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How the Dallas Cowboys became known as “America’s Team”

You can blame it on NFL Films

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

What makes any professional sports team great?

The players? Loyal fans? Perhaps the team’s owner or management? Championships? An elite coaching staff? Famous cheerleaders? 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 27 World Series Championships and 40 American League pennants. No pro basketball organization has won more titles than the 17-time World Champion Boston Celtics, including eight years in a row from 1959-1966. Liverpool once won four straight English League Cup Championships. The Montreal Canadiens have won 24 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 USA Olympic teams be considered “America’s Team”?

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 Dallas franchise (along with the 49ers) is second only to the Steelers in Super Bowl wins amidst eight conference championships.

Within the NFL, the Cowboys have more victories on Monday Night Football (41) than any other team and hold NFL records for the most consecutive winning seasons (20, from 1966 to 1985) and most seasons with at least ten wins (25). The team has earned the second most post-season appearances (29 - one short of the Giants’ 30), a league record of 57 post-season games (winning 32 of them), the most division titles with 22, the greatest number of appearances in the NFC Championship Game (14), and the most Super Bowl appearances with eight.

Does this on-field achievement qualify them as “America’s Team”? More than any other sport, football is a team-oriented game.

Early Tribulations

The success of the Cowboys didn’t sprout overnight.

During the club’s inception, the Cowboys were spearheaded by a three-headed monster with General Manager Tex Schramm supplying the players, head coach Tom Landry and Gil Brandt as player personnel director. Landry, a former Giants player/coach, 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 and named by the league as the Dallas Steers, which changed to the Rangers and finally the Cowboys.

At this time, however, the Cowboys were not referred to as “America’s Team.” In fact, the club had not even had a winning season yet.

When then?

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. Schramm would do the tryouts and camps, which weren’t being done back then. He would bring in more free agents than half a dozen other teams combined, and was very active in scouting the smaller schools; no other team was putting that effort into those schools and it paid off again and again.

These processes brought in numerous little-known college players like Jethro Pugh 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 and Bill Bates. Many late-round draft gems saw Walt Garrison and Charlie Waters. And the fabled first round netted Lee Roy Jordan, Calvin Hill, John Niland, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and Jim Jeffcoat as well as Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Randy White.

As players left, others just as good or better were added. The key was that they had a good organization and the team stayed together season-after-season. Plus, Landry was a magnificent leader of a talented 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.

20 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.

Their home field was Texas Stadium which had a hole in the roof. It was widely perceived that the opening was constructed so that God could watch the Cowboys play on Sundays.

So basically - success on the field plus the Almighty looking on to add mystic is why the Cowboys are known as “America’s Team”?

Schramm loved the game and did as much for the entire league in enhancing its popularity as he did for his own team. Of course the winning record that Landry established and his longevity with the franchise made it even more remarkable.

Worldwide Recognition

All of this equated to one simplistic formula — the fan base of the Dallas Cowboys grew and grew and grew. Suddenly, fans of the club were everywhere. Is it possible these legions enabled the team to be identified as “America’s Team”?

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 with Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and Emmitt Smith.

But, the franchise was already dubbed “America’s Team” at this point. So, when?

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: the “America’s Team” label actually originated from NFL Films.

The Cowboys went 12-2-0 in 1977 and won Super Bowl XII. 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 12-4-0 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. These camera crews let it be known to NFL Films administrators how unusual this was.

That same year, Dallas won their 10th division crown then swept both playoff games before losing a heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh 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 conversations about the vast amount of fans at every Cowboys road game plus the film crew’s comments made week-after-week, for the yearly 1978 highlight video Ryan himself 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.

Ryan’s script was meant to identify the massive amount of support the Cowboys had generated over the years at any stadium across the United States.

Cowboys GM Schramm had a 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 in the highlight film. He took that newfound distinction and ran with it.

At first, Coach Landry and the players despised the trademark that Schramm now had labeled to promote 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.

Once the leader in winning Lombardi trophies, the Steelers have taken over the lead taking home Super Bowl trophies while other teams such as the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, Colts and Seahawks are annually at the top of the heap - usually positioning itself for the latest NFL crown. The Patriots have played in six of the last 15 Super Bowls winning four. Lately, the Cowboys have fallen on hard-times with only five playoff appearances in the past 15 seasons and zero title hopes.

Perhaps it is time to pass the torch of the title of “America’s Team.”

Every team in the NFC East despises Dallas. Love the Cowboys or hate them, one thing that has remained a certainty is that their rosters throughout those early years in the 1970s were 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.