What makes any professional sports team great?
The players? Usually. What about the loyal fans? Perhaps the team’s owner or management? Maybe. Championships? Certainly. An elite coaching staff? Quite possibly franchise worth?
Again, what makes a professional team considered to be great? Several teams in various sports have been labeled great.
Front and center are the New York Yankees, winners of 26 World Series Championships and 39 American League pennants. No pro basketball organization has won more titles than the 17-time World Champion Boston Celtics.
Liverpool once won four-straight English League Cup Championships. The Montreal Canadiens have captured 14 Stanley Cups, including two separate runs of four championships in a row.
But none of these franchises have been labeled “America’s Team.” That designation has been reserved for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys are one of the most famous sports franchises in the world. But why “America’s Team?”
Is it fair to access a single American sports franchise as though it is THE representation of our entire nation? Really, shouldn’t the Olympic teams of the USA be considered this?
The most palpable reason may be on-the-field success.
The Green Bay Packers currently hold the most NFL titles with 13; followed by the Chicago Bears (9), New York Giants (8), Pittsburgh Steelers (6) and then a tie with the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers with five each. The franchise (along with the 49ers) is second only to the Steelers in Super Bowl wins amidst eight conference championships.
The Cowboys have more victories on Monday Night Football (41) than any other NFL team and hold NFL records for the most consecutive winning seasons (20, from 1966 to 1985) and most seasons with at least 10 wins (25).
The team has earned the second most post-season appearances (29–one short of the Giants’ 30), a league record of 56 post-season games (winning 32 of them), the most division titles with 20, the greatest number of appearances in the NFC Championship Game (14), and the most Super Bowl appearances (eight).
The Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in just four years (a feat that has been matched only once since, by the New England Patriots). In the pro football universe from 1963-1983, the Cowboys won more games than any other team.
Does this on-field achievement qualify them as “America’s Team?”
“More than any other sport, football is a team-oriented game,” said Cowboy great and Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. “I will tell anyone….that I would not have had anywhere close to the successful career that I enjoyed without the quality type of guys (similar to) the 1970s.”
This success didn’t sprout overnight.
Initially, the Cowboys were spearheaded by a three-headed monster with General Manager Tex Schramm supplying the players, Gil Brandt as player personnel director and head coach Tom Landry. Landry was a defensive experimentalist, while Schramm was a superlative who wasn’t apprehensive about spending money in order to find the best talent.
The franchise began as an expansion team in 1960. For years, the NFL refused all expansion inquiries, but the emergence of the upstart rival American Football League changed the owner’s minds.
The NFL chose Dallas (1960) and Minnesota (1961) because they learned the AFL had awarded teams there with the hopes that expansion would squash the new league before it even began. The AFL’s vacant Minnesota team was relocated to Oakland while the Dallas Texans began play in their inaugural season of 1960.
The expansion NFL team was first named the Dallas Steers and then changed to the Dallas Rangers. This nickname was also changed because of an AAA baseball team called the Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers. The club then settled on the name Cowboys.
The club was stocked via a player pool from each of the existing 12 NFL teams and considered a “swing team” playing every squad one time. That season produced a 0-11-1 record. In fact, the first six seasons produced losing records.
During the same time, The Dallas Texans of the American Football League were one of that league’s strongest teams. In 1962, they took the AFL crown while in the same season the Cowboys plodded along to a 5-8-1 record.
Even with the Texans on the road to a championship, the Cowboys far outshined their neighbors in attendance and gained more attention due to the NFL’s storied existence and the older league’s established star players.
After the 1962 season, Texans owner Lamar Hunt looked for a suitable city to relocate the Texans. He set his sights on New Orleans, but passed when he realized that the stadium suitable for pro football was still segregated. Next, he looked at Kansas City, and moved the franchise there the following season and renamed them the Chiefs.
At this time, however, the Cowboys were not referred to as “America’s Team.” When then?
“Those first few years were certainly lean,” recalled Lilly, who was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980. “But we had one of the best coaches and general managers in the league, and later got some quality players who were dedicated to the game.”
The Cowboys were ahead of most of the NFL clubs in terms of scouting. They spent more money and time and used methods that were unconventional at the time.
