GOD'S COACH The Hymns, Hype, and Hypocrisy Of Tom Landry's Cowboys By Skip Bayless Simon & Schuster. 316 pp. $19.95

SKIP BAYLESS, viewing the recent history of the Dallas Cowboys football team from his perch as a sports columnist for the Dallas Times Herald, sees it as "a Shakespearean tragedy." This unfortunately tells us more about Bayless's knowledge of Shakespeare and tragedy than it does about the Dallas Cowboys, whose story falls considerably short of the tragic. It's not exactly a tale told by an idiot, but it's full of the sound and fury that make for bad television drama, and one thing's for certain: It signifies just about nothing.

No doubt Bayless's account of the Cowboys' frustrations will be gobbled up by readers seeking inside dirt on the professional game, especially those readers whose loyalties lie with the Cowboys' whilom blood rivals, the Washington Redskins. But there's a lot less to God's Coach than at first meets the eye. Though its subtitle promises juicy revelations about the "Hymns, Hype and Hypocrisy of Tom Landry's Cowboys," there's little here that will come as much of a surprise even to the fairly casual observer of pro football.

This is because the various offenses for which Bayless indicts the Cowboys generally and Landry particularly -- self-righteousness, exhibitionistic religiosity, para-military bluster, exploitation of players -- are those of the pro game itself. The Cowboys during the 1970s and most of the 1980s may have been the most visible and most egregious of the National Football League's 28 teams, but they were distinctive only in degree, not in kind. Thus it is that when Bayless comes forth with his various examples of depredations in Dallas, the reader's natural reaction is: So what? Everybody does it, or tries to do it. The Cowboys just did it better, and got better results.

That for about a decade and a half the Cowboys were a peculiar national institution -- "America's Team" -- is beyond dispute, though how they came to be that way is somewhat elusive of explanation. Success had something to do with it, but hardly everything; in winning the Super Bowl twice during that period the Cowboys merely matched the Redskins, Dolphins and Raiders, while falling short of the Steelers and 49ers. Style had something to do with it as well; the dramatic comeback victories engineered by Roger Staubach, the quarterback, made for great television. But in truth the Raiders were a far more interesting team, yet the Cowboys got all the publicity. Why?

For an explanation Bayless turns, as we journalists all too often do, to a psychologist, who spouts a fair amount of babble but who also probably comes as close to an explanation as anyone ever will. The Dallas Cowboys and their various leaders achieved improbably mythic status, he says, "because they just happened to come together at the absolute right time in the right city in the right business" -- a time of growing conservatism, a city desperately concerned with image, a business that dealt at least as much in mythology as in fun and games.

That Landry himself was a mixture of John Wayne and Billy Graham no doubt had much to do with it, but probably the cowboy side of his image brought him more followers than did the preacher. Bayless, writing from a perspective influenced not merely by overexposure to the culture of Dallas but also by his own born-again religious faith, goes on at length about the large audiences that come out to hear Landry's inspirational talks; but how much this has to do with his overinflated reputation among pro-football loyalists is problematical, as violence and militaristic bravado have more to do with the game's popularity than do the occasional -- and deeply hypocritical -- religious airs it from time to time emits.

Based on the evidence Bayless presents, the likely truth is that Landry's religion, unlike that of the game's image-makers, is genuine; but it seems no less true that where Christian principles were inconvenient to the effective discipline and management of a football team, he never had any trouble sending them off on holiday. Bayless suggests that "there almost seemed to be two Landrys -- the Christian and the business partner," which presumably is true but, again, is anything except surprising; it's merely further evidence of the irreconcilable conflict between image and reality that is the National Football League's salient characteristic.

Be all of that as it may, Bayless is here to tell us about how the Cowboys rose from expansion-team mediocrity to their brief reign as football's most loved and, in some quarters, most hated team. It is useful to be reminded -- if, that is, this is something you care about -- that for much of his early career Landry was a run-of-the-mill coach and was ridiculed by the same fans who now deify him. Bayless also indicates that the rise to prominence of his front-office cohorts, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt, had more to do with luck and self-promotion than with the "genius" for which sportswriters eventually were so eager to credit them.

That in time they would fall just about as far as they rose was inevitable; fate has a way of working those things out, as we are now being reminded by the enjoyable stories of Michael Milken and Donald Trump and such. But that Bayless can somehow mistake this for a "tragedy," a word that recurs in his narrative, is evidence of a serious lack of perspective. What we're talking about here is a football team that won a bunch of games and then started to lose a bunch; that's no more a tragedy than is the current travail of the New York Yankees, whose owner is probably even more deserving of disgrace than were the now-departed potentates of the Cowboys.

If anything the story of the Cowboys is closer to farce than to tragedy, with its subplots involving loutish players indulging themselves in sex and drugs and equally loutish fans making fools of themselves within the overpadded confines of Texas Stadium. Though it's tempting to ferret out from that story morals about the America of the Nixon and Reagan years, the temptation is best resisted; it's taken me years to learn the lesson, but the fact is that sport has little to teach us about anything except sport. But the story of God's Coach does remind us that when people start putting their holiness on display, it's time to activate the baloney detector. This lesson seems to have eluded Bayless, who has dedicated his book "To God, who gave me the strength."