Darrell Royal meant more than wins
On the day he died, 36 years after he left the sideline, Darrell K Royal remained the most successful, most beloved coach in Texas Longhorns history. Royal, 88, succumbed early Wednesday after a debilitating fight with Alzheimer's disease. His decline was swift. Only in recent months had he lost the sharp intellect and deft people skills that elevated him to his status as a Texas icon for decades.
As the Texas coach from 1957 to 1976, Royal led the Longhorns to three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference championships and 167 victories. But to the Orangebloods, Royal stood for more than winning. Royal represented integrity, respect and a romanticized past.
Royal's teams gave college football the wishbone, the offense that dominated the sport from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Royal is believed to be the first major-college coach to hire a "brain coach," the birth of the academic counseling industry in intercollegiate athletics. Royal shepherded Longhorns football through integration, albeit in a way that left him and the university open to charges of foot-dragging at best and racism at worst. Those charges left Royal fuming, but he had the dubious distinction of coaching the last all-white national champion, in 1969.
Above all, Royal laid the groundwork for the colossus of Texas athletics that stands astride intercollegiate athletics today. And he did so with courtliness and a wit as arid as the Oklahoma Plains where he grew up. Royal, a native of Hollis, was a product of the Depression and the deprivation of the Dust Bowl. Outside the soda shop in Hollis in the summer of 1942, he met Edith Thomason. They married two years later, when Darrell, by then an enlisted man, was 20 and Edith 19. She survives him after 68 years of marriage.
If there was a secret to Royal's success, it may have been his gift for communicating with people, be they his players, his fans or the many friends he collected over nearly nine decades of life. Whatever Royal achieved, he made sure to deflect attention to the people around him.
"He gave Emory Bellard credit for the wishbone," said Spike Dykes, a Royal assistant who coached Texas Tech for 13 seasons. "Instead of saying, 'We did it.' he said, 'That's Emory's deal.' He totally, completely, had no ego. And yet you never did have to figure out who was head coach. There's just not that many people who are that good at what they do who don't have an ego."
Doug English, an All-American defensive tackle for Royal at Texas in the early 1970s who would join his coach in the College Football Hall of Fame, described Royal's gift as "colloquial efficiency."
Royal loved "pickers," the guitar-playing songwriters and singers who emerged out of Texas a generation ago and changed the face of country music. He loved their ability to turn a phrase, to say a lot in a single line of lyric, perhaps because he spoke that way, too -- with colloquial efficiency.
It was Royal who made famous the line, "We're gonna dance with who brung us," meaning that he would depend on the skills that his players had and not have them try to do something they couldn't.
James Saxton, the 1961 consensus All-American running back, "could run like small-town gossip."
"A coach," Royal once said, "likes to have a lot of those old trained pigs who'll grin and jump right in the slop for him."
And there was the saying that captured the essence of the man and his life: "There ain't a hoss that can't be rode and there ain't a man that can't be throwed."
Royal experienced personal achievement and tragedy, fame and sorrow, all in amounts that might have throwed a lesser man. Royal quarterbacked Oklahoma to an undefeated season in 1949 and became a head coach less than four years later, at age 28. He job-hopped three times in four seasons, arrived at Texas at age 32, in 1957, and never left. Even when his alma mater offered him the position of head coach in 1965, Royal said no. He had made his name as a Texan.
He had made his fame there, too. A boy who hitchhiked 30 miles to Childress, Texas, to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt, grew up to befriend one of his successors, Lyndon B. Johnson. Royal hung out with friends ranging from legendary Texas lawyer Joe Jamail to country music stars such as Larry Gatlin and Willie Nelson. With Nelson and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, an Austin native who had grown up with Royal's son, David, Royal hosted a charity golf tournament for several years. Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings used to drop by Royal's postgame gatherings.
"The biggest thing about Darrell Royal is his restraint and his self-discipline," said Jamail, one of the most prominent attorneys in the nation. "And he is able to impose that discipline on those around him without being a bully. I watched him some with his players. All these players, not all of them but a lot of them, they're prima donnas. They're stars from grade school on up. Great expectations. I watched him not succumb to that. He did not particularly look for a star. He looked for someone that would fit into a whole scheme."
Royal seemed to attract successful men. Yet his famous friends and his career achievement neither swelled his ego nor turned his head. That could be because Royal got walloped by the worst that life has to offer, too.
