1989 Review: Jerry Jones Fires Tom Landry

Jerry Jones at his first press conference as owner of the Dallas Cowboys.

For 29 years, the Dallas Cowboys had one head coach, one general manager, and one head scout. On February 26, 1989, news official broke that Jerry Jones had not only purchased the team from Bum Bright but had also fired Tom Landry.

According to the story published by the Dallas Morning News:

Tex Schramm’s eyes filled with tears. Then his voice cracked and he cried. It was almost too much to comprehend: Tom Landry is no longer the only coach the Cowboys have ever had. Landry was fired Saturday by the Cowboys’ new owner, Jerry Jones, who named University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson to succeed him.

Schramm and Jones flew from Dallas to Landry’s vacation home near Austin on Saturday afternoon and Jones broke the news to Landry that he was out. Then, at a news conference at Valley Ranch team headquarters that began shortly after 8 p.m., Schramm broke down.

“It was a very difficult meeting,” Schramm said. “It’s very, very sad. It’s tough when you break a relationship you’ve had for 29 years. That’s an awful long time.”

Landry was not available for comment. “For Tom, he was emotional,” said Schramm, who stood red-eyed and solemnly to the side during most of the news conference.

Jones said he told Landry, “I’m here and so is Jimmy.” He said their meeting was “very awkward, and I was basically just trying to say something you just can’t say.”

Those were the two words that Landry thought he would never hear: You’re fired. It is the most dramatic and emotional story in the history of Dallas sports.

In retrospect, most of us know this move had to happen. Landry wasn’t going to go anywhere unless he was forced to go, but the team wasn’t going to go anywhere with him at the helm. Especially after the accusations about buying youtube views. The circumstances of the firing were quite unfortunate, leading some decry the “callous end” to Landry’s glorious career.

Shock. Disbelief. Anger.

These are just a few of the feelings boiling over this week as the public tries to understand the manner in which “the only coach the Dallas Cowboys ever had’ has suddenly and unceremoniously been shown the door.

In his 29 years as the Cowboys’ head coach, Tom Landry created a cool image of professionalism that will forever be intertwined with memories of Dallas teams that made it to the Super Bowl five times. There simply is no easy way to remove coach Landry ‘s unemotional facade on the sidelines from the vision of the Dallas Cowboys.

And that is why new Cowboys owner Jerry Jones ‘ sudden firing of coach Landry over the weekend before bothering to discuss the matter with him should stun and infuriate people who don’t even follow professional sports.

In a society where there still is a sometimes naive belief that great performance and loyal service will be rewarded, the callous dismissal of the Dallas Cowboys coach stings like the snap of a wet towel.

Yes, the Cowboys have fallen on hard times. Yes, coach Landry ‘s game strategies and single-mindedness during the past couple of years have left him open to public criticism.

But Mr. Jones ‘ unfeeling treatment of the coach who built this team from nothing to world champion indicates he still has a lot to learn about the relationship between the Cowboys and their fans.

Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones has promised to deliver the winner that the public wants. He said that the hiring of the University of Miami football coach Jimmy Johnson and his hands-on approach to team ownership will provide victories that will bring crowds swarming back to Texas Stadium.

That’s fine. But in his exuberance and self-assurance, Mr. Jones has overlooked the fact that pride and tradition also are a strong part of the Dallas Cowboys. By mishandling the coaching change, he runs the risk of alienating those fans who have not yet forgotten the Cowboys glory days.

This is now Jerry Jones ‘ team. He has the right to run it in any way he sees fit. A few winning seasons probably will ease the pain of the current transition. But Mr. Jones can speed up the healing process by acknowledging the lack of respect he has shown for one of pro football’s most respected coaches and making a public apology. A good step toward making amends was suggested during Mr. Jones ‘ news conference Monday — the renaming of Texas Stadium for Tom Landry . That would be a fitting tribute for someone whose name always will be linked with the Dallas Cowboys.

Almost immediately, the city of Dallas and fans everywhere forgot about the team’s decline during the 1980s. What was left were great memories of the legend in the fedora who build America’s Team.

  • Tim Truemper

    It was callous. And it showed the stumbling approach that JJ had when he first began as owner. He would make more mistakes later–for example, the loss of Jimmy J as coach, the hiring of Barry Switzer, disastrous player moves in the late 1980’s, the premature firing of Chan Gailey, etc. I am a supporter of Jerry Jones. But he has had to grow into the job as owner/GM. Further, I am not sure if people “almost immediately forgot about the teams’s decline. I think there was a lot of skepticism about the new owner and his approach, plus concern that a college coach would step in and then be successful. For me, this was a very dark time. I was concerned that the Cowboys franchise would be transformed into some money only enterprise of mediorcrity and that the specialness of the franchise (one coach, one GM with hands off ownership) would just sit in the mythical past. I actually watched only one quarter of Dallas Cowboy football in 1989. It took another year before I could see that the team was getting back to being a solid enterprise. Oh well-“fond” memories for sure.

