The Saturday Night Massacre – 25 Years Later, Tom Landry’s Firing Still A Day of Infamy
Bum Bright was a cold, hard Texas businessman who wouldn’t hesitate to throw tradition to the wind if there was a dollar to be made. So in 1988, with his portfolio diminishing before his very eyes and creditors breathing down his neck, Bright placed the Dallas Cowboys on the open market.
It wasn’t until the following winter that negotiations became serious between he and an ambitious oilman from a neighboring state. After several days of closed door meetings which consisted mostly of squabbling over pennies, Bright produced the contract.
What happened next was, in the words of William Oscar Johnson of Sports Illustrated, “a new low in insulting a living legend.”
A moment in time unlike any other, February 25, 1989 will always be associated with arrival and departure, with an abrupt greeting and a farewell that never was. It was the day of a Tex, a Tom, and an Arkansas Jerry. It was the day when a bleak evening meal in Austin gave way to an impromptu gathering in Dallas which earned the permanent stain of being a massacre.
Not just any massacre, but only “The Saturday Night Massacre.”
Tacos & Insensitivity
If the gravity of the situation had not been so intense, Tom Landry might have laughed out loud at the picture in front of him. He, after all, was expecting news of a similar kind.
Landry had learned the day before that the position which he had held for twenty-nine consecutive seasons was, in all likelihood, about to be taken from him by a new owner and a new regime.
Always well dressed, always dignified, and always in control, Landry was, to many, a real man. An invincible man. And, maybe he was all of that. But those infamous Saturday morning headlines…they must have shaken Landry to the core.
After quietly ironing out the details of a bill of sale for the Dallas Cowboys football franchise behind everyone’s back, Arkansas oilman Jerry Jones had hit the front page of the morning paper in grand style. There, in one of Landry’s favorite restaurants, sat Jones and the man rumored to be his replacement, Miami Hurricanes head coach Jimmy Johnson, at a booth eating tacos and apparently celebrating.
Not one to worry over something that was so obviously out of his control, Landry dismissed the bad news and duly flew to the state capital with his wife to spend a day with his family on a golf course.
Only a few hours later, Landry’s friend and business colleague, Tex Schramm, was to make the short plane ride from Dallas to Austin with Jones to make the news official. Schramm, the Cowboys’ long-standing General Manager, and the man responsible for hiring Landry way back in December of 1959, had come south to watch one of the longest standing partnerships in all of sports come to an end.
For both Landry and Schramm, the moment was especially difficult. After serving as co-captains of the Cowboys franchise for so long, they were suddenly helpless to defend their positions. Jerry Jones was now in full control.
A forty-minute meeting in a sales office of the Hidden Hills Golf Course near Lake Travis was all Jones needed to dismiss Landry. Not that it was easy for him, as Landry came very near to crying during the announcement.
Witnesses said when Jones emerged his face was white as a sheet. He later was to remark, “It was the most inadequate I’ve ever felt.”
Obviously shaken, Landry went to have a somber dinner with his family. Jones and Schramm were headed back to Dallas for the nightcap.
A Sad Christmas
In a rare moment of sound judgment, Jones followed Schramm’s advice to get Jimmy Johnson out of town.
The media assembled for this press conference, though critical of Landry during the previous two seasons, were a somber group that night, fraught with emotions and reflections for a coach they shared a deep respect for. For them, to see an outsider break in and shove Landry aside was irreconcilable.
Schramm, ashen-faced, walked up to the podium at the team’s Valley Ranch training complex and spoke into the microphone, “I want to introduce you to Jerry Jones, the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys.”
About thirty of Jones’ friends and family members immediately stood up and loudly applauded. This inappropriate outburst was met by a host of silent, icy stares from bystanders.
“It had the same effect as laughing or cheering at a funeral,” wrote Bob St. John in his 1990 book, The Landry Legend.
Brandishing a Texas-sized grin with eyes glittering like tinsel on an evergreen, Jones then progressed to jump head-first into his opening remarks.
“This is like Christmas to me,” said Jones. “The Cowboys are America. They are more than a football team…”
After spending several minutes informing his pro-Landry audience of what a fine coach Jimmy Johnson was, Jones finally got around to acknowledging the monument that was no longer gracing the Dallas skyline.
“I gave no consideration in retaining Landry, even for one season,” allowed Jones.
A few more words, graced by another ill-timed outburst from the cheering section, and the party finally broke up. At long last, the massacre was complete, the deed done. Tom Landry had joined the land of the unemployed, with Schramm soon to follow.
The Cowboys would never be the same.
“It’s the end of an era, our era,” stated former Cowboys defensive tackle Bob Lilly. “A lot of old Cowboys are crying tonight.”
Every soul that ever followed the path of Landry’s life and career can sympathize. Tom Landry was a man worth crying for.