When the Cowboys Battled for Dallas
Early on, “America’s Team” weren’t even the best squad in their home town.
By CHARLES DAMERON
For years now “America’s Team” has been stuck in an unholy funk. The Dallas Cowboys’ record since its last Super Bowl victory in January 1996 has been barely better than .500: 132 wins and 128 losses. In the past 15 years, the team has won just a single playoff game. Neither the top payroll in the National Football League nor the construction of the billion-dollar pleasure palace known as Cowboys Stadium has helped produce a rebound. Yet it would be difficult to claim that owner Jerry Jones isn’t at the top of his game.
Since he bought the team in 1989, Mr. Jones has built the franchise into a cash machine: The Cowboys’ $227 million in operating income last year was almost twice as much as any other NFL franchise and more than all the combined teams of either the NBA or NHL. He has done it, as Joe Patoski notes in his exhaustive history, “The Dallas Cowboys,” by ruthlessly, shamelessly and brilliantly exploiting the possibilities of merchandise (Dallas distributes its own) and sponsorship. Mr. Jones’s nose for such opportunities reached sublime heights when he persuaded Kraft Foods to sponsor the demolition of old Texas Stadium as part of a “Kraft Cheddar Explosion.”
The Dallas Cowboys
By Joe Nick Patoski
Little, Brown, 805 pages, $29.99
Sports Illustrated Classic
Don Meredith quarterbacking the Cowboys in 1962, when the team went 5-8-1. Founded in 1960, the team did not enjoy a winning season until 1966.
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For all Mr. Jones’s notoriety, he is just the latest in a line of hardheaded businessmen who shaped Dallas football. John Eisenberg’s “Ten-Gallon War” tells the rough-and-tumble tale of how the Cowboys got their start and their short, heated rivalry with the AFL’s crosstown Texans (today’s Kansas City Chiefs), which lasted from 1960 to 1963. Neither franchise might have existed without the efforts of a young Texas oil heir whose self-effacing modesty masked a determination to bring pro football to his hometown: Lamar Hunt.
Hunt’s problem was that, in the 1950s, no one in the NFL shared his interest. His push to found a Dallas expansion team was thwarted by Chicago Bears owner George “Papa Bear” Halas, who spoke for an NFL ownership corps that had little interest in pushing pro ball beyond its roots in the Northeast and Midwest. Unable to sway Halas, Hunt struck out on his own, gathering seven other would-be franchise owners to form the American Football League. At the age of 28, Hunt was its guiding intelligence and its chief spokesman, proclaiming that “the American Football League stands as a group, not wanted by anyone except the American public, ready to play in 1960, and interested only in furthering the game of football.”
Papa Bear’s retaliation was swift: The NFL announced that it would bring an expansion team to Dallas in 1960, under the ownership of another oil heir, Clint Murchison Jr. Where Hunt “almost seemed embarrassed by his money,” Mr. Eisenberg writes, Murchison was “a whip-smart risk-taker who, though shy, relished the excessive life of a Texas oil millionaire.” The battle for Dallas (along with the ploy to strangle the AFL in its crib) was on.
By John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 308 pages, $27
From the beginning, most of Dallas’s business establishment rallied around the Cowboys and the imprimatur of legitimacy bestowed by the NFL. Both teams played in the Cotton Bowl, but the scrappier Texans offered up a better show. “When it came to football and sports in general,” Mr. Patoski writes in his epic history of the Cowboys, “Lamar out-innovated Clint.” Hunt devised outlandish marketing schemes to draw crowds to Texans games, stuffing free tickets into bags of Fritos and in balloons lofted over the city. But he also orchestrated a foresighted league-wide television contract with ABC, splitting revenues among the teams—an arrangement later mimicked by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
On the field, Hunt put together a franchise that could keep up with its AFL competitors: Texans running back Abner Haynes wowed crowds and led the fledgling league in rushing yardage and touchdowns while the Cowboys plodded far behind storied NFL squads, going 0-11-1 their first season. In the 1962 season, the Texans broke through and captured the AFL championship with a 20-17 double-overtime win against the Houston Oilers. But Murchison had already made clear that he was prepared to suffer as much red ink as was needed to see the team to success and run the Texans out of town. Hunt announced less than two months after winning the AFL title that his team was leaving Dallas: Eager to turn a profit and frustrated with lagging community support, he had been tempted by a sweetheart deal from Kansas City mayor Harold “Chief” Bartle.
