There have been but eight head coaches in the Cowboys’ 53 year history. All but one of them have been hired by the current ownership. The first coach, Tom Landry, lasted 29 years on the job. That is longer than the rest of them put together.
With so much controversy and uncertainty swirling about Jason Garrett, the current head coach, I though it appropriate timing to rank the men that have stood at the helm of America’s team. I do so with the disclaimer and acknowledgement that, since the departure of Jimmy Johnson, only one man has really been at the controls. The inimitable, incredible, indescribable “Coach” Jerry Jones.
Does anyone really believe that the man currently on the coliseum (Cowboys Stadium) floor, fighting off wild beasts and other gladiators with a Texas tooth pick and a prayer, is really making any of the offseason decisions? Does anyone really believe it was Garrett’s call on the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the hiring of Monte Kiffin or the apparently inevitable departure of the coach’s own brother, John? Does anyone believe Garrett gets to decide whether he will call the plays on offense?
I doubt Garrett gets to go to the bathroom without a hall pass from Coach Jones.
So, keep in mind the incredible stress of being tasked with succeeding as a head coach while not being allowed to perform the duties of the position without the meddling and tinkering and annoyance of the man that writes the checks and would trade all his worldly goods for the glory of being called a football genius. Which, of course, he isn’t.
So, there’s that.
And now, on with the rankings. (Drum roll, please.)
Number 8: Dave Campo (2000–2002)
Dave Campo has a long history with the Cowboys, dating back to Jimmy Johnson’s days on the sideline. He has been defensive backs coach twice (once before he was the head coach and once after, if that tells you anything about how the head coaching thing went.) Campo followed Chan Gailey. There was a bit of a power struggle when Gailey left. Campo and special teams coach Joe Avezzano both wanted the job. Campo got it. Avezzano left.
Campo’s Cowboys finished 5–11 each of his three seasons, for a regular season record of 15–33. His winning percentage of .313 is far and away the worst in team history. He is, in fact, the only head coach to post a sub-.500 mark in team history. Of course, Campo’s teams never made the playoffs.
Number 7: Jason Garrett (2010–present)
Garrett’s grade is incomplete. He has only been the Cowboys head coach for a bit over two years. He has a 21-19 record (.525) with no playoff appearances.
Garrett’s team has the distinction of playing a winner-take-all game for the NFC East title at the conclusion of each of his two seasons in charge (term used loosely) and losing both games in blow-out, spit-the-bit fashion.
Those finishes lead Jerry to promise things would be uncomfortable around Valley Ranch this offseason.
(Join your teams’ fans, Jerry. They have been uncomfortable for 15 long, arduous, mind-numbing years.)
Jason may climb up this coaching ladder or he may climb down. His tale is not fully told.
Number 6: Chan Gailey (1998–1999)
Who can forget the day that Jerry Jones proudly announced, “Chan is the man.”
Chan Gailey has the distinction of being the first Cowboys coach not to win a Super Bowl. That was his misfortune and the reason he was on such a short leash, no doubt. Back then, there were expectations. There was a culture of winning.
Back then. Not now.
In his two seasons, Gailey was 18–14 (.563). His teams made the playoffs both years, but lost each time. His failure to win a playoff game was his undoing.
Gailey wasn’t the Cowboys coach for long. His two-year stint is the shortest in team history.
Jerry decided Chan was not the man. Heck, he wasn’t even Chinese.
Number 5: Wade Phillips (2007–2010)
Wade Phillips calls himself “Mr. Fix-it.” He is known to be an excellent defensive coach.
Cowboys fans also learned he is pretty defensive after a loss.
Phillips took over the team Bill Parcells had resurrected and breathed life into. He did manage to tie Tom Landry for the all-time lead in winning percentage at .607. In almost four complete seasons, his teams were 34–22. Phillips is also the only head coach to post a postseason win in the 21st century. His teams were 1–2 in postseason play.
Number 4: Bill Parcells (2003–2006)
After the worst three-year stretch in team history, Jerry Jones flew his jet to Jersey and talked a legend into fixing things. And fix things, he did. Parcells cleaned house, cleaned up the mess Jones had made trying to be the de facto coach through Campo and made the team viable again.
Parcells found a desperately-needed answer for the quarterback position in the undrafted Tony Romo. He changed the defensive scheme to the 3–4 and stocked it with players that could play. He taught the team how to win again.
Parcells was 34–30 (.531) in Dallas. He took the team to the playoffs twice, but could not win a playoff game.
So, Jones decided to kill Bill. Or, Bill decided to give the head Boy back his toy. Whichever.
Parcells accomplished a great deal. Just not quite enough to put him in the top three.
Number 3: Barry Switzer (1994–1997)
That’s fine. Cast your stones. Switzer has something Parcells doesn’t. A Cowboys Super Bowl ring.
Barry was the last Cowboys coach to win the Lombardi trophy. No coach before him had failed to do so. No coach since him has succeeded in doing so.
Say what you want about it being Jimmy Johnson’s team that Barry won with. Barry might not even disagree. Still, that veteran team needed the kind of laid-back coach that would get out of its way and let it do what it did. Which was win.
Barry was this close to winning two Super Bowls. His first year, his team spotted the 49ers a big lead in the conference championship game and then mounted a furious comeback that fell just short. Barry’s team won Super Bowl XXX over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers, baby. Sweet revenge for those two heart-breaking losses to that team in the 1970s.
