Thomas Wade Landry, longtime coach of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was born in Mission, Texas, on September 11, 1924, the third child and second son of Ray and Ruth Landry. Ray Landry, an automobile mechanic, had moved with his family to Texas from Illinois upon the recommendations of doctors who believed the warmer climate would help his rheumatism.
Landry became a star quarterback on the Mission High School football team, leading the Eagles to a 6-4 record and the district championship as a junior, then to a 12-0 record and the regional championship, beating Hondo 33-0, as a senior in 1941. Landry was named to the Texas High School All-Star Game and offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin.
After one semester of college, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a copilot and gunner of B-17 bombers with the Eighth Air Force, Landry flew more than thirty missions over Germany. He was discharged as a first lieutenant in November 1945 and returned to UT in 1947. Though he had been recruited as a quarterback, Landry switched to defensive halfback and running back because the Longhorns already had a star passer in Bobby Layne. UT finished that season with a 10-1 record and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and Landry earned All-Southwest Conference recognition. In 1948 Landry was elected cocaptain of the Longhorns, who finished with a 6-3-1 record and upset favored Georgia in the Orange Bowl. In that game, Landry filled in on offense for the injured regular fullback and led both teams with 117 yards rushing.
Landry married Alicia Wiggs on January 28, 1949. They had three children. After graduating with a degree in business in May 1949, Landry joined the New York Yankees of the professional All-America Football Conference (AAFC). When the AAFC dissolved a year later, he joined the New York Giants of the NFL, for whom he quickly became a star defensive back renowned for his intelligence and analytical skills. In his first season with the Giants, the cerebral Landry was credited with helping devise the 4-3 defensive scheme, which quickly became the standard alignment in the NFL.
Landry was named an All-Pro defensive halfback in 1954, and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl in 1955. In 1956 he retired as a player and became a full-time assistant coach with the Giants, in charge of the defense as a young assistant named Vince Lombardi was in charge of the offense. Under head coach Jim Lee Howell, the Giants won the NFL title by routing the Chicago Bears 47-7.
Landry's rise to prominence as one of the brightest young minds in football—Howell once called him "the greatest football coach in the game today"—coincided with a national boom in the sport's popularity. Bud Adams, the owner of the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, which began play in 1960, wanted Landry to coach his team, but Landry had moved his family to Dallas, where he ran an insurance business in the off-season, in 1957, and elected to stay with the established NFL, which was about to expand. He signed a five-year personal services contract with Dallas oilman Clint Murchison Jr., the owner of the brand-new Dallas Cowboys, in December 1959.
The Cowboys began play in 1960 with a record of no wins, eleven losses, and one tie, and fared little better in the ensuing seasons, but before the 1964 season Murchison announced that he had signed Landry to a ten-year contract despite the team's 13-38-3 record. Landry, who had planned to retire from football a few years after getting the Cowboys off the ground, now decided to make the sport his life's business.
That decision soon began paying dividends. Landry was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1966 after the Cowboys posted their first winning record, and led Dallas to the NFL championship game in 1966 and 1967, losing both times to his old colleague Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys finally made it to the Super Bowl following the 1970 season, only to lose 16-13 to the Baltimore Colts.
That defeat, however, marked the beginning of a stretch of successes that established the Cowboys as "America's Team" and turned Landry's stoic expression and ever-present gray fedora into national icons. Landry's teams won 105 games and lost only 39 during the 1970s, appearing in four more Super Bowls and winning two. Despite his aloof and colorless demeanor—in 1971 one of his own players, Duane Thomas, called him "a plastic man...actually, no man at all"—Landry was an innovative, even daring, coach, and his teams were among the most entertaining in football history. Landry devised Dallas's "Flex" defensive scheme, which became one of the most feared in the NFL, and revived the "Shotgun" formation, which stationed the quarterback several yards behind the line of scrimmage, to take advantage of the mobility of his star passer Roger Staubach. He coached the team to an amazing twenty consecutive winning seasons.
By the mid-1980s, however, Landry seemed to be slipping. He signed a three-year contract extension during the 1984 season, when the Cowboys finished with a 9-7 record and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1974. The Cowboys finished 10-6 in 1985 but were shut out by the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs, and local newspapers began running polls asking their readers if Landry should be fired. In 1986 the Cowboys finished 7-9, their first losing season in 22 years, and Landry received a death threat during a December loss to the Rams. He briefly left the field and returned wearing a bulletproof vest, though no actual attempt was made on his life.
Landry signed another three-year contract extension before the 1987 season, but began hearing criticism from team president Tex Schramm and owner H. R. "Bum" Bright, who had bought the team from Murchison in 1984, during the Cowboys' 7-8 campaign. The Cowboys staggered to a 3-13 record in 1988, and when Arkansas oilman Jerral (Jerry) Jones bought the team early in 1989 his first move was to fire the coach. Landry's overall record in 29 seasons with the Cowboys was 270-178-6.
Landry was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and to the Cowboys' Ring of Honor in 1993. He remained active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which he had joined in 1962 and served as national chairman in 1973-1976, and the Billy Graham Crusades. Landry also enjoyed flying his Cessna 210, and in June 1998 he was named to the air safety foundation of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in May 1999 and died on February 12, 2000. Landry was survived by his wife, Alicia, and two children. A street and high school stadium in Mission, a fitness center in Dallas, and an elementary school in Irving all bear his name.