got any curve balls from Tom Landry. It was always the high, bard one,” says Mike Ditka.

The essence of a lengthy playing tenure under Landry was not raw ability, necessarily, but having the mental endurance to adhere to the rules of the routine. “Par! of the routine was thai Landry called the plays.” says Schramm. “Don Meredith didn’t like it that way, and finally Don Meredith just up and quit, right at the prime of his career. Roger Steubach was a Navy guy, and hell, he wanted to be the admiral of the ship and all. but he realized thai the Landry Way was how things worked around here, and always worked, so he had to be content to let somebody else call the plays, and as a result, he won a couple of Super Bowls.”

Yes. Tom Landry insisted upon perfection. Former defensive end Pat Toomay recently said in the Dallas Observer that the three-hour critiques of game film with Landry could be so stress-provoking that. prior to the session, many players look barbiturates. Too may might also have noted that these same players took barbiturates during the off-season before heading over to the 1HOP for breakfast.

“Oh, the system was everything, but that’s not to say that Tom was not open to suggestions and alterations,’” says Ditka. “He wasn’t averse to that, but when you suggested something different, you better have a damn good reason and something that you could prove and demonstrate on film before you suggested it. Everything of value thai I learned about coaching, I learned from Tom Landry. Given my record in recent seasons, he might not want me to say that,” Ditka continues.

“Bu11 played for a great high school coach-hell, who didn’t? And I played under George Halas. Let me tell you something, and this is something that I have been saying for years: Tom Landry is the greatest coach in the history of the National Football League. People say, ’How can you say that?’ I can say that because 1 played for him. J coached for him, and I even coached against him a couple of times, and if 1 say that Landry is the greatest, then Landry is the greatest.”

Maybe Ditka is right. If lie is, then the best coach the NFL lias known, and Dallas will ever see, was forged into greatness in the skies over Germany.

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