“We would do the tryouts and camps, which weren’t being done back then,” stated Tex Schramm during an interview before his passing in 2003. “We would bring in more free agents than half a dozen other teams combined, and we were very active in scouting the smaller schools. No other team was putting that effort into those schools, and it paid off again and again for us.”
Schramm served as the team’s president and GM from 1960 to 1989. He became known for innovations that helped redefine the modern NFL, such as computer scouting, the famous cheerleaders, instant replay and institution of the scouting combine.
These processes brought in numerous little-known college players like Jethro Pugh, Mel Renfro, Rayfield Wright and Harvey Martin.
The same could be said for the free agents who made important contributions to the chemistry of the club such as Drew Pearson, Everson Walls, Cliff Harris and Bill Bates.
An excellent scouting department brought into the fold many late-round gems. Walt Garrison and Blaine Nye were fifth rounders. Round 3 brought Danny White, Bob Breunig, Tony Hill, Doug Cosbie and Charlie Waters. Linebacker D. D. Lewis was selected in the sixth round. Pugh taken in the 11th round.
And what about the success of the fabled first round? Lee Roy Jordan, Billy Joe Dupree, Calvin Hill, John Niland, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Jim Jeffcoat, Duane Thomas, as well as Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Randy White.
“When I was a kid, all you ever heard about was the Cowboys,” related Emmitt. “I wanted to be like Tony Dorsett. The Cowboys were like Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls–-they were always winning. And people want to follow teams that are winners. It provides a positive influence in their own lives–something to be proud of.”
Schramm explained that as players left, others just as good or better were added. “The key was that we had a good organization and the team stayed together season-after-season,” he said. “Plus, we had a great coaching staff.”
But back to the burning question, how did the Cowboys get labeled “America’s Team?”
Success At Every Organizational Level
During Coach Landry’s 29-year tenure, the Cowboys finished first in their division an amazing 13 times, placed second seven years, went to the playoffs 18 different seasons, and visited the NFL Championship or the Super Bowl seven times, winning twice.
Twenty-consecutive winning seasons were achieved from 1966-1985; ranked fourth-longest of any sports franchise behind the Yankees, Canadiens and the Boston Bruins. Dallas never really dominated year-after-year in the same fashion as say, the UCLA Bruins did in college basketball, but they were consistently in the hunt.
“Our Cowboys always wore white hats, was the good guys and represented what was best in America, and it just took hold. Certainly the cheerleaders didn’t hurt either,” offered Bryant Sewall, owner of the Phoenix Prowlers, a professional women’s football team of the Women’s Football Alliance. “The hole in the roof at Texas Stadium so God could watch the game added to the mystic as well.”
So basically, success on the field and the “Almighty” looking on is why the Cowboys are known as “America’s Team,” correct?
Maybe there are other reasons. The Cowboys had an uncanny knack of snatching key players in the latter rounds that other clubs simply wouldn’t take a chance on. Herschel Walker (1985, Round 5) was playing in the USFL when he was selected.
After graduating from the Naval Academy, Roger Staubach was headed for four years of active military duty. Most NFL teams had taken him completely off their draft boards and stayed clear of him in the 1964 draft, until Schramm “wasted” a 10th-round pick on him.
“Schramm loved the game and did as much for the entire league in enhancing its popularity as he did for his own team,” Staubach related. “Of course the winning record that Landry established and his longevity with the franchise made it even more remarkable.”
All of this equated to one simplistic formula—the fan base of the Dallas Cowboys grew and grew. Suddenly, they were everywhere. Could the Cowboy legions enable them to be identified as “America’s Team?”
“Anytime you like football, play football or just watch football you know who the Cowboys are,” said Cowboys defensive tackle Marcus Spears, one of the current curators of the title. “And even though Dallas may not be your team, you tend to follow those that are winning. And (they have) the biggest and best fan base in the NFL.”
Fans everywhere have the same view. Some feel the term came from the legions of Cowboys fans throughout every city, or the huge TV ratings.
Others think the designation derived from the “Everything’s big in Texas” attitude. Perhaps because the Cowboys always seem to outperform every other team in merchandise sales is on the cusp of the answer.
The 1990s certainly proved what a formidable powerhouse the Dallas Cowboys had become in the NFL. From 1990-1999, the team qualified for the playoffs eight times, won six division titles, made four trips to the NFC Championship game and captured three Super Bowls.
