Probably the first thing readers should know about Skip Bayless' book on the ''hymns, hype, and hypocrisy'' of former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry is that its title is not meant to be ironic. The self-professed ''born-again'' Dallas Times Herald sports columnist takes his religious mission quite seriously. ''For me,'' he writes, describing his initial opinion of Landry, who coached the Cowboys from 1960 to 1989, ''(he) was the most powerful religious figure on earth.'' He quotes with a perfectly straight face Billy Graham's comparison of the erstwhile leader of ''America's Team'' to John the Baptist. People who find the notion of a ''Christian'' National Football League franchise akin to that of an evangelical gambling casino will have trouble reading further.
Not that hard-core NFL fans will find Bayless' book entirely without merit. Though haphazardly organized and written in the hyperbolic, tin-eared style that passes for wit among the school of attack sports columnists, God's Coach is persuasive as long as it sticks to football. To hear the embittered chorus of ex-Cowboys interviewed here, Landry's coaching prowess was vastly overrated. Many of the Cowboys' ''miracle'' wins hinged less upon Landry's brilliant strategy than upon the improvisations of quarterbacks such as Don Meredith and Roger Staubach and their receivers. When things went well, Landry took full credit. When they didn't, he blamed the players. ''It's not whether you win or lose,'' comments one bitter ex-player, ''but who gets the blame.''
According to Bayless, having achieved the status of a Sunday afternoon icon, the eagle-eyed Texan in the hat began to mistake media hype for reality. Hypnotized by the myth of his own genius, Landry treated assistants tyrannically, listened to nobody, and failed to keep up with the tactical and rule changes that made his earlier innovations obsolete. After years of running some of the most original offensive and defensive schemes in the NFL, the Cowboys ended up playing with a predictability that made them easy picking.
Culturally speaking, Landry never outgrew the authoritarian style typical of small-town Texas coaches during the 1940s and '50s. He simply couldn't or wouldn't try to relate to the more independent-minded (and richer) athletes of the current era black or white. And you don't have to be particularly imaginative to see that it's precisely because Landry embodied the style of those bygone days that his firing by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner, created a wave of protest in Dallas where any other coach with a 2-14 record would have had to wear a disguise to go shopping. (''For nearly a month,'' writes Bayless breathlessly, ''Tom Landry had been honored the way perhaps no living human ever had been.'')
What's offensive about Bayless' religious prating, however, is his attempt to use God to sanctify an old-fashioned rip job. Although he once solicited Landry's spiritual advice, the longer Bayless prayed, he says, the more certain he grew of his conclusion, which was that ''God's wrath'' cost Landry his job. ''To this day,'' he writes, ''I believe God used Jones to free God's Coach from himself.'' And why? Well, because Landry did nothing to prevent his players and the rest of the Cowboy organization from betraying the precepts of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
This is news? It has been seventeen years since former Cowboy Pete Gent's North Dallas Forty lampooned the hypocrisy of NFL-style piety with hearty tales of locker-room lust and sin. The Cowboys were the first NFL team to costume their cheerleaders like hookers. What's more, the list of Cowboy players arrested on charges involving sex, drugs, liquor, and various assault and weapons violations probably exceeds that of any team in professional sports. So why did God let them play in five Super Bowls and win two of them? And where was choirboy Bayless until the losses started to add up? Answer: Leading the cheers with the rest of them. C-