The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry
By Mark Ribowsky
640 pages, $29.95
By Gene Warner
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
First things first. Tom Landry, without any doubt, was a tremendous football coach, a master at both the technical Xs and Os and the trickier task of pushing all the right buttons with some of the outlandish personalities on his Dallas Cowboys teams from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
But what kind of man was Tom Landry? That’s a tough question to answer, and author Mark Ribowsky spends more than 600 pages answering it.
It wouldn’t take that long, of course, if Landry weren’t a complex character. For those not old enough to remember, Tom Landry was the stone-faced, stoic, seemingly impassive character who roamed the Dallas Cowboys sidelines, always nattily dressed with the ever-present fedora on top.
He flashed a big grin as often as Mona Lisa, and you had to look elsewhere to find any of the fire and brimstone exhibited by many coaches.
Call him the anti-Rex Ryan.
Ribowsky puts a lot of skin on the Landry bones, revealing a deeply religious man, who, behind the scenes, was fairly progressive in the Dallas, Texas, of the 1960s through 1980s.
And it’s fascinating to read highly contradictory reviews of him, from former players who flip-flopped on what kind of man Landry really was.
This is mostly a chronological rehash of his life, season by season, filled with enough football for the true fanatic, but offering enough inside glimpses of the real Landry to keep you toting around this weighty tome.
But it’s a long read, no question about it.
To the outsider, Landry was almost a caricature: a soft-spoken, standoffish, intensely private man, always under control and riding a moral high horse.
Ribowsky helps explain some of that persona. Landry lost his older brother, Robert, in World War II, and that helped shape his personality.
“In the world erected for himself, things like giddiness and out-of-control anger were associated with manifestations of weakness,” the author states.
Landry also had no real desire to be loved by his players.
But the author also suggests some paradoxes in his personality. For example, he once went out on the field, approached one of his players who was writhing in pain with a separated shoulder and chided him for having bad technique on the play.
He also was known to chastise players for their position or technique, even after a successful scoring play or defensive stop.
On the other hand, Ribowsky shows that Landry was a genuinely kind and caring man, a gentleman who didn’t need to reveal that to others.
So when he went to visit injured players in the hospital, he made sure that wasn’t publicized.
And as a devout Methodist, Landry never wore his religious zeal on his sleeve, a la Tim Tebow. “He could talk to God and leave it at that,” the author writes.
To his credit, Ribowsky manages to explain the context of Landry in the larger world, outside football.
The incredible thing about Landry is how long he lasted as the Cowboys’ head coach, from 1960 thru 1988, starting three years before JFK was assassinated in Dallas and lasting another 25 years afterward.
“Quite simply, he caught the flavor of the times when strong, silent, wise leadership seemed the antidote to the chaos and cynicism all around – a lot of which began on November 22, 1963, a bright but baleful day in Dallas,” Ribowsky writes in the foreword.
Some of the most interesting angles of this book may be the insights into the more colorful characters who wore the Cowboys’ star on their helmets, from “Dandy” Don Meredith and Duane Thomas to Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Roger Staubach. The most startling may be Landry’s relationship with Staubach, whose depiction here would surprise most casual readers.
There also are some other fascinating subplots, including the tribal war between Landry’s defense and Vince Lombardi’s offense when they were assistant coaches with the New York Giants; the NFL-AFL battle brewing in 1960, when Dallas got its Cowboys, literally for a song; Landry’s going to great lengths to avoid knowing about his players’ drug habits and other transgressions; and the shameful way the current Cowboys owners treated Landry after pushing him out the door after the 1988 season, an event Ribowsky dubs the “necktie party for God’s coach.”
One side note, after reading this long book. Ribowsky may be writing for football fans and maybe even a few rednecks, but he flashes enough 50-cent words to keep George Will reading. Just a sample: adumbrated, hagiology, panegyric, rakehell, casuistry, tintype, scabrous, impresa, demesne and animadversion.
Quick, grab your Webster’s. If you’ve still got one.
Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter and lifelong student of the NFL.