Dan Reeves was 37 when he took over as the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 1981. By then, he’d had a lifetime of coaching.
Nobody called. That’s how he knew he’d made the Dallas Cowboys.
Dan Reeves sat on the edge of his bed that morning in 1965. He hadn’t eaten or slept. His wife, Pam, was nine months pregnant with their first child.
Everything was riding on this.
A greenhorn signee of the five-year-old Dallas professional football team that, to that point, had not won anything, Reeves knew he’d made the team when nobody asked him to go see coach Tom Landry—oh, and take your playbook.
It seems so serendipitous now, but there was a time when Dan Reeves’ life could have taken a drastic turn. Had he not made the Dallas Cowboys’ roster, had Tom Landry not seen something in the gritty Southerner, Reeves might have been selling Buicks at the local dealership in Americus, Georgia, where he grew up.
But that was not the life to be, as Reeves would make the 45-man roster and become one of the critical cogs in the Cowboys’ early success. After seven seasons as a player, he would transition over to assistant coach, sopping up every bit of football knowledge from one of the greatest football minds to ever live.
More than that, he watched how Landry lived his life.
As it turns out, the Cowboys were trying to find a place for Reeves. A quarterback and safety at the University of South Carolina, Reeves signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys for the whopping sum of $11,000 with a $1,000 signing bonus. With Don Meredith as the starter and Craig Morton as the backup, the position of quarterback wasn’t a realistic expectation for Reeves. During the preseason, Dallas tinkered with Reeves at strong safety and defensive back. They finally found a place for him at running back after Mel Renfro, whom Landry had tabbed as the starter, went down with an injury.
After starting four games his rookie season, Reeves had his coming-out party his second year, scoring 16 touchdowns—eight on the ground and eight receiving—and rushing for 757 yards. He also caught 41 passes for a total of 557 yards. That year, Dallas played Green Bay in the Cotton Bowl for the right to go to the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, now known as Super Bowl I. Dallas lost, and Green Bay went on to defeat Kansas City, 35-10.
The next season, Dallas was knocked out of the playoffs again by Green Bay, but this time under much harsher conditions. Known as “the Ice Bowl,” the 1967 playoff game between the Packers and the Cowboys has been immortalized as one of the greatest games in the history of football. The field was frozen and as Reeves described it, “was almost like being on an ice rink.”
During the game, Reeves busted his lip and his nose, threw a halfback pass for a touchdown to Lance Rentzel, and burned Ray Nitschke in a postgame interview (Reeves mistakenly thought it was Nitschke who busted his lip). After losing 21-17, the Cowboys were bestowed the unpleasant moniker, “Next Year’s Champions.”
But Landry remained undeterred. Known for donning his iconic fedora, Landry hung his philosophical hat on the peg of preparation. Preparedness, Landry surmised, was the key to success. At times the Dallas players would be miffed at Landry, wondering why he might be going over this play or that play or why he was certain of an outcome. The truth was, Landry studied his opponents religiously and transmitted his information to the chalkboard, where eventually what he said was viewed as gospel. “Without question, the greatest motivator of all was preparation. If you were prepared, you could go into a football game and play up to your abilities. And [Coach Landry] made sure we were always prepared,” Reeves said. “He anticipated what might happen and always had us prepared for the unknown. And I think that’s what made him such a great, great coach.”
Landry was studious, but he also knew when to laugh. On Nov. 4, 1966, when the Cowboys were playing the Cleveland Browns in the Cotton Bowl before 80,000 spectators, Paul Wiggins tackled Reeves on a pass out in the flat. Inside the pileup, Wiggins found a piece of flesh and bore down. “I am laying in the pile, and Paul Wiggins grabbed the inside of my leg and just pinched the fire out of it,” Reeves recalled. “I mean, it really hurt. I had a big ol’ bruise on it afterward. It made me mad, and I kicked at him.”
Coach Landry had a birds-eye look at the festivities, and, fearing Reeves would draw a penalty and threaten Dallas’s first win over Cleveland in franchise history, became incensed. As Reeves recalls in his autobiography, the exchange went like this:
“Reeves! What in the world are you doing? You’re going to cost us a penalty! You’re going to get kicked out of the game!”
I jumped up off the ground. “Coach. The guy pinched me.”
Well, Coach Landry just turned around and walked away, laughing. Then the officials started laughing…one of them says, “Reeves, we got more important things to worry about than somebody pinching you.”
