The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry
“Put it on your short list of best ten sports books of this year or any for that matter. It’s about as good as sports writing gets. . . . The Last Cowboy belongs on the shelf of every sports fan. It is an absolute winner.”
The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry by Mark Ribowsky is a magisterial, meticulously researched masterpiece that reads less like a sports biography and more like a Shakespearean tragedy. Put it on your short list of best ten sports books of this year or any for that matter. It’s about as good as sports writing gets.
Tom Landry coached the Dallas Cowboys for the first 28 years of its existence. He won two Superbowls, five NFC titles, and thirteen divisional titles. He received every accolade a coach can earn, but after you read Ribowsky’s biography, Landry’s main regret in life becomes clear: Tom Landry never got to coach a team of 45 Tom Landrys.
The longtime Cowboys coach was a civil engineer by training and like many left-brained people; he seemed far more at ease with statistics, computer printouts, and tendencies than with actual living, breathing human beings. Landry grew up in the early 1920s and 1930s in a small town in Texas, years before the advent of Dr. Phil, so anyone expecting a lot of touchy feely from the guy would have been deeply disappointed.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of his players desperately needed. The tragic aspect of Landry’s life was his inability to connect deeply with men who needed not just a coach but a father figure, something that just wasn’t in his engineering-minded skillset.
Landry’s coaching reign—1960 to 1988—marked a cataclysmic period in American society. Indeed, the range of events from his introduction as first Cowboys head coach to his unceremonious firing by new Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sounds a lot like the lyrics from Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Eisenhower was still president when Landry took over in Dallas, and while he roamed the sidelines in his trademark fedora, America went through the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the Vietnam War and Watergate; the Arab oil embargo and then the hyperinflation of the late 1970s; and then the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Iran Contra, and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street pronouncing that “greed is good.”
Landry kept up with the times, sort of. He never grew his hair long because he didn’t have much. He distanced himself from the mushrooming (pun intended) drug and alcohol use of his players, living in a state of abstemious denial while his men drank, snorted, and slept around as if the city of Dallas were one big Animal House.
Landry was innovative as a young coach, drawing on his experiences with the New York Giants, where he and Vince Lombardi were assistants, and then rivals throughout the 1960s. But as time passed, Landry was slow to change his system. He also had practically no regard for the feelings of those men he coached, keeping quarterbacks dangling in competition from game to game and some years from play to play. He was infuriating, he was callous, he was larger than life . . . he was Dallas.
The story of the Dallas Cowboys—their rise, fall, rise again, and drop to their current level of mediocrity—isn’t exactly new news to most sports fans. Ribowsky does a phenomenal job of finding bits and pieces of information that either eluded other sports writers or were simply lost in the mists of time.
Ribowsky brings every phase of Landry’s 28-year reign not just to life but to a level of clarity and brilliance that few sports writers, or writers of any stripe, could match. It helps that he was a sports writer covering the Cowboys for many of the years the book covers, and he is able to draw upon his own experiences interviewing various Cowboys, opponents, and on occasion, Landry himself.
It’s impossible to talk about Tom Landry without discussing his religious convictions. Landry was a deeply committed Christian who sincerely meant that the three most important things in his life were “faith, family, and football.” Ribowsky, like most observers of Landry, finds a degree of tension between Landry’s spiritual priggishness and his willingness to turn a blind eye toward the increasingly out-of-control drug use of some of his players, as long as those players were performing for him.
Ribowsky also gives the reader the impression that there was nothing very Christian about the way Landry tossed aside players, including many who had played their hearts out for him for years, the minute they ceased to have value to Landry and the team. You had a religious yet distant leader going in one direction and forty-five lost boys trying and for the most part failing to win his affection. Even if you ran a play that resulted in a touchdown, if it wasn’t exactly the play that Landry asked for, you would be berated rather than praised.
A couple of years ago, Chad Hennings, an offensive lineman who won three rings with the Cowboys after Landry’s departure, invited me to a game at Cowboys Stadium celebrating the team’s fiftieth anniversary. Chad brought me “backstage” into a private party for the Cowboys of all eras who had come back to celebrate. Present were Roger Staubach, Walt Garrison, Hollywood Henderson, Bob Lilly, and a host of other marquee names who played for and suffered under Tom Landry.
The bonds among the men were amazingly strong, especially compared with the free agency world in which we live today, where athletes are often teammates just for a year or two and then move on. Maybe being coached—and abused—by Tom Landry brought people together in a very special way. That was the sense that I took away from that extraordinary event.
I also had the privilege of doing a book with the late Pat Summerall, who, as a two-way player on the New York Giants, is the only man in football history to be coached by both Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry the same season. We did a book called Giants a few years back, in which he shared the football lessons and life lessons he learned from those two coaches. So I thought I knew a little something about Tom Landry before I read Ribowsky’s book. It turned out that I knew very little. The Last Cowboy belongs on the shelf of every sports fan. It is an absolute winner.