"Every day we hear people saying, 'Who the hell do you think you are, ordaining yourself America's Team? All I can say is it seemed like a good idea at the time." -- Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys

The facts speak for themselves, whether football zealots from Pittsburgh to Washington to Houston like it or lump it. The Dallas Cowboys really are America's team, just as they have the audacity to pronounce themselves.

"It's self-evident," says Schramm, perhaps a bit apologetic. "We're by far the most popular team in the country, by any available measuring stick. It's even hard to say who's second."

What are those self-evident numbers, those hard-to-contradict facts? They make an eloquent statement about public taste.

The Cowboys hold almost every imaginable top rating in televised sports. Three of the top four all-time sports shows were Cowboy appearances in Super Bowls 10, 11 and 13.

The highest Monday night and Thanksgiving Day TV ratings in history were set by the Cowboys this year -- supplanting their own previous records.

Counting preseason, 16 Cowboys games will be on national TV this season. And the postseason hasn't started.

The Pokes have the largest radio network (225 stations) in all of sports. In fact, says one Dallas official, "We have 16 Spanish-speaking outlets, so we're also Mexico's team."

The second-largest weekly sports publication in America -- bigger than Pro Football Weekly and dozen of others -- is the Dallas Cowboys Weekly. This 40-page, 75-cent monster has 95,000 subscriptions, of which 30,000 are out of state. That's nine times the circulation of any other NFL team's weekly rag.

NFL Properties, whose cosmic purpose is to fill the world with decals, mugs, bumper stickers and a trillion other items emblazoned with team emblems, is a multimillion dollar business. Cowboy trinkets accounts for 29 percent of all nationwide sales. Among the other 27 teams, Pittsburg in second with 8 percent.

The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders have sold over one million of their shake-your-booty poster. In fact, their made-for-TV movie -- wittily entitled "The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" -- was the second-highest-rated made-for-TV flick in history.

"That show had bigger ratings than 'Roots' 'Ike' or 'Jesus of Nazareth,'" said a Cowboy official.

How can all this be possible? In a country where football passions are notoriously regional, rather than esthetic, now have the Cowboys become beloved where they should be hated.

Apparently the phenomenon contradicts logic. For instance, Dallas does not have the best record in the NFL during the '70s. Miami does -- 101-38-1 to 104-39 for Dallas. For that matter, Oakland, Minnesota and Los Angeles -- with 100, 99 and 98 wins to date in this decade -- have been almost indistinguishable in their excellence. And of course, it is Pittsburgh, not Dallas, that became the first team to win three Super Bowls.

Based on team performance and the marketing demographics of the NFL, at least a half-dozen cities should be the near equal or even the superior of the Cowboys when it comes to merchandising.

Several months ago, people at NFL Film in New York began noticing what folks in Dallas had known and nurtured for years. Cowboy fans were everywhere.

No, not just in Texas Stadium, or even at Cowboy road games, but in random contests all over America, coteries of rabid Poke rooters would show up in the background with their silver-and-blue pennants. Cowgirl posters, Lone Star logos and 10-gallon hats.

So, when NFL Films presented the Cowboys with its 78-79 promotional highlight film, it gave the club a choice of titles: "Champions Die Hard" (in honor of Dallas' Super Bowl loss) or "America's Team."

"It not hard to guess which we took," said Cowboy publicist Doug Todd. "Since then, we've thought of calling ourselves Dallas County's team," or getting even smaller, maybe Precinct One's team."

To be sure, the Cowboys have taken nothing but heat for their hubris. No sonner had the phrase "America's Team" found its way onto a Cowboy calendar and the Cowboy weekly and even the Cowboy media guide than the slogan started backfiring.

As soon as the players saw it, their reaction was pretty much universal," said assistant publicist Grey Aiello. "They said, Oh, no!'"

"In hindsight I would say that it was rather regrettable," said Coach Tom Landry. "It gives the appearance that we are saying that we are the best team in the country."

"That nickname probably helped some other teams get psyched up to play us," said quarterback Roger Staubach. "If another team gave itself that title, I think it might tend to motivate."

"As soon as you lose a few games, you find yourself riding that horse of remorse," said Cowboy Vice President Joe Bailey, who is in charge of marketing among other things.

"When it's commode-hugging time, everybody wants to know, 'What's wrong with America's Team? Can't your computer count up to 11 anymore'" said Bailey.

"Of course, if we get straightened out and go back to the Super Bowl we'll all be geniuses again."

If a light show of dismay hangs over the Cowboys whenever their nickname is mentioned, that is far from the most interesting part of this episode. The crux of the issue still is the Cowboys seemingly inexplicable popularity. How did they get that way."