Eventually, Landry would shift Reeves into his most natural position: coach. In 1970, after getting beaten out for his position by Calvin Hill, Reeves was installed as a player/coach, a hybrid that has died out over the years, but at the time was a useful option for teams that needed such a liaison. “I never really thought about coaching, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Reeves said. “And so I was a player/coach for 3 years and ended up being on his staff after that as assistant coach for 7 years.”
Reeves coached the Dallas backfield and, in the offseason, implemented the team’s strength program—an effort that Reeves believes helped the Cowboys get over the hump and shed the tag of “Next Year’s Champions.”
As Landry inventoried his team, he soon asked Reeves to visit with the strength and conditioning coach of the San Diego Chargers. Pick his brain. “We felt like was one of the things that might help us is to try to get stronger, quicker, and faster, so forth,” Reeves said. “And so, he had me spend time with him and put in an offseason program.”
In those days, many—most—players had to find second jobs in the offseason; some lived elsewhere and there wasn’t a whole lot to entice them to stay in town. Landry began to believe in the strength program so much that he devised a clever plan: he offered $50 per day to players who wanted to hang around the facility in the offseason and work out. “You could work out five times a week and make $250,” Reeves recalled. “It allowed a lot of guys that were going back home to stay there in Dallas because that was like having a job.”
The hard work would eventually pay off, as Dallas crested in the early 1970s. Reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in ’70, the ‘Boys lost to the Baltimore Colts but returned to the big show the following season to claim the first Super Bowl in franchise history with a 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. Reeves believes the strength program was material to the Cowboys comeuppance. “I don’t think there’s any question that that put us over the hump,” Reeves said. “We were just a little bit stronger, a little bit quicker. We had the same players, basically. But we worked out together, were in great shape…that helped get us closer together as a team.”
Through the years, Reeves observed more from Landry. He perceived his head coach’s ability to transition from the stoic leader with the calm demeanor to one who displayed passion and emotion. Landry even admitted that by 1970 he was more “expressive” and that the motivation of fear—something he’d generally avoided in the early Dallas years—was now on the table.
But mostly, Landry defaulted into the steady, impeccable, no-nonsense headman who failed to breath fire and channeled his emotions into productive analysis. And along the way, he built Dallas into a juggernaut.
Though others might have viewed Landry as particularly bland and antiseptic, on the inside an inferno for victory raged. He was a competitor down to his core, and no matter the sport, Landry viewed losing as anathema. “He was the most intense person you’ve ever seen,” Reeves said. “He was extremely competitive. When Mike Ditka and I were on staff, I don’t care what you played, tennis, doubles, basketball, golf. He didn’t like to lose at anything.”
Later when Reeves became the head coach in Denver, he tried to emulate Landry’s demeanor, but the fire would spew out—“I couldn’t stay as calm as he did.”
Landry understood bringing his coaches along at the proper pace. In 1973, Reeves was hot for the head job at Southern Methodist University, and asked for Landry’s recommendation. Landry refused, citing that Reeves was too young and not ready to handle such an important role. Reeves promptly quit but begged for his position back a year later. Landry, a man who gave unceasing grace, not only brought him back, he promoted him. Having served in a variety of roles, including special teams coach and quarterbacks coach, Reeves eventually became Landry’s offensive coordinator.
But perhaps his most important role was mentoring the great Dallas quarterback, Roger Staubach. “I wish I could have had Dan Reeves my whole career,” recalled Staubach in the book The Dallas Cowboys by Joe Nick Patoski. “When Tom gave him a lot more responsibility, it was great. I was able to talk to him. After a game, he’d have me over to his house to watch film because he knew I was ticked off if we lost.”
Reeves’ work with Staubach laid the foundation for his future work with John Elway.
In all, Reeves was around Tom Landry for 16 years. So when Denver Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser eventually hired Landry’s pupil in 1981, he was far ahead of the curve.
This is not to say that Reeves had it all figured out. After a 10-6 campaign his first year, the Broncos dipped to 2-7 in a strike-shortened 1982 season, and Reeves began to engage in self-doubt.
Do I have what it takes to be a head coach in this league? he reflected internally.
Reeves had instituted a total overhaul in Denver. He had seen the blueprint in Dallas, and now he would discover if that plan could be successful elsewhere as he built his own franchise. He changed the team’s numbering system to reflect the way Landry had set things up in Dallas and implemented the same offense with which he’d become comfortable.
