For years the loose board at the top of the stairs for rival in the National Football League has nearly always been Head Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, whose club has made a record five Super Bowl appearances.
It was never merely a case of having to beat Landry's players; you also had to beat Tom himself and his high-class organization. This is to report that, 21 years since he first took over, nothing has really changed.
"Anytime a team of mine is defeated, I'd much rather lose by a big score than just a couple of points," Landry said recently. "When you lose big, you know its your fault and you don't have a lot of players passing off a poor effort with the attitude that they were beaten only because of a bad break.
"As a coach, you can bring a team back from a big defeat much quicker because no selling job is required," he added. "Your players have already recognized the problem, and practices the next week invariably run themselves."
Landry was talking after his team had been demolished by the Rams 38-14 last Monday night -- and indeed, the Cowboys came back with a big regular season finale Sunday, roaring to a 35-10 lead en route to a 35-27 win over Philadelphia. That wasn't enough to wrest the NFC East Division championship from Eagles, but Dallas still finished tied with Philadelphia and Atlanta for the league's best won-lost record (12-4) and is heading into the playoffs once again.
Asked why so few NFL teams ever go undeafeated: Tom replied: "The NFL season simply is too wearing mentally and physically for any team to go 16 games without losing. All you can do is prepare the very best you know how and hope that the week you happen to be down, your opponent is having to deal with the same thing."
To get a new and closer look at Landry, we decided to take the rest of our questions of former NFL Coach Hank Stram, who now does football color for the CBS radio network. Back in 1970, if you remember, Hank employed a movable quarterback pocket to help his Kansas City Chiefs to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Aked what made Landry and the Cowboys such a powerful 1-2 combination, Stram replied:
"Success in pro football starts with the owner of the franchise. If he hires good people and doesn't insist on getting into areas he knows nothing about, then it is just a matter of time and draft choices. I don' know Clint Murchison , the Cowboys' owner, tha well. But I do know that he is smart, that he has left the day-to-day operation to General Manager Tex Schramm, and that he lets Landry runs things on the field.
"I remember when the Cowboys were an expansion team and didn't win a game their first year," Hank continued. "A lot of guys would have panicked in that situation. But those three have never been influenced by the negative reaction of other people. They knew they had a good plan; they stuck to it; and it has paid off."
Stram noted that every pro team does basically the same things on the field.
"There are a lot of good coaches around," Hank said. "Every team has scouts and a director of player personnel, the chance to make trades, and roughly the same information going into the draft. And although the terminology may be different, the offensive and defensive concepts in the game are practically the same.
"What has made the Cowboys so successful is that they have consistently gotten better players than most of the other teams," he added. "They lose somebody to retirement or injuries; they've already got someone ready to take his place. Give Schramm and Landry credit for that and also Gil Brandt, the personnel director."
Stram says there are three main things to coaching -- accumulating talent; assess ing talent: and then making that talent play to its potential.
"I think one of Landry's biggest secrets is that he's found a way to make guys play week after week at a high emotional level," Hank said.
There are three kinds of motivation in football -- self-motivation; motivation by fear; and motivation by incentives," he continued. "Obviously self-motivation is the best, but since not everybody has that kind of self-discipline, you have to look for other ways. Yet even though coaching is more sophisticated and tougher than it used to be, in this era of specialization you no longer have to go looking for the perfect player. All you need are guys who can do one thing extremely well and you can win in the NFL."
According to Stram, teams continually change their makeup (meaning the offensive and defensive formations they show the opposition), but the face underneath always remains the same.
"If you've got good people who can execute, then you don't ever change your basic offensive and defensive philosophy," Hank said. "Even in the playoffs, you go with the same stuff that got you there. What you guard against, and you do this by scouting yourself, is falling into pattern that the opposition can read quickly.
"Defensively, because of recent rule changes that have given pass receivers so much more freedom of movement, teams are using a lot more zone than they did even a year ago," he noted. "It's not unusual to see teams employing five and even six defensive backs in certain situations.
"Offensively the whole idea of what constitutes a workable balance has changed. Three or four years ago if a team ran 60 plays a game, no more than 20 would be passes. But today you strive for a 30-30 mixture because you've got so much more flexibility in your passing game. Naturally scores are up and the fans love it."
Where would Stram put Landry (who now has 184 victories) among pro-football's all-time great coaches?
"I don't think it's possible to rank one man first, another fifth and still another ninth, like there was no room for argument," Hank said. "But Landry certainly belongs with the best."