  • Tim, I wasn’t clear about what I meant. When Landry was fired, all of the negative attention turned away from Landry’s problems during the 1980s and towards Jerry for his poor handling of the firing. It was something of an irony– trust in Landry, Schramm, and Brandt declined significantly during the latter part of the 1980s, but the moment they were fired or resigned, all of the negativity disappeared. Jerry has never earned so much adulation, even with three SB titles.

  • @Matt: that’s exactly how I remember it.

    I attended the parade that was held for Coach Landry. No one talked about the 3-13 ’88 season or the team’s declining talent level — that wasn’t the time or place.

    Everyone was sad for Landry and mad at Jerry Jones. But looking back, I’m not sure how Jerry could’ve done things any better. Landry wasn’t fired “in the media”, as revisionist historians would have us believe. Jerry flew to Austin and met Landry face-to-face to do the deed.

    In fact, Bum Bright had wanted Tex to fire Landry a year earlier, and was itching to do it himself, but Jerry told Bum it would be proper if he (Jerry) broke the news to Landry.

    What more could he have done? Getting caught in one of Landry’s favorite Mexican restaurants with Jimmy before the ownership change was officially announced was indeed clumsy, but how was Jerry to know it was one of Tom’s favorites?

    And Jimmy was supposed to stay out of town until the dust settled? Why should he — he was the team’s new coach, the second head coach in team history.

    Yes, even I was mad at Jerry, mostly just for being from Arkansas, but with time I’ve decided Jerry probably did about the best he could under very difficult circumstances.

    Again, sorry if I’ve gotten into things that will be in future articles.

  • I think what rubbed people so wrong was Jerry’s excitement. Tex was sobbing about the team firing Landry, while Jerry was gloating about his purchase. In reading the accounts, I know that Jerry was not celebrating having to fire Landry, but the perception was that he was essentially saying, “This is MY team, and Landry, you’re OUT.” I think that clumsy is exactly the right word to describe how Jerry handled it in public, but in the end, I don’t have a good answer for how he should have handled it.

  • Tim Truemper

    Thanks to both of y’all for clarification. At the time of the firing I had moved to North Carolina and got the news from ESPN and the newspaper. Without access to the Dallas media and thus more details, my reaction at the time of the event was that it was done by Jerry with a lack of consideration for how revered Landry was. I think if Jerry had showed more thoughtfulness for the magnitiude of this event at the press conference, rather than displaying his excitement of being the new owner, then perhaps it would have been better received. Many of my misgivings about Jerry Jones gradually dissipated over time. As I said earlier, I support Jerry Jones as owner. I think he has grown into the role–many mistakes were made along the way even during the golden years of the three SB championships. Lastly, and because of my age and the time that I became a fan, to me the Cowboys will always be largely about Meredith, Staubach, Perkins, Lilly, Howley, Renfro, Hayes, et al. That is why I appreciate this site so much and also the knowledgeable and civil contributors to it.

  • Keith Daniels

    In my opinion, Jerry Jones could have taken a few days, not minutes, to convince Tom Landry to RETIRE. The game was passing Landry by, yes, but it could have been handled a lot better than it was. If Jones had taken time out to convince Landry to retire instead of being fired, it would have saved a lot of humiliation and anger over how it was done. Then, with Landry retired(and I’m sure he would have at least thought about it), then this discussion wouldn’t be taking place, and it wouldn’t be a part of the history of the Cowboys.
    That’s the way I would have handled it had it been me in Jones’s place.

