By Rick Gosselin The Dallas Morning News The worst thing you can say about Tom Landry the football coach is that he lost three Super Bowls. A few of his contemporaries - Bill Walsh, Chuck Noll and Vince Lombardi - didn't lose any. Does that automatically doom Landry to the fourth rung on pro football's coaching ladder, jostling with fellow Hall of Famers Don Shula, George Halas and Paul Brown for their places in history? Not necessarily. "There are two, maybe three names you can put at the top of the list of the greatest coaches of all time," said Dan Reeves, who isn't too far down that list himself. "But in my opinion, Coach Landry is at the top. It's unbelievable what he accomplished. The 16 years I was with him we went to the playoffs 15 times." Landry established a standard of excellence in his sport by posting 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-85. Only nine men in NFL history have coached as many as 20 seasons, much less strung together 20 winners in a row. The quality of his successes were as impressive as the quantity. Landry took the Cowboys to the playoffs in 18 of his 29 seasons and won 13 division titles. His Cowboys reached the NFC title game 12 times and won five NFC championships. He won Super Bowls in 1971 and '77. But Landry didn't just build winners. He built players. That may have been his greatest attribute. He didn't consider "coach" his title. He considered it his job. He could see qualities in players that others couldn't, then coax it out of them on the field. "Tom didn't just throw the ball out there and say, 'Play,' " said Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' long-time personnel director. "He had the ability to recognize and develop players. Guys like Rayfield Wright, Herb Scott and Cornell Green. . . . You have no idea how much of an effort Tom put into making Cornell Green a good football player. He was so green. Pettis Norman. Tom was a great teacher with great patience." Landry, in fact, may have been the most patient coach ever to walk a sideline. "We'd be in meetings and someone might say, 'This guy can't play,' " said Mike Ditka, another of the game's greats who both played and coached under Landry. "But Tom would say, 'I think he can. We have to look at him a little longer. Let's put him in a game situation and see what happens.' "I've been in meetings where guys came very close to getting cut . . . and now they are some of the all-time great Cowboys. Tom recognized that some guys just needed a little more time." That allowed Brandt to develop the club's "best athlete available" philosophy on draft day. He knew Landry would provide great athletes a chance to develop as football players. So college-basketball players like Green and Pete Gent became contributing members of championship football teams under Landry, and world-class sprinter Bob Hayes became a world-class wide receiver. If a player had ability, Landry could maximize it. Reeves arrived in Dallas as a free-agent quarterback and left as a Pro Bowl halfback. The ability to pinpoint and nurture players allowed Landry to take a fledgling expansion franchise that began with no draft picks and quickly build a contender. Six years after gathering the Cowboys for their first game, Landry gathered them for their first NFL championship game. Noll won his four Super Bowls in six years with the same star nucleus. Terry Bradshaw quarterbacked all of his champions. Lombardi also used a common talent pool in winning his five NFL titles in seven years in Green Bay. Bart Starr quarterbacked all of Lombardi's champions. The same with Walsh. Joe Montana quarterbacked all three of his Super Bowl champions in a span of eight years. Landry coached several sets of stars over the 16-year span between his first championship game in 1966 and his last in 1982. He reached Super Bowls with two different quarterbacks (Craig Morton and Roger Staubach) and went to conference title games with two others, Don Meredith and Danny White. Landry won his first division title in 1966 and his last in 1985. "That may have been his best coaching job," said Reeves of those '85 Cowboys. "He won the division without the best team. He outcoached everybody. He definitely didn't have the best talent." Landry went to more Super Bowls than Walsh, Noll and Lombardi. He also won more games than all three. If his Cowboys had prevailed in two evenly matched NFL title games with the Packers in 1966-67, the Super Bowl trophy might today be known as the Landry Trophy, not the Lombardi Trophy. A hat always stands out in a crowd. Suffice to say a hat would stand out in a crowd of the NFL's greatest coaches.