He grew up the son of a widowed blue-collar worker. Royal's mother Katy died of cancer in his infancy, and two of his five siblings died during his childhood. All of that pales before the loss of two adult children -- Marian Royal Kazen, a wife and mother of two, died in an automobile accident in 1973, while her father still coached. David died in a motorcycle accident in 1982, six years after Darrell Royal left the sideline.
"Makes you understand that some things are not as important as you thought they were," Royal said of Marian's death in "Coach Royal," a book of conversations with him about his life. " I think I eased back and became a little bit softer and not quite as aggressive after that as a coach."
As a child, Royal used to stand by the side of the road and try to outrun cars. He pushed himself to achieve at an early age and succeeded at nearly every activity he tried. He picked cotton in the nearby fields, delivered newspapers and shined shoes in the town barber shop.
In high school, Royal's father and stepmother moved the family to California, as so many Oklahomans before them had done. Royal spent the summer picking produce, and then hitchhiked home to Hollis, to live with his grandmother.
Royal pushed himself harder as an adult, sometimes learning the hard way how much was too much. In 1958, Royal coached his second Texas team to defeat his alma mater, still led by his own college coach, the future Hall of Famer Bud Wilkinson. University of Oklahoma president George L. Cross went into the Longhorns' locker room to congratulate Royal. He found the 34-year-old out back, pale and obviously having just finished retching.
"When I congratulated him on his victory," Cross said in his autobiography, "he mustered a wan smile, acknowledged that he was glad to win, but said that it somehow 'just didn't seem right to beat Mr. Wilkinson.'"
Royal didn't know any other way but to push, a common attitude among Depression babies. The 1973 biography "The Darrell Royal Story," written by longtime Austin journalist Jimmy Banks, began with the scene in the locker room before the 1973 Cotton Bowl, when No. 7 Texas upset No. 4 Alabama 17-13.
"If you'll go all out on every play, we can beat this bunch," Royal told his players. "They're not going to put out that kind of effort -- because they don't think it's necessary."
Royal succeeded against the best coaches of his time. He went 6-1 against Wilkinson, 3-0-1 against Bear Bryant, and 14-5 against his close friend and golfing buddy, Frank Broyles of Arkansas. Among those 14 victories was the 15-14 defeat of the Razorbacks in 1969, when President Richard Nixon not only attended the game but proclaimed the Longhorns national champions in their locker room afterward.
Every great coach has one nemesis. For Royal, it was Barry Switzer of Oklahoma. In four games in Dallas, Royal went 0-3-1 before he retired. At the age of 52, he got tired of pushing.
"Well," he said in "Coach Royal: Conversations with a Football Legend" (2006), "it got so that winning wasn't exciting and losing became intolerable. Climbing is a thrill. Maintaining is a bitch."
The climb to the top of the college football world began after Royal served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In the spring of 1943, shortly before he graduated from Hollis High and shortly before he would have been drafted, Royal volunteered to enlist.
While at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City -- an assignment that made it easy for Royal and Edith to be married -- someone saw the athletic talent in Royal and contacted the Third Army football team. Royal, with no college experience, found himself on the same team as All-Americans Charley Trippi of Georgia and Bill Swiacki of Holy Cross.
After his discharge, Royal enrolled at Oklahoma on a football scholarship. Though he stood 5-foot-10 and weighed but 159 pounds, Royal became an immediate star for the Sooners and coach Jim Tatum. But he really shone for the following three seasons, after Tatum left for Maryland and was replaced by his backfield coach, Wilkinson.
The Sooners went 28-3-1 from 1947-49, concluding with a 21-game winning streak. Royal excelled as a defensive back and a punter. His 18 career interceptions remains a Sooners record, as does a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown against Kansas State in 1948.
Royal also went 15-1 as the starting quarterback in Wilkinson's revolutionary Split-T offense. Royal's knowledge of the offense became so comprehensive that it launched his meteoric rise in coaching. After graduating in 1950, Royal made seven job changes in eight years, going from assistant coach at El Reno (Texas) High to head coach at Texas.
He lasted only a spring at El Reno before being hired by Beattie Feathers of North Carolina State to install the Split-T, which Royal knew as well as any man alive. When Wilkinson published "Oklahoma Split-T Football" in 1954, he referred to Royal's quarterback play three times -- five years and three quarterbacks after Royal had left Norman.
The military didn't prepare Royal to be a public figure, and neither, in the prehistoric television era, did starting at quarterback on a team that finished second to Notre Dame for the national championship.