One thing would have to change, however. While Reeves was in Dallas, Landry exercised control over both the offense and the defense. “Never did anybody else other than [Landry] know so much about offense and defense,” Reeves reviewed. “Usually you are one or the other. Coach Landry…called offensive plays and was very much in charge of our defense. He spent time putting in the offensive game plan and the next day go put in a defensive game plan. He was just a brilliant football mind.”
Reeves, who always impressed with Landry’s high football acumen, would have to learn a few hard lessons along the way before he achieved lasting success. One, he was not Tom Landry. And two, the age of head coaches having a throat-hold over both the offense and the defense was essentially over.
“A 2-7 season makes you realize how many people are really responsible for any success,” Reeves said. “You have to have good people around you.”
Abandoning the micromanagement, Reeves began to cede more power and trust to his lieutenants. One personnel move that paid immediate dividends was bringing Reed Johnson over from Dallas to be the director of scouting. Landry had seen value in data; he once hired a statistician from Uttar Pradesh, India, named Salam Qureishi to help evaluate draftees. Perhaps Johnson’s grading system was a bit less sophisticated, using “5” and “6” to denote levels of talent, but it was effective nonetheless.
The bell cow of the entire 1983 draft was a floppy-haired hurler named John Elway. Elway flourished at Stanford, and Denver, which had the fourth pick, felt at the time that there was no way Elway would survive long enough in the draft to become a Bronco. So Reeves and Co. turned to more pressing needs, taking Chris Hinton at No. 4 and Mark Cooper in the second round while Elway was scooped up by Baltimore as the No. 1 overall pick.
Hinton and Cooper were good choices, but the thought of Elway continued to itch both Reeves and Kaiser. Landry had Don Meredith, Craig Morton, and Roger Staubach, and Reeves knew in the back of his mind that to have a championship team—not merely a winning team, but one that could bring home a championship—he needed a field general on that level.
Eventually Kaiser contacted Baltimore owner Jim Irsay and the deal of massive implications was contemplated. Elway for Hinton, Mark Hermann, and a No. 1 draft choice in 1984. The answer was yes, and Elway was headed to Denver.
The Reeves-Elway pairing raised the Broncos to unprecedented heights, as Denver made Super Bowl appearances in 1986, 1987, and 1989. And though the two men never won a Super Bowl together, the history of the NFL in the 1980s could not be written without mentioning Dan Reeves and John Elway.
“When you are fortunate enough that you are with a quarterback who you win over 200 games with together, there’s no way in the world I could have won those games if it weren’t for John Elway. If you listed—one, two, three, four—the reasons that you won those games, the number one in every situation would be John,” Reeves said. “I was fortunate enough to be around great quarterbacks. Don Meredith. Roger Staubach. Craig Morton. All those guys played in championship games. They had that ability to give everybody the confidence that we could win. John was like that.”
Landry taught Reeves, not only about player evaluation but also about self-evaluation. After losing two straight playoff games to Green Bay in the late 1960s, Landry sent out questionnaires to the team and reserved no exemptions for himself. What do you think about the head coach? the feelers inquired.
And it wasn’t until Reeves began to self-examine during that 2-7 season that things began to turn around in Denver.
Finally, the straitlaced Landry believed in the fundamentals of life, too. In his pecking order, faith and family were always at the top, and he surmised that if football ever overtook either of those two, a man had serious problems. “You hear so much about coaches who work late hours,” Reeves wrote, “maybe sleep on a couch in the office three or four nights a week. We were never that way. [Landry] thought it was important to spend time with your family, and I’ve carried that over [in Denver].”
Reeves jokes that growing up in Americas, he had a “drug” problem, i.e., is momma and daddy “drug” him to church and Sunday school every week. ‘So I had a chance to have that Christian background,” Reeves stated. “And I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for the fact that I was raised in a Christian home.” He cites his coaches, Jimmy Hightower, his coach at Americus High School, and Marvin Bass, his head coach at South Carolina, as two men who influenced his life.
But then he mentions Landry, who saw something in Reeves as a player and as a coach, who set the plumb line for how a man is supposed to act, and speak, and think. “He had a tremendous influence on me,” Reeves said. “And to see how he handled himself, how he treated his wife, how he treated his players. He was just an unbelievable mentor in so many different ways.”
When Reeves became an assistant in Dallas, Landry encouraged him to get plugged into the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Soon, Reeves was speaking to FCAs in high schools all over the place, and it is an affiliation that Reeves has continued throughout his adulthood.
As Reeves witnessed how Landry conducted his life, he noticed one important thing. His priorities—faith and family—didn’t just come up every once in a while.
You could see them every single day. H&A
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