  • Anonymous

    A tale of two generations.Tom Landry-Football genius,ahead of his time for 20 years.Faithful Christian family man.Class of the entire Cowboy orginization.Jimmy Johnson-In your face phsychological, motivating,all about winning at all cost,and supreme talent evaluating coach.Jimmy put football first,himself a close second,and his wife,and children a distant third.To his credit,he now regrets that.Tom was always above reproach.I always respected Jimmy as the kind of coach Dallas needed at that time,and I respect him more as an involved father to his sons as time has gone on.I admire both in different ways.Clint Murchison-The right owner at the right time hiring the right people. A behind the scenes wheeler dealer with a sense of humor to boot.Visionary owner for his time.10 year contract to a losing five year coach.Built the grandest stadium that set the benchmark for others to follow.Last but not least.Let football people make football descisions.Equated to 20 consecutive winning seasons,two world championships that should have been three aka.Superbowl V.Tex Schramm-Total mixed bag.Innovative to the hilt as far as how we view the game today.The most powerful GM of his time.Bascically ran the Cowboys,and the NFL with Pete Rozell to an extent.Rule changes,instant replay,television contracts,and of course cheerleaders like no other.The flip side?Duane Thomas maybe summed up Tex’s alter ego in grand style.Sick,demented,and completely dishonest.To which Tex replied.Well,two out of three ain’t bad.Now for Jerry.Words will never do justice.Frank Luksa called him Jethro Bodine in ’89.Well,Jethro has won three rings with hand picked Johnson talent,and none since on his own.He is a cashoholic to his team,and to himself.His ownership has been second to none.He is not afraid like most of us to take the highest of risk in business,but also not afraid to allow his ego to rule out anything,or anyone,personal life,and in business as well.He is the world’s best snake oil salesman on planet earth.Just ask the City of Arlington.He wants to win,but can’t because he is his own worst enemy as a GM.In closing I was always proud of the image the Cowboys overall represented in the Landry years.They won,and lost with class,and dignity.It started and ended with Tom Landry.Winning with the JJ’s in the 90’s felt good,but without the charachter the previous Cowboy regime worked so hard to preserve.In retrospect to the changing of the guard.Yes,it was handled poorly from all areas,but it also worked to Landry’s advantage,for we pitied his treatment by Bum Bright,and Jerry Jones,and it made us remember only the good times in the Landry era.

  • @Keith: if Landry had “retired” I think most fans would have rightfully viewed it as a charade.

    In fact, as I’ve said many times before, prior to the ownership change, a significant percentage (maybe even a majority?) of fans wanted Landry gone. Of course, you’d never get a fan to admit to that today, but its true.

    So I think while many wanted Landry gone, at the same time, they wanted it done in a way that respected Landry’s dignity.

  • bill spears

    as much as we will always love the dallas cowboys,we will never be able to forgive jerry jones for what he did to tom landry .to this day,with all the glory and sucess the boys have enjoyed,i personally still cannot stand the man,and will be glad when he is no longer a part of the cowboys organization,and hopefully he will get the same treatment or greater!

  • mike phillips

    reading this after so many years brings it back like it was yesterday. and what has Jerry Jones Proven???? Not as many Superbowls under his ownership as Landry had as coach. but certainly he’s had more coaches and more players as the news reports today – under criminal activities (drugs, public drunkenness, and now manslaughter). In any organization be it football, church, corporate, or whatever, the organization takes on the personality of the leader….gee what does the criminal behavior of the Dallas Cowboys players say about their owner?

  • Ves Zinn

    I’m originally from Dallas and was a Cowboys fan until 1989. Since the day that Jerry Jones fired Landry (because of the way Landry was fired) my favorite team has been whoever the Cowboys are playing against from week to week. 

  • Diana Summers

    I grew up a Cowboy fan, more than America’s Team they were the pride of Texas.  When Jones fired Coach Landry in such a callous manner, he disrespected the whole state.  I was no longer a fan.  It was over 20 years ago and I still can’t stand the man, and I get a lot of satisfaction in watching his face e-v-e-r-y time they lose!!

  • LyndaLuu

    I may b 8 months too late but Mr. Zinn, U hit the nail on the head with your comment about Jones…..I was brought up on the Cowboys, learned about Pro Football with the Cowboys…..but, never again…never again. NO CLASS….& bad Karma towards the Cowboys…..i’m with YOU, “my favorite team has been whoever the Cowboys are playing against from week to week”.

  • Ed

    I am so with you on that.

  • Wild Bill

    I thought I was the only person that felt this way. My (recently late) father was a die hard Cowboy Fan, and if you lived in his house you had best be one as well. When Coach Landry was fired in the fashion that Mr. Jones decided was the route he would take to dismiss the Coach. I could never get back on the band-wagon even during their Super Bowl runs. It is a fact Coach Landry’s time had come to an end, however you send him packing in a respectable manner befitting a man of his stature. I’ve come to believe the true Cowboy fans are those of us who have not forgotten the disrespect shown to an icon. I too take great pleasure in their defeats and negative on and off field antics. Thank you for writing this article I am renewed in my hold-out. I don’t think that I will see a new owner in my life-time, but if I am so lucky I will raise the Dallas Cowboy flag once again on my flag pole.

  • Cowboys for life

    Reading this really makes me sad but I was brought up in a Cowboys house and am a die hard fan no matter who the coach is or even the owner. It seems to me that the ones who stopped loving or even worse started routing against the Cowboys bigger fans of the leadership then they were of the actuall team.