He is smartly tailored clothes could be designed by Pierre of Iceland. His trademark fedora might be asbestos. Anyone who has ever watched a Dallas Cowboys game knows that coach Tom Landry—the hickory stick on the sideline—is fireproof, bulletproof, emotion-proof.
But last week, Tom Landry cried.
After 29 years as the only coach the Cowboys ever had, Landry was fired. A Texas oil baron named H.R. “Bum” Bright, after suffering too many dry wells and a dismal 3-13 performance by the Cowboys last season, decided to sell the franchise that had once been called America’s Team. Jerry Jones, an Arkansas oilman, snapped it up for an estimated $140 million and descended on Dallas with his personal choice for coach—his old college teammate Jimmy Johnson, who bailed out from his head coaching job at the University of Miami so quickly that it was unclear whether he’d had time to pack his famous industrial-strength hair spray.
In the Cowboys locker room before the opening of their winter minicamp, Landry bade farewell to his players—that is, until tears streaked down his cheeks and he had to stop. “I have to feel down about the way it was handled,” Landry said of his abrupt dismissal. “But I’ll still root for the Cowboys to make all the good things happen again. I’ll just be sorry that I’m not a part of it.”
If many Cowboys were stunned to see Old Stone Face quiver (“Time stood still, believe me,” said quarterback Danny White), those who know Landry and his vivacious wife, Alicia, were not.
“Alicia is the one who blurts out all the wild ideas and opinions,” says Ann Lilly, wife of former all-pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly. “But Tom is really a lot like her. He just hides it under all that self-control.
“People say he’s cold,” adds retired safetyman Cliff Harris. “But maybe he should have been colder. I had many differences of opinion with him. I also got to five Super Bowls because of him. But near the end, maybe he got too sentimental about cutting people. He may have protected guys who had been loyal to him, and then he found out how much loyalty means.”
Landry, 64, was often lumped last season with two other future Hall of Famers, Don Shula of Miami and Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh. All have endured hard times. All have heard critics say that the game had passed them by.
“If the game is passing me by, why is Mike Ditka running the Cowboy offense with the Chicago Bears?” asks Landry. “We invented a lot of shifts on offense back in 1962, but you can’t invent players. Really, coaching is simplicity. It’s getting players to play better than they think that they can.”
Now three decades of that alchemy are finished. “To look at the positive side,” Landry says, “Alicia and I will have our first off-season.” The Landrys own homes in Dallas, Austin and Palm Springs, but the coach acknowledges, “I know I won’t be able to just sit around for too long.”
Landry will undoubtedly resurface in some capacity with another National Football League team. But his firing has left behind some lonesome Cowboys. “Tom Landry taught me there’s always next year,” says Cliff Harris. “He also taught us all how to be hard and tough. Now, for the first time in my life, I’ve seen the man cry. And I’m not so sure about anybody’s next year.”