Heroes for Sale

updated 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 01:00AM

Dejection is an anomaly on the Dallas Cowboys, the most celebrated and successful franchise in pro football. But as the team heads for its 17th playoff appearance, Cowboy President Tex Schramm, according to wife Marty, comes home these days and "just sits there with a sad look on his face, and it's obvious he's thinking about it all." Not even Tom Landry, the stone-faced coach, is immune. "I think there's a feeling on the part of everybody," he says, "that it's just not going to be the same."

Ever since their birth as a National Football League expansion team in 1960, the Cowboys have had just one president and general manager, Schramm, one vice-president for personnel development, Gil Brandt, one coach, Landry, and one owner, Clint W. Murchison Jr. The stability has generated an aura of invincibility, backed up by the team's lifetime 213-117-6 record, including two Super Bowl wins in an unprecedented five appearances.

But for the past few years Murchison, 60, has been battling a rare and progressive disease that has robbed him of speech and certain motor abilities. Now he has decided to put his beloved Cowboys up for sale, though not because he needs the dough (he is worth an estimated $500 million). In response to questions, Murchison, who has missed only two Cowboys games in 23 years and still commutes to his office daily, offers this written explanation: "I can't enjoy those things that I previously enjoyed as an owner—traveling with the team, the association and being with the players and coaches—and in general being the Cowboys No. 1 fan.... I feel I should not act as half an owner."

Actually part of the problem is that Murchison has always been only "half an owner." It was a little known fact that Clint, whose father was oil-rich, started the Cowboy franchise in 1960 in partnership with his brother, John, who died four years ago. According to intimates, Clint is determined to sell the Cowboys now to prevent some dastardly buyer from getting the team from the heirs—principally his four children and John's four children—none of whom have the combination of desire and financial wherewithal to take over.

The wherewithal will be no trifle. Launched with payment of $550,000 to the league, the Cowboys are valued today in the neighborhood of $60 million. But meddlesome moneybags a la George Steinbrenner need not apply. Murchison is determined to sell only to one person, or a group, preferably Texans, who will agree to retain Schramm, Brandt and Landry in their present posts. Moreover, he has put Schramm in the unique position of screening his own potential bosses. "I can't say who we have talked to," Schramm says. "As to what sort of owners we might be interested in, it involves more than money. It's a matter of character." In short, Schramm is looking for another Clint Murchison.

That will not be easy to find. In his crew cut and horn-rims, Murchison is a shy and modest man, yet not a stodgy one. (He once hired a trained bear to wrestle with—and lose to—a man in a cowboy outfit before a game against the Chicago Bears.) No dictator, Murchison's genius has been his ability, as he once put it, to "hire the best and let them run the business."

In Schramm, Landry and Brandt, Murchison hit the jackpot. A former sports editor on an Austin, Texas paper, Schramm is a bear of a man, both physically and emotionally. Before a game he can be seen out on the field kicking up clods of dirt and pouring himself into "building up a hate for the other team." If the Cowboys won the week before, he will be wearing the same clothes. If not, he'll be a new man from head to toe. Come game time, he shuns the executive viewing quarters for the camaraderie of the press box, where he can sip Scotch and cuss—he once flashed his middle digit at good friend NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle after a rules dispute. "I have apologized a lot," he says with a smile.

Tex Schramm is largely responsible for the Dallas dazzle. Thanks to Schramm's flair for publicity, Cowboy paraphernalia far outsells that of other NFL teams. The Dallas Cowboys Official Weekly is mailed to 50 states and several foreign countries and has a paid circulation of more than 100,000. In addition the Cowboys have a radio network of almost 200 stations. Schramm (unlike Landry) is also a booster of the shapely Dallas cheerleaders. As many as 2,000 women audition each year for a handful of jobs, for which they get paid $15 a game. They are required to take a Dale Carnegie personality enhancement course and pass weekly quizzes about Cowboy games. The Little Miss Dallas Cheerleader contest annually draws up to 40,000 starstruck girls between the ages of 4 and 12.

Tex Schramm and Tom Landry are perfect complements: Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside. Widely regarded as a football genius, Landry more or less invented the position of linebacker by designing the 4-3 defense while a player-coach with the New York Giants in the '50s, and he dreamed up the modern offense in which the backfield is as busy as a cloverleaf on a freeway. Yet the early years in Dallas were frustrating: Between 1960, when the team failed to win all season, and 1964, the Cowboy record was 18-46-4. When the team played its very first home game in the Cotton Bowl, following three losses on the road, Dallas fans expressed their displeasure by pelting Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale, with ice cubes as they toured the field in an open convertible. But Landry persisted in his ground-breaking ways. He drafted people not for position but because they were good athletes. In fact, cornerback Cornell Green and end Pete Gent were basketball players, while Bob Hayes, a college halfback, was better known as "the world's fastest human" after he won the 100-meter dash at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1965 the Cowboys broke even on the season at 7-7; a year later they made the playoffs for the first time.

Landry, who counts Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell among his friends, is noted for his severe on-the-field manner. The players who admire him refer to Landry as "the Force," while his detractors call him "plastic man" or "computer face"—the latter taking off on his heavy use of software in working up strategies and defensive game plans. The '70s introduced a different kind of player and a different kind of frustration for Landry: showboaters, such as Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, who would mug for the TV cameras, and difficult, even troubled players, such as prima donna Duane Thomas and Lance Rentzel, the golden-boy receiver who exposed himself to a 10-year-old girl.

As America's Team—a sobriquet from a 1978 highlights film that Landry considered ill-advised—it is ironically fitting that the Cowboys have had to wrestle with America's latest pop malaise: cocaine. In 1979 former star receiver Bob Hayes, whom Landry once called "the single most dangerous player in football," was socked away for 10 months for purveying the drug. In April of this year former guard John Ni-land was charged with possession, among other things; a few months later the names of five active players surfaced in a drug probe by the FBI. The upshot is that Schramm has hired a former G-man to watch for narcotics abuse on the team; Schramm and Landry have vowed that they will not tolerate drugs among the Dallas Cowboys. To ex-Cowboy Gent, the author of North Dallas Forty, such pledges smack of hypocrisy. Players who are tacitly or openly encouraged to pop painkilling drugs to be up for the game on Sunday, he says, should not be punished for "smoothing out" with cocaine once the game is done.

It's a different, perhaps more complex world today than Clint Murchison confronted, and the next Cowboys' owner will need the savvy that enabled Murchison to establish his team. After Washington Redskin owner George Marshall threatened to block his purchase of the Dallas franchise, Clint learned that when George and Corinne Marshall settled their divorce, George failed to read the small print in which his wife got the rights to George's beloved Redskin fight song Hail to the Redskins. Clint bought the song, and when it came time to vote, he called Marshall and asked whether he planned to play the song on Opening Day. "Most certainly," said the puzzled owner. That's when Clint played his trump: "Nobody plays my fight song without my permission."

From such small beginnings is greatness produced.

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