This article is part of the special fiftieth anniversary issue of the Texas Monthly. Discover the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.
When the first issue of this magazine was published, the Dallas Cowboys were at the height of their first dynasty. They’ve had two recent Super Bowl appearances and a championship in their back pocket, and three more Super Bowls and another championship a few years later. Between 1966 and 1981, they posted a remarkable 171–59–2 record and never came close to suffering a losing season.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Living in Texas, and especially in Dallas, in those days, there was a certain electricity in the air from September to January. Cowboys fans were very proud of the fact that a team from Texas – a place considered by many to be an exotic outpost on the edge of American civilization – was suddenly seen as Team USA. Imagine, today, the next Facebook or Amazon or Google emerging from the frozen tundra of Anchorage, and you’ll get a sense of how transformational it all has been.
There were many factors at play. During Monday Night Football, the biggest sports show on television, former Cowboys and East Texas native Don Meredith played with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford . His quick-witted jokes and insider, drawling observations forced a national audience to delve into stereotypes of Texans.
There was an interesting tension to the fieldwork that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of. On the one hand, the Cowboys projected a clean and healthy image. Coach Tom Landry (“God’s Coach”) was an early supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and appeared with evangelist Billy Graham at the opening of Texas Stadium, Irving. Quarterback Roger Staubach – USA A Naval Academy graduate, devout Catholic and daring field general, he has earned the nickname ‘Captain America’. Linebacker D.D. Lewis once said that the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium was drilled there “so God could watch over his favorite team.” It was the Texas of Sunday morning church crowds rushing home for the kickoff, the Texas whose loyalties were defined by the t-shirt slogan “God, Family, Cowboys.”
And then there were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose girl-next-door image strove to compete with their skimpy tops and hot pants. Alongside a good number of players, who regularly painted the town red, the America’s Girls hinted at the other side of the sacred and profane Cowboys.
Big D was God and go-go girls, the new Texas contradiction of a church on every corner and state-of-the-art singles apartment buildings with hot tubs and tanning decks just down the block; housewives with beehive hairstyles brushing shoulders with Jack Ruby’s topless dancers in Tom Thumb’s produce aisle. Who hasn’t wanted to know a lot more about it?
Above all, the Cowboys won and won and won. Captain America was throwing TDs, Doomsday Defense was stopping the enemy on the goal line, and the kills just kept piling up. For Dallas, still trying to emerge from the dark shadow of Kennedy’s assassination, the Cowboys represented long-awaited redemption: it was not the city of hate, where Cora Lacy Frederickson, the wife of a insurance manager and member of Congressman Bruce Alger’s Le Mink Coat Mob once lowered a protest sign over the head of United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Dallas was home to the winningest, most arrogant team of tough guys to ever don football helmets and the only ones brave enough to put a big star on each one. The city, much to the chamber of commerce’s relief, would never be the same again.
All dynasties, of course, run their course. It was perhaps inevitable that the Cowboys would come down to earth, starting the ’80s with three straight NFC conference championship losses. The team’s financially overwhelmed owner, Clint Murchison Jr., sold the Cowboys for $83 million in 1984 to Dallas business magnate Bum Bright, who proved too cheap for the good of the franchise. After some success early in Bright’s tenure, the team stumbled on a losing streak of three seasons, including a dismal 3–13 record in 1988. Only the cheerleaders seemed to rise above the mess.
Bright, caught up in the national savings and loan slump and running out of money, toppled the team, selling the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million, a profit of nearly $60 million. The buyer was Jerry Jones, an oil and gas executive from Arkansas who had played football for the University of Arkansas.
On his first day, Jones named his former teammate Jimmy Johnson, the Port Arthur-born coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes, head coach and fired Landry to an Austin-area golf course. The abrupt firing of the only coach the Cowboys have ever had threw a dump truck of well-deserved ill will at the new owner. But all was forgiven and forgotten four years later with the first of two straight Super Bowl wins. At the heart of this second dynasty were quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith. Irvin was the frontman at the White House, a rental property near the Valley Ranch team headquarters that was the NFL’s biggest party venue, where women and heaps of cocaine were frequently on the menu. (Irvin also once attacked a teammate with a pair of scissors, but was not charged with any crime in the incident and declared himself a born-again Christian.)