In one of his first assignments in Raleigh, Royal agreed to speak at a local high school football banquet. Royal, paralyzed by stage fright, simply stared out at the audience until he got out, "I'm sorry." Then he sat down. Royal felt so ashamed that when he walked out to his car he took the cuff links that the school gave him and threw them as far as he could.
Royal proved a fast learner. Two years later, when the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Interprovincial Football Union -- an ancestor of the Canadian Football League -- needed a head coach, one of the players, former Sooner Claude Arnold, suggested that the team interview Royal, by then the top offensive assistant at Mississippi State. He got the job, signing a three-year contract, thinking that he would need that amount of time to establish his bona fides and get a job as a collegiate head coach.
That would be one of Royal's rare miscalculations. The Eskimos went 17-5 and made the playoffs, and when Murray Warmath left Starkville to become head coach at Minnesota, Mississippi State signed Royal to a four-year, $60,000 contract.
After consecutive 6-4 seasons, Royal jumped to the University of Washington in 1956 without setting foot on campus.
"I knew it was a state university," Royal said. "I knew what their enrollment was, what their budget was, what their attendance was at football games, what kind of stadium they had, what the population was, and how many high schools were playing football in the state of Washington. I felt, and still feel, there are some natural advantages to being at state universities."
Royal's views on that subject never changed. A decade after he retired, Royal was asked by Tulane University to serve on a committee of consultants about how to get the Green Wave out of the ditch. The 34-year-old head coach, Mack Brown, had gone 1-10 in his first season. Royal surveyed Tulane's meager facilities and undersized players and repeated the advice he followed more than three decades earlier.
"I'd get the hell out of here as fast as I could, because you've got no chance," Royal told Brown. "And I would go to a university that has The in front of it, because that's the only way you're going to make it."
Two years later, after Brown led Tulane to a 6-5 record and an Independence Bowl bid, Brown left for North Carolina -- the University of North Carolina.
Royal stayed at the University of Washington for only one year. Texas coach Ed Price resigned in the midst of a 1-9 season. After making futile runs at well-established coaches Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech and Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State, Texas athletic director Dana X. Bible called Royal late one night. After Bible identified himself, Royal put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and said, "This is it, Edith -- it's the University of Texas!"
Just like that, Royal's peripatetic life came to an end. He and Edith put away their suitcases when they arrived in Austin and never moved again.
Royal made quick work of the Longhorns' rehabilitation. They went 6-4-1 in 1957, his opening season, upsetting No. 4 Texas A&M 9-7 to earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl. It may have helped the Longhorns' cause that news had broken two weeks earlier that Aggies coach Bear Bryant would be leaving for Alabama. By 1959, Texas had returned to the top of the Southwest Conference, and flirted with the national championship. With an 8-0 record and the No. 2 ranking, the Longhorns lost to No. 18 TCU 14-9. After that game, Royal uttered one of his pithy sayings that fired up Horned Frog teams for years to come.
"They're like cockroaches," Royal said of TCU. "It's not what they eat and tote off, it's what they fall into and mess up that hurts."
Two years later, in 1961, TCU did it again, knocking off No. 1 Texas 6-0. Most Longhorns of that era considered the '61 team superior to the team that won the national championship two years later.
By the early 1960s, the Texas program reflected Royal's thinking and his ability as a coach. He had schemes, yes. In 1961, Royal installed the "Flip-Flop" offense to take advantage of the running ability of Saxton. The Longhorns gained more than 3,800 yards of total offense that season, half again as many as they gained the year before. And, of course, the Wishbone would come years later.
Royal, seeing talented players lose their eligibility because of poor grades, responded with an unheard-of solution. When the Athletics Council at Texas wanted Royal to hire a full-time recruiter, he suggested instead that the university to hire a "brain coach" to tutor the athletes.
"We need somebody looking after the grades," Royal argued. "I don't think coaches are good at that."
Royal hired Lan Hewlett, a high school science teacher, and he became the pioneer in what grew into the academic counseling industry that is now an integral part of intercollegiate athletics "That's what I'm the most proud of, of anything that I did," Royal said in "Conversations."
As with so many successful coaches, Royal saw things that other coaches didn't see. He knew how to recruit players who fit the way he wanted to play. English, the defensive lineman elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011, didn't start for his high school team in Dallas until his senior year.
The players wanted to play for him. Out of Royal's ability to communicate came a sense of trust that his players held in the entire coaching staff. Anyone in a Longhorns uniform understood that if they did as they were coached, they would play.
