Everything in Texas is big, so readers should not be surprised that THE LAST COWBOY by Mark Ribowsky runs 632 pages, not including footnotes and index. Most presidential biographies do not approach that length, but for many readers, Tom Landry’s life was far more influential than that of a mere President. After all, for 29 seasons, Landry was the coach of “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys.
A quality biography should accomplish two goals. Readers must learn about the life of the subject, and the book has to place that life in the context of the times. It is not enough to simply learn the details of Landry’s life; his accomplishments should be measured in the context of the civil rights era of the 1960s and ’70s. During his college career, African American players were not allowed at most schools in the south. During his coaching career, they became the dominant players. Landry also coached during the decades when the National Football League exploded in front of fans and became America’s sport. THE LAST COWBOY places his accomplishments in the context of those two important developments. It achieves those goals in a detailed and dispassionate manner, emulating in style and reporting the life of Landry, a man viewed by many as stoic and unemotional.
"THE LAST COWBOY is an epic biography that ranks with WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED by David Maraniss as a book that captures the growth and spirit of the modern National Football League. It is a wonderful holiday gift for the football fan, whether a Cowboy lover or hater, on your shopping list."
Landry was a true son of Texas. After high school, his football career at the University of Texas was interrupted by service in the Army Air Corps. He flew 30 missions over Europe as a bomber co-pilot. His brother Robert, also a bomber pilot, was killed in Europe when a plane he was flying crashed in the North Atlantic. Landry rarely mentioned the loss of his brother, and his wife Alicia only discovered that there was a brother when she observed a photograph of him when she first met Landry’s parents.
Returning to Texas after the war, Landry completed college and planned on being an engineer. Instead, he began a professional football career with the New York Yankees of the American Football Conference. Eventually he would play for the NFL Giants and then coach the defense. Landry was an innovator and thinker about football whose concept of defense --- he created the 4-3 defense and the position of middle linebacker --- changed the game and continues to be a defense employed by many teams. On the same staff of the New York Giants was an outgoing emotional coach named Vince Lombardi, the antithesis of Landry in almost every way. One kept his feelings inside, the other often exploded on the sideline. One was an innovator, the other preached solid fundamental rules. But they were similar in one important way: they were coaching legends building NFL dynasties in Dallas and Green Bay.
In 1960, Landry became the head coach of the expansion Dallas Cowboys. He slowly and methodically built a team in his image. They did not win a game their first season and never won half their games until 1965. But soon the Cowboys were winning with regularity albeit without emotion. Landry was innovative, but the team often seemed to come up just short of a Super Bowl ring. On the sidelines he coached without emotion, and many of his critics suggested that a little more fire might result in championships. Ultimately, the Cowboys would win two Super Bowls under Landry.
The NFL during Landry’s career changed in many ways. The biggest impact was the financial growth of the league. Landry entered the NFL when the franchises were still run by individual families on shoe-string budgets. By the time he was eased out of coaching by Jerry Jones, franchises were worth billions of dollars. Ribowsky chronicles Landry’s firing, an episode so bitter that his final years saw him rooting not for the Cowboys but for his original team, the New York Giants.
THE LAST COWBOY is an epic biography that ranks with WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED by David Maraniss as a book that captures the growth and spirit of the modern National Football League. It is a wonderful holiday gift for the football fan, whether a Cowboy lover or hater, on your shopping list.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 15, 2013