The last time I talked to Tom Landry, I had called a year ago last December to solicit his opinion on whether George Allen, his longtime rival, deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Though I knew the two men had a hate-hate relationship going back to Allen's days as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in the 1960s, one that became even more contentious when Allen moved to the Washington Redskins in '71, I also knew that Landry was an eminently fair and decent man who would give me a totally unbiased opinion either way.
When the question was posed to him over the phone, there was dead silence for several seconds as he pondered his answer. ''Oh boy, George in the Hall of Fame? Yeah. I suppose old George really should be in there, too. Yeah, that would be the right thing to do.''
Tom Landry, the longtime Hall of Fame coach of the Dallas Cowboys, always tried to do the right thing. He died Saturday in Irving, Texas, at the age of 75, after having leukemia diagnosed last year.
Immaculately dressed in a suit or sport coat, starched white shirt and tie and his trademark fedora, and with a stern, rigid no-pulse demeanor on the sidelines, he seemed more suited to being a small-town undertaker than an overseer of one of pro football's great dynasties.
Former running back Walt Garrison once was asked if he ever saw Landry smile.
''No,'' Garrison said, ''but I was only there nine years.''
And yet, many of Landry's longtime friends, associates and former players have insisted that was mostly a facade, that he was an emotional man who tried to keep everything bottled inside during games so as not to affect his team in good times and, especially, in bad.
''I asked Tom once why he was like that,'' Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker, said. ''He told me he had feelings just like everyone else. But he said he always thought his team would react the way he reacted. So if a guy was hurt, he didn't want his players to see him getting upset because it might upset them, so he'd look like he didn't care. He didn't want to get too high or too low. He was an emotional guy, but he always tried to hide it during a game.''
Landry was Huff's first professional coach when he joined the New York Giants in 1956. The taciturn Texan, who had recently retired himself as a Pro Bowl caliber defensive back for the Giants, was the team's defensive coordinator. Also on the staff was Vince Lombardi, who handled the offense for head coach Jim Lee Howell, an amiable Mississippian who had no problem delegating authority to his brilliant young assistants.
For several years early in his career, Huff and Landry lived during the season at the old Excelsior hotel and residential apartment building on the west side of Manhattan. Huff often spent his evenings sitting at Landry's kitchen table a few floors down, drawing up alignments and going over strategy for upcoming opponents.
''Every night he'd call me down,'' Huff said. ''He was putting together the 4-3 defense that made him so famous. He built it around me. I'd tell him what I thought I could do and what I couldn't do. He wanted to know, and he wanted me to be totally honest with him. And he never did anything that I couldn't do.
''It was designed for me to make the tackles. It was probably the first coordinated defense in football. You'd read your keys depending on what the offense was showing you and react to what you saw. All 11 guys had to play that defense. There was no freelancing, and if one guy broke down, the whole thing broke down. But it didn't happen very often. He explained everything, he drilled it into us, and we made it work to our advantage.''
With two future Hall of Fame coaches on the staff (Landry and Lombardi never really liked each other very much), the Giants fielded powerhouse teams in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even after Landry left to become the first head coach of the expansion Dallas Cowboys in 1960.
It did not take him long to make that team into a constant championship contender. With Tex Schramm running the front office and handling all contract negotiations and Gil Brandt, the manic talent scout, scouring the country for sleeper athletes at smaller schools not known for producing prime pro talent, the Cowboys were in constant contention for division and league championships virtually throughout his 29-year run.
''We were totally different,'' Schramm said. ''We were never close socially, but we got along very well because he had his domain, and we each knew where the lines were. I respected him, he respected me, and things worked perfectly.''
Landry was known for developing players who were great athletes in other sports but not necessarily football players. He took Olympic 100-meter champion Bob Hayes and turned him into a deep-threat wide receiver.
He signed undrafted free agent Cornell Green, a basketball player who never played college football, and converted him into a fine defensive back.
In 1969, he chanced using a No. 1 draft choice to select Calvin Hill of Yale, hardly a major football power, then watched him blossom into an all-pro running back. He drafted Roger Staubach out of the Naval Academy, despite an active-duty commitment, brought him to training camp during his annual summer leaves and helped him develop into a Hall of Fame, Super Bowl championship quarterback.
''I think the whole Cowboys image came from him,'' said Staubach, who introduced Landry at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1990. ''I think Tom will always make the Dallas Cowboys more than a football team.''
He used a first-round pick on University of Maryland defensive tackle Randy White, tried to play him as a middle linebacker, then realized his mistake and instead turned him into the ''Manster,'' the havoc-wreaking down lineman who became the cornerstone of his flex defense (a variation on the original 4-3), also known as the Doomsday Defense.
Landry's confrontations with Allen throughout most of the '70s turned the Redskins vs. Cowboys into one of the greatest rivalries in sports, one that continued with a tad less enmity when Joe Gibbs battled Landry's teams into the 1980s.
Allen used every psychological ploy in the book to try to ruffle Landry and his team, often to little avail.
Still, Landry once accused Allen of having a spy watch his practices from a hotel that overlooked the Dallas practice field. And of course, he took the greatest pleasure out of beating the Redskins and their devious head coach, who also prided himself on his defensive acumen.
In 1989, the Cowboys were sold to a brash young Arkansas oil man and entrepreneur named Jerry Jones, who had his own agenda for rebuilding America's team in his own image. Those plans did not include Tom Landry as his head coach, but rather Jones' former Arkansas Razorback teammate, Jimmy Johnson.
''He really was a quality guy,'' Johnson said of Landry recently. ''Needless to say, ours was a strained relationship for the obvious reasons. I didn't see him very often, but he was always polite and cordial to me. I thought he was just a class guy, always.''
There was a national outcry over the unseemly crudity of it all, but Landry typically took the firing stoically, declining to engage in any sort of snarling cat-fight with a man who eventually did bring the Cowboys back to the glory days Landry had provided for so many years. Jones has said many times since he always has felt badly about the way the Landry firing was perceived, because he also had a deep affection for a coach he had admired all his life.
''We will never be able to measure the complete significance of coach Landry's contributions to the Dallas Cowboys,'' Jones said. ''Simply stated, he is the single most important figure in the history of this franchise.''
Landry retreated quietly into retirement, spreading the gospel of his faith as a frequent speaker at Fellowship of Christian Athletes events, focusing on his family, playing a lot of golf, and occasionally attending Cowboys games. He even allowed Jones to induct him in the Texas Stadium Ring of Honor, though it took him awhile to agree to the ceremony.
Last year, word got out Landry was being treated for leukemia and was fighting the good fight. But this was one battle he could not win by drawing up a new defense, a fancy scheme, a barrage of blitzes. He told one longtime friend what really bothered him most about his illness in recent months was he had become too weak to work out, something he had done religiously all his life.
''He was my first coach, the best coach I ever had,'' Huff said. ''I saw him last year at the Super Bowl. They had the guys from the '58 game (between the Giants and Colts, often called the greatest game ever played) come in and do the coin toss. His career wasn't that long, and I told him that one of my regrets was never seeing him play. He looked at me and smiled and said, 'Sam, I got you, and I didn't ever have to play any more.' That was Tom Landry. A great coach. A great man.''
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