Barry’s Boys were 40–24 (.625). His teams were 5–2 in postseason play (.714).
Switzer’s tenure ended not too long after he had an incident at DFW airport. Following is a New York Times report on the incident that occured August, 1997.
Switzer was returning to the team’s training facility in Austin, one day after a 34-27 exhibition loss to the Oakland Raiders at Texas Stadium in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He was with two players and an assistant coach at the time of the arrest.
Biasatti said that there was apparently no criminal intent on the part of Switzer. She said that over three dozen handguns have been confiscated by airport officials here this year.
At a news conference yesterday, Switzer said he was ”embarrassed for Jerry Jones and the Cowboys organization.” He said that he forgot to remove the weapon — Texas authorities said he did not have a permit for it — from his bag before he left for the airport.
Switzer said there were children at his Dallas home Saturday and that when he saw the gun on his bed he put it in his bag to hide it from the children. He said he accidentally took the bag to the airport without removing the gun. At the airport the weapon was detected when his bag went through a security scanner. At that point, the police were called.
”All of sudden I realized, ‘My God, I didn’t take the pistol out of my bag,’ ” Switzer said.
”It was an honest mistake,” he added.
It was the kind of mistake that ends head coaching careers.
Number 2: Jimmy Johnson (1989–1993)
Barry Switzer was the second coach to win at least one NCAA national championship and a Super Bowl.
Jimmy Johnson was the first.
Johnson took a bad Cowboys team in 1989 and blew it up. He used the one viable commodity the team had–Herschell Walker–as the impetus to build the nucleus of what would become one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Walker would not be part of that team. He would be the centerpiece of the most lopsided trade in league history. The players and picks Johnson got for Walker became the foundation of a dynasty.
Johnson followed a legend. He could have failed miserably. The odds were against his success. Usually, the one to follow a legend does fail. Those shoes are too big. The demands too great.
The world would learn that they don’t make coaching shoes too big for Jimmy Johnson. They don’t make challenges too great.
Johnson would write a book called “Turning the Thing Around,” which is what he did in Dallas. He turned it around and won back-to-back Super Bowls against the Buffalo Bills. His team destroyed the Bills each time.
The subhead to Johnson’s book: “Pulling America’s Team out of the Dumps and Myself out of the Doghouse.”
He did both. His first year, his team was 1–15. His final two years, they were world champions. The first year skews Johnson’s regular season record, which is 44–36 (.550). ain the playoffs, Johnson’s teams were 7–1 (.875).
Jimmy is a homespun philosopher. He subscribes to the self-fulfilling prophecy and put that to work in his coaching.
Johnson was fond of saying, ”Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a person as if he were where he could be and should be, and he will become what he could be and should be.”
Number 1: Tom Landry (1960–1988)
If there was a Mount Rushmore for NFL coaches, Landry would be on it. For 29 years, the coach Roger Staubach affectionately called, “The man in the funny hat” stoically patrolled the Cowboys sidelines. The figure he cut was like that of a Mount Rushmore carving anyway. Regardless of the mayhem on the field, there was always calm on the sideline. Unflappable.
Tom Landry was not a proven commodity when Tex Schramm made him the expansion Cowboys’ first head coach. He had been the defensive coordinator in New York. The OC on that team was Vince Lombardi. Both men would prove their mettle as head coaches and clash in one of the most notable games in NFL lore, “The Ice Bowl” in Green Bay.
Landry’s Cowboys would amass an unprecedented and unmatched 20 consecutive winning seasons.
Let’s let the Pro Football Hall of Fame speak for us where Landry is concerned:
Tom Landry was selected as the head coach when the Dallas Cowboys started their first National Football League season in 1960. He remained in that capacity for 29 seasons until new ownership opted for new field leadership after the 1988 campaign.
At the time of his retirement, only George Halas, who coached the Chicago Bears for 40 years, surpassed his 29-year tenure with one club. It took Landry a few years to develop his young club into contender status but, once he did, the Cowboys enjoyed exceptional success for more than two decades.
The Cowboys under Landry had their first winning season and their first NFL Eastern Conference championship in 1966. They didn’t fall below .500 again until 1986. During that period, Landry’s teams had 20 straight winning seasons, 13 divisional championship, five NFC titles and victories in Super Bowls VI and XII. The Cowboys also played in Super Bowls V, X and XIII.
Landry coached in a whopping 36 postseason games. His record was 20–16 (.556). In 29 regular seasons, he compiled a 250–162 record (.607).
The number one coach in Cowboys’ history, some would argue is the number one head coach in NFL history.
Heck, I would argue that all day and into the night.
Let's be honest. The Cowboys were on the way up when the JJ's took over. Not only did they inherit HWalker, the super bowl offensive line, Kmart and Irvin AND the #1 pick in the draft ... the superb QB (Aikman), plus a variety of other high picks. Being more honest, JJohnson had to bring in an NFL guy (Turner) to win. That is to his credit. But, he did not eclipse Shula in Miami. Landry, along with Shula, were the only modern coaches to build and rebuild their own teams (several times) and win over multiple decades and that is THE most difficult task in pro football. No disrespect intended to anyone but very few can compare to Tom Landry. Even the great Lombardi left the aging Packers for Washington rather than rebuild.