The roster was a plethora of All-Stars, just like the teams that dominated the Landry-era: Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman, Larry Allen, Charles Haley, Mark Stepnoski, Michael Irvin, Brock Marion, Emmitt Smith, Erik Williams, Jay Novacek and Moose Johnston were just some of the familiar names associated with the team as the NFL's most successful team in the decade of the 1990s.
“I grew up a Cowboys fan and watching those guys,” said Willie Parker, a former running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “They were a flashy team and had all the pieces.”
Cameras Tell the Tale
With all this success on the gridiron, many football fans think the term “America’s Team” was self-proclaimed vanity from the Cowboys organization, which is incorrect.
The truth is, that the “America’s Team” label actually originated from NFL Films.
The Cowboys had just won Super Bowl XII in 1977 after going 12-2 during the regular season. They were three-deep in most positions and had a roster full of All-Pro players. This was before the days of free-agency so just about every player came back year-after-year.
NFL Films shot footage of every game of every NFL team for various weekly highlight shows and season-ending highlight videos. During the 1978 season en route to a 12-4 record, the camera crews at NFL Films noticed that when the Cowboys played at a visitor’s stadium, it seemed there were just as many fans in attendance dressed in the silver and blue as were the colors of the home club.
That year, Dallas won their 10th division crown then swept both playoff games before losing a heartbreaker to the Steelers 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII.
Bob Ryan has produced and edited every Cowboys highlight video for NFL Films since 1964. Remembering the constant comments the film crews had made week-after-week, for the 1978 highlight video Ryan wrote into the beginning of the sequence of the film (narrated by the legendary John Acenda):
The Cowboys are the Notre Dame of professional football.
No matter where they play, their fans are there to greet them.
Their faces are recognized by fans all across this country.
The sum total of their stars are a galaxy.
They are the Dallas Cowboys….America’s Team.
Cowboys GM Schramm had a past history in television as the lieutenant to the head of sports at CBS, Bill MacPhail. Schramm was also once the public relations director with the Kansas City Athletics and eventually became the GM of the Los Angeles Rams.
Schramm knew exactly what to do with the newly-found moniker, took that distinction, and ran with it.
“Mr. Schramm was quite the innovator when it came to turning football into a passion in our homes,” explained Charlie Waters, star defensive back for the Cowboys from 1970-1981. “He had a background in TV and used that label to not only promote the Cowboys, but the entire NFL.”
At first, Coach Landry and the players despised the trademark that Schramm now had labeled the franchise. It gave opposing teams an extra incentive to play better and hit harder. Other teams would rag on the Cowboys all game and try to inflict undue harm as well as amp up the trash talking.
“The Redskins were the worst,” Lilly explained. “They’d say something like ‘America’s Team has come to town, we’d better shudder.’ We didn’t want it but it stuck. Strangely, that label is worth more to the players after their career is over, and it’s something that each of us is proud of.”
“It is something you have to work hard at to continue to represent the legacy of all of those before you,” added Tashard Choice, backup running back for the current club. “Because of the big star on the helmet, there’s tradition.”
Although the franchise continues to win, the club failed to notch a playoff victory in 12 seasons from 1997-2008. A division title was captured in 2007 and 2009, but the team failed to advance in the playoffs. The current team obviously has its share of star-calibur players including Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Bradie James, Jay Ratliff and Jason Witten. The lineup also houses many young futurestars such as Dez Bryant, Doug Free, Sean Lee, Jason Hatcher and Tyron Smith.
Once the leader in winning Lombardi trophies, the Steelers have taken over the lead while other teams such as the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Colts and Ravens are annually at the top of the heap usually positioning itself for the latest NFL title.
Perhaps it is time to pass the torch of the title of “America’s Team.”
“The Steelers don’t want that title,” offered Parker. “Dallas is a team that needs the publicity. They have players that need to be known for something. “The Steelers just want to be known for winning championships.”
Schramm added that the ingredient to winning consistently was simple. “You find stable, quality players who can grow within your system. Part of our success was that the heroes lived in the area and were there this season and also tomorrow,” he said. “You create your own tradition and heritage.”
“Every other team in the league still wants to beat the Cowboys,” concluded Staubach.
The Cowboys rosters are continually full of All-Star caliber players, while the trophy case holds five Super Bowl trophies. Are the Cowboys truly “America’s Team?”
NFL Films says they are.
Barry Shuck is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.