"They made it real clear what you needed to do," English said. "They made it real simple. 'You have to beat this guy in this way. You can't allow him to do this; don't worry about the guy over there or the guy over there. This is what you have to get done to play this position.' If you were going to play for Darrell, he knew and you knew exactly what you needed to be able to do to play that position."
Royal broke down the players' tasks with such clarity that they learned to play without making mistakes. The Longhorns rarely beat themselves.
"Darrell Royal was the smartest coach I knew. Not even close," said legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who covered the Longhorns for the Dallas Times Herald, and then for Sports Illustrated. "[Barry] Switzer. Bear. [John] McKay I never saw them make a mistake. They'd get beat by somebody, if somebody had a better team, but they didn't do something stupid."
The players knew if they made mistakes, they wouldn't play. That extended to how they looked and how they acted. They knew better than to complain to the officials.
"Boy, if you clipped, or you did something that was dirty or illegal, he would wear you out," said David McWilliams, a co-captain of the 1963 national championship team who went on to become head coach of the Longhorns from 1987-1991.
He recalled the anxiety he felt once when Royal pulled him out of the game. When he came to the sideline, Royal told him his shirttail was untucked. McWilliams gathered some teammates around him, pulled down his pants, tucked in his shirt, and went back into the game.
And woe be unto the player who didn't play hard. Royal coached the special teams himself. As a former punter, and a good one, he carried the importance of the kicking game close to his heart. McWilliams, 70, and the executive director of the T Association of former Longhorns athletes, still shudders at the memory of the film sessions conducted by Royal.
"I'll never forget sitting in there before he turned that film on and hoping I didn't loaf on a damn kicking team," McWilliams said. "One time he said, 'David, are you tired?'
"'Well, sir, I didn't think I was.'
"'You damn sure don't look like you were hustling right there. If you're tired, we'll help you.'"
The 1963 team may not have been Royal's best, but it played with a mental toughness that could not be overcome. On Thanksgiving, only six days after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on Texas soil, the Longhorns fell behind in-state rival Texas A&M 13-3. As Gov. John Connally, wounded as he rode in the car with the president, watched from his hospital bed, Texas came back and scored the winning touchdown with 1:19 to play to lead the Longhorns to a 15-13 victory.
The championship season concluded with a 28-6 manhandling of No. 2 Navy and its Heisman-winning quarterback, Roger Staubach. A year later, the Longhorns went 10-1, losing only a one-point game, 14-13 to SWC archrival Arkansas, which finished the season 11-0.
A midcareer slump followed. The Longhorns went 6-4, 7-4 and 6-4 in the next three seasons, including a 3-4 conference record in 1965, the only losing SWC record that Royal had in 20 seasons in Austin. Royal attributed the slump to a lack of hunger throughout the program, as well as some recruiting problems and injuries.
There were other issues as well. The Texas offense had gone stale. In the summer of 1968, assistant coach Emory Bellard, fooling around with the idea of getting more blocking help in his running game, installed a fullback between the two halfbacks. Sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz named it the Wishbone.
It took a while for Bellard to get the spacing of the backs right.
"Emory drew plays on graph paper," McWilliams said. "And every little square was an inch or a foot or whatever. It might be 26 inches, or 27 and a half. That's how perfectly set that it was."
It also took a couple of games for Royal to realize that James Street, not senior Bill Bradley, should be the quarterback. Once Street took over the offense, the Longhorns didn't lose a game until the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 1970 season. Those 30 consecutive victories included the 1969 national championship and a share of No. 1 the following year.
The most famous game of that streak of 30 victories came at the end of the 1969 regular season, when No. 1 Texas went to Fayetteville to play No. 2 Arkansas. The rivals usually played in the middle of the season. But in the winter of 1969, ABC Sports executive Beano Cook played a hunch that both teams would be in the national championship hunt. Cook sold his boss, Roone Arledge, on the idea of moving the game from Oct. 18, when it would be televised against Game 6 of the World Series (still played in daylight), to Dec. 6.
Cook proved to be quite the prognosticator. Both teams arrived at a chilly Razorback Stadium with 9-0 records. President Nixon arrived with them. His helicopter landed near the stadium just as the game began.
Royal's teams were known for not beating themselves, but for three quarters, this Texas team did all it could to lose. The Longhorns committed five turnovers, and the defense played its heart out just to hold Arkansas to a 14-0 lead. But Street scored on a 42-yard scramble on the first play of the fourth quarter. Royal, with the first of two riverboat-gambler play calls, went for two points. Street scored on the triple-option, and Texas trailed 14-8.
