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Famous Cowboys’ Coach Tom Landry Was Also a WWII Pilot

Credit: Sports Illustrated.

Tom Landry is an NFL legend. He coached the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1988 — the longest stretch for an NFL coach with one team. He also invented the 4-3 defense (one of two main defense formations in the league) and is the third most winningest coach in NFL history, behind George Halas and Don Shula.

Any Cowboys fan knows Landry, but beyond that, most Americans do. If nothing else, they knew him as the guy on the sidelines in the suit and fedora. 

But Landry was much more than a football coach. Before his long tenure with the Cowboys, he spent three years in the cockpit of a B-17. 


Tom Landry the Pilot 

Landry was born in Mission, Texas in 1924 to a family of athletes. He proved his talent from a young age — quarterbacking his high school football team and leading them to a 12-0 record during his senior year.

Landry spent a single semester at the University of Texas (Austin) before his brother, Robert, was killed in action while flying his B-17 over the North Atlantic. Landry was inspired to take up his late brother’s mantle, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. 

The majority of Landry’s flying career was spent in the B-17 Flying Fortress — the same plane his brother flew — in the 860th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Debach, England. He completed an impressive 30 combat missions from November 1944 to the end of the war. 

He had two “close calls” in an aircraft:

  • His first time in a bomber. A few minutes into the flight, Landry realized the plane’s engine had died, but the pilot was able to land them safely; and Landry continued his flight training. 
  • A combat mission gone awry. When his B-17 ran out of fuel, Landry crash-landed in Belgium. The impact was probably good prep for his five years as a player with the New York Giants. 

Credit: The Sports Drop.

Tom Landry the Coach 

After the war was over, Landry went back to school and earned his master’s in industrial engineering in 1952. He’d spent a season with the New York Yankees (a former professional football team) in ‘49, and when that conference collapsed, he moved on to the New York Giants. 

In his six years as a pro football player, Landry started at the positions of cornerback, punter, quarterback, and running back; but he demonstrated an aptitude for coaching and leadership very early on. After just one season as the defensive coordinator for the Giants, Landry was hired on as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, where he would stay for nearly three decades and forge his name as one of the most successful NFL coaches of all time. 

His accolades include: 

  • An overall coaching record of 270-178-6 (a 60 percent win rate)
  • A spot in the Pro Bowl in 1954
  • NFL Coach of the Year in 1975
  • Under Landry, the Cowboys won Super Bowl VI and XII, as well as the NFL Championship in 1956 (before the Super Bowl existed) 


Best Quotes

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.”

“There’s a misconception about teamwork. Teamwork is the ability to have different thoughts about things; it’s the ability to argue and stand up and say loud and strong what you feel. But in the end, it’s also the ability to adjust to what is the best for the team.”

“Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest.”

First become a winner in life. Then it’s easier to become a winner on the field.”

“A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”

“Today, you have 100% of your life left.”

For more, read our analysis of a matchup between an NFL player and an Army Ranger, and who would come out on top.


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