Years of low turnout and bumpy performances had not broken the resolve of the Cowboys’ leading troika, which consisted of Murchison, general manager Tex Schramm and coach Tom Landry. Landry had been anointed one of the nation’s best coaches during his years as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, where he pioneered the 4-3 defense. When Murchison invited the Dallas sports-writing corps out to his private Bahamian island, Spanish Cay, in the spring of 1962 for a weekend of hedonistic fun, his guests looked on in awe as Landry detached himself from the party to sit and work on his playbook under the shade of a palm tree.
Though not a few players and fans in Dallas snickered at Landry’s evangelical piety, they couldn’t help admiring his mastery of the sport. Murchison extended an unprecedented 10-year contract to Landry in 1964, at a time when many Dallas sports writers were calling for his head. The owner’s faith was rewarded in 1966 season when quarterback Don Meredith led the team to the NFL championship game opposite Green Bay. Though the Cowboys lost by a touchdown, Landry took home the league’s “coach of the year” award, and Dallas established itself as a force within the NFL. The Cowboys would win their first Super Bowl in 1972, two years after the Kansas City Chiefs trounced the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Mr. Eisenberg tackles the early histories of the two teams with enthusiasm, but it’s hard to match the thoroughness of the account presented by Mr. Patoski, a Texas institution in his own right whose previous works include biographies of Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. “The Dallas Cowboys” adroitly traces the ascendancy of the team while shedding light on its unique position today as an athletic, commercial and cultural powerhouse.
Most of the credit for the Cowboys’ renown, Mr. Patoski shows, belongs to the irrepressible Tex Schramm, a PR genius who conceived of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and was painstaking in his management of the Cowboys’ image in the press. Behind the scenes—when he wasn’t negotiating the NFL-AFL merger with Hunt—Schramm was a hard-nosed executive who kept a tight lid on players’ salaries. Decades before Oakland’s Billy Beane imposed the rigors of statistical analysis on player selection in baseball, the Cowboys ventured out to San Jose in 1962 to recruit an IBM statistician who knew nothing about American football—Uttar Pradesh native Salam Qureishi—to discover a reliable quantitative tool to assist head scout Gil Brandt in drafting and keeping the best players. Qureishi’s computer stole undervalued late-round picks—among them, Roger Staubach and “Bullet Bob” Hayes —who would go on to lead the team to its five Super Bowl appearances over the course of the 1970s.
Mr. Patoski takes as much care to recount those halcyon days as he does to narrate the downfall: Murchison’s sale of the ‘Boys to H.R. “Bum” Bright in 1984; off-field problems with the law among headline players such as Harvey Martin and Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson; and a string of bad seasons that led to the collapse of what Mr. Patoski calls the “First Regime.” When Jerry Jones swooped into Dallas to oust the poorly performing Schramm, Landry & Co., the sense of violation for some Texans was on a par with the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople.
Foes of the NFL’s most polarizing owner will find much to cheer in Mr. Patoski’s account. The author, who gives Mr. Jones due credit for the team’s three Super Bowl wins in the early 1990s, nevertheless lets you know exactly where he stands: “Murchison was the one who created the mystique and prestige out of nothing. Jones just bought it.”
Be that as it may, the mystique has never been more valuable. Mr. Jones, like his predecessors, knew a good investment when he saw one.
—Mr. Dameron is a student at Yale Law School.