February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

Once, a woman in pink leotards put a silly hat on Tom Landry. It was the stern and stoic football coach’s birthday, and his Dallas Cowboy players had sent him a singing telegram. Then they watched, holding their breath, to see how he’d react. “She made him sing and tap-dance with her,” says former Cowboy Charlie Waters. “And he did.”

A tap-dancing Tom Landry is hardly the image most people had of the buttoned-down coach, who died on Feb. 12 of leukemia, at 75, leaving his wife, Alicia, and two grown children. An innovative strategist who won 270 games and two Super Bowls in 29 years with the Cowboys, Landry was impassive on the sidelines beneath his trademark fedora. But off the field he was beloved by his men. Says former Cowboy quarterback Danny White: “He cared about the players far more than the wins and losses.”

Landry hailed from tiny Mission, Texas, and flew a B-17 into combat in World War II, volunteering even after his older brother Robert was killed. A star defensive back for the New York Giants during the ’50s, he was hired to coach a start-up team in Dallas in 1960 and, in time, turned the hapless franchise into an NFL powerhouse. “He was like a father you wanted to please,” says former Cowboy Drew Pearson. “He’d give you this subtle look and it was worth a thousand words.”

Fired in 1989, Landry, a born-again Christian, bade his players a tearful farewell and was active in his church for the next 10 years. Diagnosed with leukemia last May, he never lost the self-deprecating humor that so many hadn’t known he possessed. Once, in 1983, he was praised for surviving as a coach for so long. “Look at it another way,” said Landry. “I’ve been at this job for 23 years and never had a promotion.”

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