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Prisoner of His Own Myth : GOD'S COACH; The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry's Cowboys By Skip Bayless (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 316 pp.; 0-671-70581-4) : TOM LANDRY; An Autobiography By Tom Landry with Gregg Lewis (Zondervan Publishing House / HarperCollins: $18.95; 302 pp.; 0-310-52910-7)

September 09, 1990|Michael Granberry | Granberry, a former sportswriter who was born and grew up in Dallas, is a feature writer for the San Diego Edition of The Times. and

In 1963, two days after President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, the Dallas Cowboys played a football game in Cleveland. The predictable hisses and boos ensued, as did a miserable Cowboys' defeat.

Little did they know it, but that may have been the most important weekend ever for the Cowboys and their coach, Texan Tom Landry.

Three years later, fueled by quarterback Don Meredith and a wide receiver named "Bullet" Bob Hayes, the Cowboys were playing the Green Bay Packers for the championship of the National Football League. They would not experience a losing season from 1966 to 1986, a string matched by few rivals in professional sports. Along the way, they would win 13 division titles and make five Super Bowl appearances, winning twice.

The architect of those accomplishments, former Cowboys coach Landry, is the subject of two new books, one his own autobiography, the other a searing character study--as well as a breathless, can't-put-it-down read--titled "God's Coach: The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry's Cowboys."

In "God's Coach," first-time author Skip Bayless, an in-your-face columnist with the Dallas Times Herald, writes that it was primarily Landry who did something no Chamber of Commerce could have--elevate Dallas from its stigma as the "City of Hate," a label that stuck in the assassination's aftermath, to a sweet destination: the birthplace of "America's Team."

Because of the assassination, Bayless argues, image became everything to Dallas and the team it embraced. And no one, he says, was more conscious of that than "Mount Landry."

But by the time the Cowboys were sold in 1989 to an oilman from Arkansas, and Landry fired after 29 seasons, "the man in the funny hat" had been unmasked as little more than "a prisoner of his own myth," not unlike the Wizard of Oz.

Bayless is a clever writer and an even better reporter, but as entertaining as the book is--and at times, it is wildly so--it is hardly without faults. "God's Coach" is at its best when Bayless' reporting and insight paint a riveting portrait of a once-great coach whom the game had sadly passed by. In this respect, Landry emerges as a tragic figure, not unlike the corporate executive who clings to yesteryear as his ultimate--perhaps only--calling card.

The book is at its worst, however, when Bayless--like Landry, a self-proclaimed Christian--becomes as narrowly moralistic as a born-again preacher. In a January interview, Bayless gave a peek at "God's Coach" to Dallas' D magazine:

"Basically, it's about the ongoing conflict of religion and corruption upon which this organization was built. It is truly the rise and fall of an American empire. In a nutshell, it's the conflict of Tom Landry being sold by the most powerful PR machine in the history of sports as God's coach and figurehead for an organization that often belonged to the devil."

Toward that end, Bayless writes that almost everyone in the Cowboys' organization but Landry was engaged in extramarital high jinks and sleazy, under-the-table management. Probably true--Bayless does a capable job of backing up almost everything he says--but to name names and all but label a few alcoholics seems unnecessarily hurtful, not to mention irresponsible.

Some of the book's most painful passages are about Bayless' dead father, an alcoholic who isn't remembered fondly. Bayless' mother also was alcoholic. In his acknowledgments, Bayless says he's only now able to say what he just couldn't utter before: "I love you, Mom." He talks of turning to Landry, hopefully, as an acolyte might turn to a priest, to help him with his own brooding spirituality. He writes of feeling let down and then disillusioned when the "sins" of Cowboy management made Landry no better than a charlatan.

Is this sense of betrayal left over from Bayless' own dysfunctional upbringing? If so, how could it possibly be fair to Landry? Bayless writes of attending a Cowboy game as a boy, his father seated beside him. His dad pointed to Landry and said, "He's a great man." Is it now the son's job to prove that he wasn't? Bayless is superb when profiling Landry, the coach, and often embarrassing as the judge of Landry the man.

Except for the clear, tight writing of collaborator Gregg Lewis, "Tom Landry: An Autobiography" is little more than sports pabulum. Landry recently told the Associated Press that, above all, he hoped the book would be noncontroversial. With such a misguided game plan, it's small wonder that what passes for autobiography is no more candid than a canned speech.

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