Landry: sphinx as coach, rock of integrity, decency

February 14, 2000|By John Steadman

All the qualities associated with genuine 24-karat characteristics were inherent in Tom Landry, who lived a straight-arrow life worthy of emulation. He provided a professional and personal example of decency, trust and consideration for others.

A penalty was never called against Landry for violating any rules of what constituted, first and foremost, the laws of old-fashioned manners and following all the standards of ethical conduct. He personified the best that's found in humankind; never bending any requirement relating to fair play and square-dealing.

The death of Landry at age 75 from the ravages of leukemia takes away a man whose temperament and outlook in the face of any crisis -- even death -- provided a model of extraordinary self-control. He never panicked under pressure or gloried in conquest.

He was the third-winningest coach in NFL history, behind only George Halas and Don Shula. His ability was based on being a quiet, firm leader. He was never a demonstrative zealot who cursed at players or kicked them in sideline confrontations for pulling rockhead plays.

The demeanor of Landry, along with dressing the part of a corporate executive, set him apart in football. He resembled a slightly animated statue, rarely changing expression on the sideline, occasionally checking his ready list, but keeping calm when those around him were caught up in the frenzy of a pulsating moment.

We once asked Landry how he was able to be so intent and not get tied into the emotion of the contest that was going on in front of him. "Well, as a kid growing up in Texas, one of our heroes was golfer Ben Hogan," he began to explain. "Hogan had a way of blotting out everything going on except executing the next shot. Almost like a robot.

"I tried to do the same. I worked at or attempted to cultivate Hogan's strong will and concentration. I don't know if I succeeded, but when the game was on I never let myself get distracted. I never heard the band, watched the cheerleaders or let my mind turn away from the objectives of trying to win the game."

He once had a football player named Duane Thomas, with more ability than anyone had a right to have, except that he was a nonconformist. Thomas once referred to his coach as a "plastic man." But Landry never took exception or returned the insult.

All he would say is that he, Landry, was probably to blame because Thomas was the most talented player he had ever had, but wasn't able to tap into the vastness of his potential.

That was Landry being charitable and, at the same time, showing the ultimate in concern for a performer who was close to being incorrigible.

As a defensive safety with the New York Yankees of the old All-America Conference and then the New York Giants of the NFL, he made up for his lack of foot speed by preparing -- from watching films and calculating the kind of moves a receiver was going to make against him.

He once shut out Bob Boyd, one of the fleetest of all the Los Angeles Rams' receivers, by schooling himself on his opponent's tendencies. It was the equivalent of the tortoise beating the hare on the football field.

When Landry was still a player, veteran Giants coach Steve Owen would often try to outline a defense and, in trying to enunciate what had to be done, get himself confused in describing where the secondary was to be dispersed and what assignments were required. Frequently, Owen would tell Landry to come to the blackboard and describe exactly what had to be done.

Later, as an assistant coach with the Giants and then in Dallas, he was in awe of Lenny Moore, the Baltimore Colts' game-breaking runner/receiver.

"When we kick off against Baltimore, I tell our defense that we are automatically down by a touchdown because Moore represented that much to the offense," Landry commented.

The legacy of Tom Landry is not about frequency of wins, 270; losses, 178, or ties, six, which figure to a percentage of .601. Rather, it was the kind of stone-hard integrity he demonstrated, but in such a quiet, humble way.

Ask him a question, you got a truthful answer, but never with a condescending or tyrannical edge. He gave to everyone the belief that they were as knowledgeable as he was.

A public relations gesture? Not at all. It was just the way Landry showed respect to anyone engaging him in football theory or general conversation.

In World War II, Landry was a lieutenant in the Eighth Army Air Corps, in the 493rd bombardment group known as "Helton's Hellcats," and flew 30 missions over Germany in the B-17 Flying Fortress. The maximum number of combat trips was 25, but Landry said that wasn't enough.

He flew another five in memory of his older brother, Robert, who had preceded him into the Air Corps, flying the same type of B-17 -- only to have it explode in midair over Iceland en route to his base in England.

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