Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones ended a five-week search for a head coach yesterday by hiring Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, a highly respected but little-known NFL assistant.

Gailey, 46, signed a five-year contract five days after meeting Jones for the first time at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Until then, Jones seemed intent on hiring a bigger name after lengthy interviews with former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert and Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis. He even offered the job to former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, but the two couldn't agree on salary and other aspects of the position.

But Jones quickly hit it off with Gailey, and after several marathon interview sessions, the Cowboys had their fourth head coach. The job had been held previously by Tom Landry for 28 seasons, Jimmy Johnson for five and Barry Switzer for four.

"Chan is qualified and capable," Jones said. "We have the right man. He's a highly innovative, creative mind on the offensive side of the ball. He's a proven play-caller and someone who has done it in big games."

Gailey's hiring is the 19th consecutive NFL head coaching opening that has gone to a white male. Jones did interview Lewis, who is black, but apparently never came close to offering him the job.

Lewis told Green Bay station WLUK-TV he believes Jones considered him a serious candidate.

"I think so, and I thought all the time that he was interested," Lewis said. "I don't think he'd waste as much time as he spent with me if he wasn't interested. It was a great experience, really. That's how I look at it."

Gailey is taking over a team that has won three of the last six Super Bowls and still has championship talent at several positions, including quarterback, where Troy Aikman remains among the best in the league.

"We have a great nucleus of football players ready to get this thing back on track," Gailey said. "Most head coaches that take new jobs are sitting there talking about how hard they have to rebuild and how much is missing and making excuses before the season even starts about how bad it's going to be. I certainly don't feel like I'm in that position."

But the Cowboys do have problems. They have an aging offensive line and an aging running back in Emmitt Smith. They've also been hurt by several poor drafts that have robbed them of depth.

After five consecutive NFC East championships, the Cowboys dropped to 6-10 last season. Although Switzer got a large share of the blame for his laid-back style, many NFL personnel experts say the team's problems won't be fixed by having a new coach.

Gailey won't have the freedom to hire his own coaching staff because Jones has taken care of that. Jones also has said he intends to be involved heavily in many coaching and most draft-day decisions. Nevertheless, Gailey seemed thrilled at the idea of taking over one of the most high-profile jobs in sports.

"This is the beginning of the dream," he said. "Another part of that dream . . . is that we get to stand on that podium some late January afternoon and have a hand on that Lombardi Trophy. We're going to be champions with class, dignity and character. That's what I'm about."

Gailey was head coach of Samford University for one season, Troy State for two seasons and the Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football for two seasons.

During his 10 years in the NFL, his teams went to the AFC championship game seven times and the Super Bowl four times. He was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

Gailey will focus on restoring discipline and a work ethic to a team that lost both after Johnson departed in a dispute with Jones. He'll also be in charge of an offense that was 20th in points and 22nd in yards.

Gailey said he was not bothered by the fact that Jones intends to be so closely involved with coaching the team, saying he's looking forward to "a working-together relationship."

"It's been shown to me that he's nothing but very interested, very involved," he said.

"I don't expect any change in that. The key is not necessarily who is right but what is right." CAPTION: "Chan {Gailey} is qualified and capable," Jerry Jones, right, says of his new head coach, formerly offensive coordinator with the Steelers. "We have the right man."