On that question, all fingers point at the same fellow -- Schramm, the president, general manager and basic big-idea man behind the Cowboys throughout their 20-year existence.

"From the very beginning, we were image-conscious," said Schramm today. We were a low-down expansion team and we had to promote ourselves to stay alive.

"After 10 years in Los Angeles (as Ram public relations director), I knew that pro sports blended athletics and entertainment," said Schramm. "You learn that TV exposure and openness to the press can only help you. You don't wait like a king for publicity to come to you. You go out and get all you can.

"In L.A., you're so much a part of a tinsel world that it can hurt your team. But in Dallas, we thought we could make our promotions and our image-building have a positive effect on the team -- in three ways.

"First, we've always built through the draft almost exclusively. You want those young draftees and free agents to think of the Cowboys as glamorous . . . something they want to be. That helps you to sign them.

"That, in turn, gives you a second benefit. Your new players are more likely to conform to your method if your team has a certain aura around it. They'll say, 'well, if it's good enough for the cowboys it's good enough for me.'

"Lastly, having a team mystique or image actually helps you on the field. In every sport, there are a couple of teams, like the old Yankees in baseball or the Celtics in basketball, who have an extra dimension because of the uniform. In sports, glamor and that reputation for being first class is an edge."

If much of the Cowboys' multimarket success has been pure country-slicker hustling, coupling hard sell and victory, then Dallas has also profited from an equal portion of simple good luck.

Under that string of Cowboy taco chains, and 275,000 Cowboy insignia drinking glasses a year, and that new line of cheerleader outfits for little girls, there must be some thread of human appeal.

"We started out as mavericks who took on the establishment," said Schramm, now the essence of establishment. "When we played the Green Bay Packers in the '66 and '67 championship games, we were a weird team with an Olympic sprinter at flanker (Bob Hayes) and a finger-snapping quarterback (Don Meredith) and a bunch of ex-basketball players for defensive backs.

"Hell, we made Vance Lombardi a legend by losing to him. The old-time wild-west cowboys needed the Indians, and Lombardi needed the Cowboys.It was great for us. What's more heroic than a gallant loser?"

Perhaps the greatest irony, and a bitter one, for Schramm and his Cowboys is that "somehow we got mistaken for cold, computerized people. Heck, over the years we've had more crazy characters than any team in the league."

With a certain strange pride, Schramm recalls every player who has caused him problems: Duane Thomas, Pete Gent (author of "North Dallas Forty", Bob Haynes, Lance Rentzel. Too-Tall Jones and now Thomas Henderson.

To be sure, the Cowboy locker room, far from being a Fellowship of Christian Athletes temperance meeting is one of the most open and sophisticatedly humorous in all of sports.

Where else would you find the Zero Club -- a fraternity of players who are proud that they are totaly anonymous. Once, Larry Cole, Blaine Nye and Pat Toomay anchored the club -- all starters, and in their words, all total zeros.

The Cowboys enjoy having a tang of the Wild West tall story about them -- what Bailey calls "the longhorns on the grill of a Cadillac" image. But they fear the demon of bad publicity almost as much as they shudder at that ultimate fiscal evil -- defeat on the field.

"We make sure our cheerleaders don't do anything that they can be criticized for," said one Cowboy official. "They can't even go along to a party where liquor is served. We have a head of the cheerleaders who guards them with her life. We're the only team that controls their cheerleaders themselves. We send them all to Dale Carnegie. We'll do anything we can to protect their image."

That, on an extended basis, is why the Cowboys hated, loathed and despised the current movie "North Dallas Forty," which sets as its obvious goal the detonation of all that could be meant by the words "Cowboy image."

"We didn't like it at all. You could say that the thing that really bothered us was that it wasn't true," said Bailey with an edge. "Of course, we can understand why they made it. It sells."

"What happened on that damn book was that when they made it into a movie, all the newsapers sent their movie reviewers to see it," said Schramm. "They made their cinematic judgments on the basis of the incorrect assumption that the script was done by 'somebody who really knew.'

"If they'd sent sportswriters, the reviews probably wouldn't have been so gullible. Gent (the author) was a guy who became a hippie, of sorts. He was writing in that late-'60s mood and he was seeing with those eyes. That's his prerogative. I'd say he took all the bleakest points of view. But the movie reviewers just took it for granted that his point of view was totally correct and proven.

"Overall," concluded Schramm, "it hasn't done us much damage."

After all, as archaeologists may someday discover from millions of Lone Star artifacts, in the 1970s the Dallas Cowboys became America's Team -- like it or not.