These glory days will be short-lived. Johnson resigned as coach after the 1994 Super Bowl, following a piss match with Jones over who deserved how much credit for Cowboys greatness. Replacement coach Barry Switzer oversaw the Cowboys’ 1996 Super Bowl victory — the third since Jones bought the team — mostly with Johnson’s players and playbook.
And the 27 years that have passed since then? Long-suffering Cowboys fans know the stats all too well: four playoff wins, no Super Bowl appearances, no championships.
In another era, that would have spelled the end of a team’s cultural dominance. But fortunately for Jones, the National Football League operates under different parameters today than it did fifty years ago. Wins are great, but money is the name of the game, and Jerry Jones has proven to be as brilliant on the record as he is miserable on the grill. The game’s best-known owner found revenue streams no one had ever thought of: Pepsi became the official soft drink of Texas Stadium and the Cowboys, for a hefty fee. Prices have increased for parking, tailgating, merchandise and luxury box rentals. Jones negotiated Texas Stadium sponsorships with Nike and American Express when no other team had such deals, rejecting the idea of league revenue sharing. It led NFL owners to renegotiate television contracts.
And the franchise continues to innovate. Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, now dubbed AT&T Stadium, is the prototype of all modern football arenas, with the largest single-span roof in the world, the largest HDTV screen in the world (when opening installation; it has since been surpassed), the largest retractable glass doors in the world, the largest walk-in beer cooler in Texas, augmented reality to enhance the pre-game experience and post-game, world-class art on display, and the ability to host rodeos, concerts, conventions, and Texas High School Football Championships. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, meanwhile, remain the only professional dance team that matters.
Surprisingly, despite their relative weakness on the field, no team attracts viewers like the Cowboys do. They lead the league in sales of NFL licensed merchandise and have the largest fan base in all of football. In 2016, the Cowboys were valued at $4 billion, making them the most valuable franchise not just in the NFL, but in all of professional sports worldwide.
Despite Jerry Jones’ business acumen, how can that be? How can a team that hasn’t reached the big game – let alone won – in over a quarter of a century still command this kind of loyalty from hometown fans and fascinate everyone? others ? How, after all these years, are the Cowboys still Team USA?
One of the reasons fans remain glued to the TV screen throughout December is that the Cowboys are usually competitive enough that there’s a chance this year is the year. The Cowboys still feel like a championship team, even if they really aren’t. (Fans of Longhorn and Aggie might find this description familiar.)
But it’s also true that no franchise does drama better. In today’s NFL, it’s the stories and the entertainment – the “popcorn” – that keeps people coming back. And no organization comes close to the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to selling this product. Consider: The signing and three-year stay of Terrell Owens, described as the league’s most misunderstood player, despite the objection of then-coach Bill Parcells, who would only publicly refer to Owens as “the player”. Dez Bryant gets kicked out of NorthPark Mall because someone in his group – possibly Bryant – wore his pants too low. Tony Romo’s heartbreak, starting with his last-second miss in the playoffs against Seattle. The multiple arrests of former Cowboys Quincy Carter and Rolando McClain. Lineman Randy Gregory’s addiction issues. The drunken manslaughter charges were filed against defensive lineman Josh Brent after the car he was driving overturned, killing teammate Jerry Brown. The common question of how much rope Jones would give then-coach Jason Garrett. Jones’ refusal to hire a general manager because he thought he could do the job himself. Jones’ paternity lawsuits.
Here’s the problem with popcorn: it may be irresistible, but it never quite satisfies. Every January, those same rabid fans, still trying to stay high on three-decade-old smokes, still humming Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” to themselves, are forced to wake up to reality. And if the fortunes of the team on the grill don’t turn around anytime soon, you can imagine that at some point those loyal fans might start to wonder what they’re so loyal to. A name? A glorious story? Jones’ bank account? They might start to wonder if that loyalty was repaid in kind.
For now, season ticket holders and skybox owners and devoted viewers seem to be holding their own. When the Cowboys play, the people of Dallas – and many other Texans, as well as more than a few people around the world – still stop, all eyes on the team. The sweet smell of success from many seasons ago lingers faintly.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Montly with the headline “America’s Team, Always”. Subscribe today.
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