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One Coach's Two Faces

A biography and autobiography offer opposite views of Tom Landry

IMAGINE these two books as made-for-TV movies about a pro football coach. The first would air on the Disney Channel at 7 o'clock on a Sunday evening. Jason Robards - or maybe Charlton Heston - would play Tom Landry of the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys, and there would be no other starring roles. Landry would put on no airs in this, he would come across as a sincere, unassuming Christian and family man who just happened to have an extraordinary genius for the game of football. Yet despite the modest mien of our hero, it would be clear that everything the minions surrounding him achieved, they owed in large part to him - for example, quarterback Roger Staubach flourished because of Tom Landry, and not the other way around.

Everyone and everything would be in sync with Landry's views. When small disputes arose, they they would be worked out with dispatch as coach, team, and front office pursued their common purpose. When the camera shifted from Texas Stadium or the Cowboys' practices, it would focus on church and family. The famous Cowboy cheerleaders would appear only in extreme long shots of the stadium on a Sunday afternoon. Wholesome family entertainment from beginning to end.

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The second movie would be an HBO special, and Jack Nicholson would play Landry with a slightly maniacal bent, clinging to outmoded '60s theories and practices as the football world passed him by; running the team with an autocratic coldness, offering no quid pro quo to his players for the sacrifice of body and mind he demanded from them; almost incongruously - and certainly naively - living a Christian life while turning his head away from the maelstrom of lust, avarice, exploitation, and dissipation that was the reality of the Cowboys team and front office. In this movie, we would see the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders as the ABC ``Monday Night Football'' cameras used to show them, with plenty of exposed flesh.

Using these two books as fodder, that's the way Hollywood would play it. Yet as great as the differences are in these two recountings of Tom Landry's life and times, there are also some less obvious similarities.

Landry's autobiography is pretty straightforward. He tells of his boyhood and his high school football heroics in tiny Mission, Texas; of leaving the University of Texas to serve as a B-17 pilot during World War II; of returning to Texas and Texas football, and then going on to the NFL with the New York Giants, first as a player, then as coach; and of finally coming back to Texas in 1960 to begin an unprecedented 29-year-run as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He tells of his discovery of God during the late 1950s, and of how ever since he has prioritized his life: (1) God; (2) family; (3) career. It is Landry's life from Landry's perspective and it comes across much like the television image we have of him standing on the Dallas sidelines all those years - stalwart, to-the-point and in control, yet just a trifle inscrutable and more than a trifle wooden.

Skip Bayless's rendering of Landry is far more complex. A columnist for the Dallas Times Herald, Bayless looks at Landry from myriad perspectives. He knows Landry as a reporter who covered him for a dozen years. He tries to understand and present Landry as his players knew him; as the public-relations-conscious front office packaged him; and as Landry saw himself.

His is not a gentle portrait - he shows an imperial Landry who had lost his grasp on the game and who never did have the respect of his players. But Bayless also struggles to make it a fair portrait, and while he often ascribes the worst possible motives to Landry's behavior, he also largely succeeds in his attempt to be fair - frankly and repeatedly documents his struggle to be fair. ``Could I be Christian and judge Landry? Judge not, lest I be judged? Wasn't I throwing printed stones at Landry from a glass house?''

Bayless, himself a born-again Christian who has dedicated his book to God, wrestles particularly with the dichotomy between Landry's genuine personal Christianity, and what Bayless describes as the very un-Christian milieu in which he worked.

Both books aptly begin with Tom Landry's end - his abrupt and very public firing as the Cowboys' coach when Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989. Landry, of course, sees it as a capricious act, hardly in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. Bayless on the other hand, while conceding that the firing was poorly handled, argues that it was at least five years overdue. The differing perspectives on the firing serve as tidy microcosms of the differences in these stories. The facts are not in dispute here; the perspectives and interpretations are.

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Read only one of these books and Tom Landry is either black or white. Read them both and the issue is far less clear. In the struggle to understand human character, isn't uncertainty and a bit of confusion the beginning of understanding?

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