Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coaches' Day

Today is September 11, and, in the eyes of most of the people living today, it is the ninth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil.

In fact, this date is so closely linked to terrorism that I presume it will always be remembered — in memory as well as history books — that way.

And, considering what happened on this day in 2001, that is as it should be.

I'm not so sure it deserves the label of Patriots' Day. Perhaps the passengers on Flight 93 staged a revolt that led to the plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field, but the passengers on the other three planes did nothing particularly patriotic. As nearly as I can tell, they huddled in the back or remained in their seats while the terrorists flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

That isn't meant as a criticism. Far from it. Had I been on board one of those planes nine years ago today, I, too, would have done whatever I was told in the mistaken belief that cooperating would help to defuse the situation.

But, in fact, cooperating only made things easier for the terrorists to achieve their goals. Nearly 10 years after the hijackings, I have heard suggestions that only the passengers on one of the airplanes tried to resist. But that is understandable. Who among us had any idea that morning what those goals might be? On Sept. 11, 2001, no one except the Muslim extremists who dreamed up the plan had given much thought to the idea of turning jets into bombs.

So I'm torn over the idea of calling today Patriots' Day. It isn't that I don't feel the people who lost their lives on that day should be remembered. I do. I'm just not convinced that the passengers on those planes acted particularly heroically. In death, they have become propaganda symbols, like the folks who died in the Alamo and on board the USS Maine.

But, before this day nine years ago, it was like any other day on the calendar. In some families, it was someone's birthday. In other families, it was a wedding anniversary. And, in still others, it was the anniversary of a death.

Over the years, important things did happen on this date, but nothing that even approached the devastation of that day in 2001.
  • For example, nearly 400 years before two airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, Henry Hudson discovered Manhattan Island on Sept. 11, 1609.

    As more Europeans came to North America, it was probably inevitable that Manhattan would be found by someone so Hudson can hardly be blamed for what happened four centuries later. Nor could he be said to have put everything in motion.

    And Hudson didn't make what could arguably be called the sweetest deal in the history of real estate transactions, buying the island for about $24 worth of beads and baubles. That was someone else many years later.

    But his discovery was the beginning of a story that certainly must include the events of 9/11.

  • And it was 60 years before the terrorist attacks, on Sept. 11, 1941, that Charles Lindbergh, the famous American aviator who flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927, gave a speech accusing the British, the Jews and the Roosevelt administration of being advocates of a war with Germany and manipulating public opinion in that direction.

    I find that ironic, given the recent flap over plans to build a Muslim facility near Ground Zero and the even more recent controversy over a Florida pastor's announced intention to burn the Quran today.

    "We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours," Lindbergh said as he insisted that he wasn't attacking the British or the Jews. "We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction."
Well, before 2001, this day was noted as the birthday of two legendary football coaches — Paul "Bear" Bryant and Tom Landry.

Both men coached in other places before they took the jobs with which they always will be linked in the lore of football — Bryant at Alabama and Landry at Dallas. If you lived in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, you couldn't avoid them.

There were many great college coaches in the South in those days, actually — Darrell Royal of Texas, Vince Dooley of Georgia, Charles McClendon of LSU, Ralph "Shug" Jordan of Auburn, Barry Switzer of Oklahoma and Frank Broyles of my alma mater, Arkansas — but no one had the charisma, the raw star power of Bryant.

True, Royal was said to have revolutionized college football with the development of the "wishbone" offense. And he did win three national titles. So, too, did Switzer. But Bryant won six.

With his trademark hat and his gravelly voice, Bryant would have stood out, anyway, but he was always more noteworthy than his peers. He had sort of a John Wayne aura that probably would have been a weekly hit on TV if college football teams hadn't been restricted in their regular–season appearances in those pre–cable days

Landry wore a similar hat to Cowboys games.

He was born on Bryant's 11th birthday, and, for decades, he was the only coach the Dallas Cowboys ever had. That changed, of course, as it was bound to. Landry built the franchise, from its first games in 1960 to perennial Super Bowl contender (and occasional winner), but he left when the team was in decline and the whispers that the game had passed him by were no longer whispers.

That concept would have been laughable when I was a child. In those days, Landry was seen as an innovator, a coach who was always ahead of the curve.

In my childhood, the Cowboys were just about the only successful pro football team in the South. New Orleans was decades from becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender, as was Atlanta. Houston had its moments but never seriously challenged anyone for much until Earl Campbell came along in the late 1970s.

The other option was Miami, which became more appealing after the Dolphins went undefeated in 1972. But, in my hometown in central Arkansas, Miami was too far away. Dallas was close enough that actually attending a game there was possible — even if, much of the time, it wasn't likely.

So the Cowboys had a clear fan base in my hometown that was influenced by both the team's success on the field and its proximity.

Now, much of the time, the Cowboys were known as the team that couldn't win the big one. They always seemed to be coming up short in the conference championship game or the Super Bowl, which Landry lost three times (twice to Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers).

The Cowboys were always in the thick of things. They became known as "America's Team," for which they were both loved and loathed.

My grandparents lived in Dallas, so I visited the city far more often than most of my friends when I was growing up. And, occasionally, my father and my brother and I attended Cowboys games. I saw Roger Staubach and Landry in person, and they had a magical quality of their own.

I also saw Bryant in person once. It was a Sugar Bowl game against Penn State in the mid–1970s. No national title was on the line on that occasion, unlike their next meeting in New Orleans a few years later.

Some folks will tell you that they think of Alabama's legendary rivalry with Auburn when they think of the Bear. Or perhaps they'll mention the series with LSU or Tennessee or Georgia.

But, even though the schools seldom played each other, I always think of Alabama's rivalry with Penn State, both on the field and off the field, when I think of Bear Bryant. Even if they didn't play each other on New Year's Day, they were rivals for the pollsters' affections.

And, in my mind, Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions are forever linked to Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to me that the schools are playing each other today, on what would have been Bryant's 97th birthday.

And tomorrow night, the Cowboys will kick off the season against the Washington Redskins.

In his coaching career, Landry had many rivals. His Super Bowl meetings with the Steelers of the 1970s are legendary. His NFC clashes with the likes of the Vikings and the 49ers were classic, and his rivalry with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers produced the iconic "Ice Bowl."

Thoughts of Landry really bring back a lot of memories for me. In part, I suppose that is because I could watch him on TV just about every week. I was far beyond the blackout range but close enough to see just about every game every Sunday (except for one fall when my father, a college professor, went on his sabbatical and took the family with him to Nashville, Tenn., where, as I recall, we got more variety in our weekly pro football coverage than we had in Arkansas).

But I guess you could say that I always think of Dallas' rivalry with the Washington Redskins when I think of Landry. The Redskins emerged as a force to reckon with in the 1970s, and the Cowboys–and–Indians imagery was just too enticing.

So, likewise, it seems appropriate that, on the day after what would have been Landry's 86th birthday, the Cowboys and the Redskins will open their season against each other.

Happy Coaches' Day.

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