The Dallas Cowboys’ 59th NFL season is under way, their 30th under the ownership of Jerry Jones. No franchise has a richer history than the Cowboys, who have won five Super Bowls and are the most valuable sports team in the world. Forbes sets the value at $4.8 billion.
A few short months before Jones bought the Cowboys and fired Head Coach Tom Landry, I had the privilege of meeting Landry. The date was November 20, 1988, and the Cowboys had just lost 38-24 to Boomer Esiason’s Cincinnati Bengals. It was their eighth straight loss.
As a kid growing up, I watched Landry prowl the sidelines of Sundays. He was the man in the hat, the stoic leader of America’s team, impeccably dressed and sporting a fedora. In those days, I didn’t like the Cowboys since I lived in St. Louis, home of the Cardinals (before they moved west).
On that day in 1988, that same stoic man was standing in front of me, bigger than life. Always the gentleman, Landry was calmly answering questions in a press conference in the Cowboys locker room at Texas Stadium. I was the sports editor of the now defunct Shreveport Journal at the time.
At the press conference, Landry was trying to explain how America’s team had slipped to 2-10. The team had been in decline since the mid-1980s, but things had gone from bad to worse. The last time the Cowboys had lost eight games in a row was in their first season under Landry – 1960.
The Cowboys had been an NFL powerhouse for more than two decades but were now the NFL whipping boy. Still, Landry had nothing but accolades for the 9-3 Bengals, and he had no disparaging words for his beleaguered team. Landry was a man who epitomized the word “classy.”
“We’re having a tough year,” I recall Landry stating in his normal deadpan voice. That was an understatement from the man who had become a lightning rod for all of the criticism directed at his team. Cowboy fans weren’t accustom to losing, and they weren’t handling it well.
I recall that I wrote a column the next day entitled “What have you done for us lately, Tom Landry?” Had all of these myopic boneheads forgotten Landry’s legacy? In spite of finishing with a 3-13 record in 1988, Landry’s record during his 29 seasons with the Cowboys was 418-250.
Landry and my favorite cartoonist, Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown, died on the same day: February 12, 2000. Mike Thompson, the Detroit Free Press cartoonist, honored them with a cartoon showing the pair entering the pearly gates together. Landry had his arm around Schulz.
I was saddened by Landry’s passing, but I’ve always considered that his first death occurred three months after I met him that day at Texas Stadium. It was February 25, 1989, and Jones’ first act as the new owner of the team was to announce the firing of Landry.
Jones went on to announce that University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, who played with Jones at Arkansas, would replace Landry. Like Landry, Jones had a tough first year. The Cowboys were 1-15 in 1989, but they went on to win Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993.
On the 25th anniversary of Jones’ purchase of the Cowboys and firing of Landry, Jones admitted that he acted too quickly in firing Landry after 29 years as the team’s head coach. “If I had a chance to do it over again I would’ve waited a year and just got my feet on the ground,” Jones said.
No one can dispute Jones’ success as a businessman. He bought the Cowboys from H.R. “Bum” Bright for $140 million, and it’s worth 35 times that much today. Taking a “hands-on” approach, Jones is also the Cowboys’ general manager. It’s not uncommon to see him down on the field with his team.
The 71-year-old billionaire makes it work. In three decades with Jones at the helm, the team have won three Super Bowls. But the last of those titles was 22 years ago, and Cowboys fans have grown restless. “What have you done for us, lately, Jerry Jones?”
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