What I Learned about Winning from Tom Landry

by David Johnson

“Coach Landry, what is the biggest difference today in the NFL from when you started coaching?”

It was November 1998.  I was coaching a high school team at Trinity Christian Academy near Dallas.  I was also a scout for the Dallas Cowboys, and had invited Tom Landry to give a pre-game speech to our young high school team. He cheerfully accepted.  For a few minutes before our kickoff, after he talked to the group about his faith in Jesus Christ and how it impacted his life, our coaching staff had the chance to visit personally with this legend of the game.

It had been ten years since Landry was fired by Jerry Jones after coaching the Dallas Cowboys for 29 seasons (a current NFL record).  He was one of the living legends of the NFL.  For four decades, Coach Landry had faced off against the most storied franchises in the history of the game.  His Cowboys had set a record of 20 consecutive winning seasons, making the playoffs 17 times, winning 5 NFC Championships and 2 Super Bowls.  He had created arguably the most iconic football dynasty of its time.

My question for this great coach, known as an innovator who changed the game, was intended to glean insight — some nugget of truth or shred of advice about football.  Something possibly about where this game had been and where it was headed.  I already knew about the advancement in training and speed and strength and all the obvious stuff.  I really wanted to know his perspective on what was behind the advancements.  I wanted to know what impressed this football sage about these changes the football world had seen. 

”Coach Landry, what is the biggest difference today in the NFL from when you started coaching?” But interestingly, Landry’s answer wasn't about the game.  Without a pause he said, 
"The greatest change is the loss of the relationships coaches used to have with each other. It's become all about money, personal image, agents, and posturing for the next job or working for the wealthiest owner."
It wasn't about defenses (he created the 4-3 defense). It wasn't about offenses (he installed the shotgun spread formation used today by every team). It wasn't about the football stuff I was expecting. Rather, it was about people. It was about the shared experiences he had with all of those coaching greats, his opponents throughout his career.

Then he shared a remarkable story to illustrate his point. 

The night before the famous Ice Bowl Game between the Cowboys and Packers (it was 13° below zero at kickoff), Tom Landry and his wife Alicia were invited to have dinner by legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi and his wife Marie. Their teams were to play for the NFL Championship that next day, a game the Packers ultimately won for their 5th NFL Championship in 9 years. The night though, they shared a private dinner at the Oneida Country Club in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Having coached together for three seasons with the New York Giants, Tom and Vince became and remained dear friends. And in spite of the importance of their teams, their careers and this epic game just hours away, these two men gathered that night because they cared about each other, as men. Being opponents could wait. They also cared about their spouses and each other's children. In fact, Landry and Lombardi loved one another. Their occupations and the importance of the championship game would still be there tomorrow.

As I stood listening to him tell this story, I began to understand its implications. How easy it is for a job, the planning and marshaling all of our time and the energy towards it to create a life consumed strictly by the business of business. We often undervalue people in the process. Pragmatism and profitability are easily justified as reasons to ignore people, forget people or even demonize people as an opponent or competition. How easy it is to see people as a threat or as a means to an economic end. 

But the harder thing is bridging the gap between competitiveness and empathy. Perhaps this makes good men great men, or at least partly so. Landry showed me that empathy and competitiveness are not antithetical. He and Coach Lombardi were as committed to winning as any two coaches ever have been. And make no mistake about it, they were fierce competitors on the field. They set standards few have ever reached, producing results that have stood the test of time. Yet, they did it without compromising the better things, without forsaking their values, and without sacrificing their own friendship in the process. 
They knew the meaning and the power of Jesus’ words from the book of Matthew, “for what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” This year marks the 50th year of the Super Bowl. And this year, as it has been every year since that day, I wonder through the eyes of Coach Tom Landry…“do these guys know what it truly means to win?”