By Curt Holland
As I write this article, the temperature is hovering around 100° outside, yet professional football players are dealing with long, hot, two-a-day practices. When you read this article, a chill may be in the air. Depending on where you live, frost may be nipping at the grass in your front yard. Yet, those same players are taking to the field every weekend. Teams need good leaders. When I think about leadership and football, I think about the coach who wore the hat.
Born 77 years to the day before 9/11, he died 17 months before that infamous date etched itself into our hearts and minds. One of the greatest football coaches of all time, fans easily recognized Thomas Wade Landry by the fedora he wore at every game, along with his dapper suit and tie.
After playing college football at University of Texas and studying industrial engineering, Tom played his first year of professional football with the New York Yankees. Yes, football. Then he played for the New York Giants. During his final two years with the team, he added assistant coach to his playing role.
Coach Landry served as the Giants’ defensive coordinator opposite offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi. These great coaches helped their team win the NFL championship in 1956 against the Chicago Bears, with repeated (unsuccessful) attempts in 1958 and 1959.
In 1960, Coach Landry began his most memorable coaching job. The NFL expanded to Dallas, Texas, and Tom Landry became the Cowboys first head coach. After going winless in the first season and not winning more than five games the following four seasons, Coach Landry received an unprecedented ten-year extension to his contract. He quickly turned his young team around. The NFL named Landry Coach of the Year after he led his expansion team into the 1966 championship game against the Green Bay Packers. Hall of Fame-bound Coach Lombardi’s team won the game.
During the next 19 seasons, Landry’s teams achieved a professional sports team record of 20 consecutive winning seasons. The Cowboys won five NFC Championships, along with Super Bowls VI and XII. Coach Landry’s tough defensive coaching led his team to become the first in Super Bowl history to deny its opponent a touchdown during the 24-3 defeat of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. The Super Bowl XII victory continued to highlight Landry’s defense. And, for the first time, defensive linemen won the MVP trophy, which was split between defensive tackle Randy White and Harvey Martin, defensive end.
A truly great professional football coach, Landry may have been well-known for his fedora and suit, but it was what was inside the man that truly made him successful. Coach Landry rarely had a game plan or playbook in his hand; they were always in his head. The head coach knew what he wanted to accomplish and implemented strategies to see it happen. I draw four principles from his on-field leadership that apply to cross-cultural ministry.
Focus on the BIG picture. Good players win football games, but great coaches keep the team in a position to win games. Our IM missionaries in Bulgaria, Ecuador, France, Japan, Kenya, and Spain form a team for each of their countries. IM’s mission statement and six major tasks provide focus for all they do.
Utilize your influence. Five of Landry’s assistant coaches eventually became NFL head coaches. A few began as player-coaches, just as he did in New York. These player-coaches understood the player’s challenges on the field. Merging those challenges with a coaching mentality led them to encourage players to follow a coach’s strategies and ideas.
Today, three couples influenced by IM missionaries serve on our field teams. Because of the work of missionaries before them and of those today, these three couples are called national missionaries. Though not born in the USA, Trif and Vanya in Bulgaria, Jonathan and Michelle in France, and Manu and Noemi in Spain serve in the same capacity as other IM missionaries because of those who influenced and trained them.
Press on. I turned seven the September before the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl. One of my most prized birthday gifts was a white football helmet [pictured above] with a blue Dallas Cowboy’s star painted on it. Looking back, I was a die-hard Cowboy’s fan, even before they won their first championship.
In researching the life of Coach Landry, I discovered many things I didn’t know. The fact he received that ten-year extension to his contract the same year I was born seems kind of mystical. The record at that point in time—13 wins, 38 losses, 3 ties—is noteworthy. Many years later Coach Landry said, “That was the most significant thing that ever happened to me.”
Our IM missionaries, like the rest of the world, keep pressing on during a world-wide pandemic which, though supposed to last two weeks, continues to impact lives across the globe two years later. Not only did our missionaries press on, they also became more innovative, creative, and determined to continue the ministries the Lord placed before them.
Look for ways to be creative. Landry received titles like “America’s Coach” and “the Great Innovator.” The first came because of his team’s growing popularity as “America’s Team.” The second personified Tom Landry the man, the coach. His innovation led to a well-known defensive alignment called the 4-3 and the Flex Defense. Though used constantly in football today, when Landry’s teams refined and perfected it during his early days of coaching, they were matchless. Landry’s passion for great defense created a scheme that worked like an industrial engineer had designed it. He also perfected other strategies, developing creative offenses to beat his innovative defenses.
Although the “shot gun” formation had long been used, Coach Landry and his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Roger Staubach, perfected the offensive scheme. The Flex Defense, the Shot Gun, Motion Offense, and speedy defensive ends were trademarks of Dallas’ winning seasons. The young expansion team was not always overstocked with talent, but Coach Landry took everything he had and used innovation to put winning teams on the field every weekend.
May the Lord challenge each of us to continue to live and lead as we find creative ways to win others to Christ. As director of field personnel, I want to thank supporters and churches who continued to pray and give to IM missionaries throughout this challenging two years. Though finances and health were not always certain, your faithfulness, God’s provision, and our missionaries’ steadfastness remained.
About the Author: Curt Holland, a former missionary to Brazil, is director of field personnel for IM, Inc. Learn more: iminc.org.