The second call has become not only a chapter in the Longhorns family bible but a piece of college football lore. Still trailing 14-8, Texas had a fourth-and-3 at its 43-yard line with 4:47 to play. Royal brushed aside the idea of going for the first down and instead called a deep pass to tight end Randy Peschel. Never mind that Street had thrown two interceptions, or that Peschel was better known for blocking than catching. Peschel had told Royal earlier that the Arkansas defensive backs had been coming up fast to stop the running game.
"That was the time to put it all on the line," Royal told author Terry Frei in the 2002 book, "Horns, Hogs & Nixon Coming." "If we had run for a first down, we'd have lost the game. We weren't moving the ball. It was one of those situations where you have to swing from the floor and hope you put a square peg in a round hole."
Royal called "Right 53 Veer Pass." Street threw a perfect pass and Peschel, despite being double-covered, made a great catch. The play went 43 yards to the Arkansas 13. Two plays later, Bertelsen scored to tie it, and Happy Feller kicked the extra point that gave Texas a 15-14 victory and kept them at No. 1. In the locker room after the game, Nixon declared the Horns national champions and presented them with a plaque that said the same.
That infuriated No. 3, undefeated Penn State. But the rest of the country didn't seem to mind.
The Longhorns went to the Cotton Bowl, where they defeated No. 9 Notre Dame 21-17 in the Irish's first bowl game in 44 years. The next season, the Longhorns again went 10-0, and won the UPI coaches' poll, which took its final vote before the bowls. However, No. 6 Notre Dame gained revenge for the loss a year earlier, winning 24-11, and Texas shared the national championship with Nebraska.
With the consecutive No. 1s, Royal became a national figure, subject to scrutiny that wasn't always flattering -- or accurate. On Jan. 12, 1970, the Associated Press, reporting on a meeting of college coaches in Washington, D.C., quoted Royal as saying, "the black coach has not reached the point where his coaching is as scientific as it is in the major colleges."
Only Royal was in Austin that day, accepting the AP national championship trophy from Lady Bird Johnson at the team banquet.
Nevertheless, Royal fought charges of racism that dated to the 1960 Cotton Bowl, when Syracuse, which started a few black players, defeated all-white Texas 23-14 to win the national championship. More than a decade would pass before Julius Whittier became the first African-American to play for the Longhorns in 1970.
"I had tried to recruit blacks at the University of Texas," Royal said to Banks in 1973. "But the big thing always was the academic barrier, just because blacks had not had equal educational opportunities."
The AP ran a five-part series on Royal and racism at Texas in 1972, even as Royal sat on the board of trustees of Stillman College, a historically black school in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Royal took a big step toward rectifying Texas' image when he signed halfback Roosevelt Leaks from Brenham, Texas. Leaks would become an All-American as a junior in 1973. He rushed for 1,000 yards twice and went on to a long NFL career.
"He was really the first highly recruited black athlete to come to Texas despite everything that the other coaches were telling him, and the money that was offered him, and everything," said English, a Longhorns teammate and a close friend. "He said, 'No, I want to go to UT. I want to go to my state school.' [It was] one of the most absolute courageous things, short of military exploits, that I know of. The guy was really was a man, an inspiration to everybody, and still is to me."
Meanwhile, Switzer, first as an assistant and then as head coach, made great inroads in recruiting African-American players out of Texas to play across the Red River for Oklahoma. Royal fumed that Oklahoma cheated. But he also didn't like how recruiting had begun to change, how high school players expected head coaches to come visit them.
Royal also had to deal with the fallout from the 1972 book "Meat on the Hoof," in which author Gary Shaw, a former Longhorns reserve, charged that Royal used brutal drills to run off less talented players so that he could use their scholarships.
Most of all, the agony of losing began to outweigh the joy of winning.
Royal decided to retire in 1976, and so did his good friend Frank Broyles. They coached their final game against each other, which Texas won 29-12 to finish 5-5-1. Royal's first experience out of coaching told him he was no longer in charge. Though Royal also served as athletic director, the university administration excluded him from the decision to choose his successor. Mike Campbell, his longtime assistant who had run the defense for Royal's two decades, was passed over in favor of Fred Akers, the Wyoming coach and a former Longhorns assistant.
Royal stayed two years as athletic director and fled to the golf course. He would become a fixture at Barton Creek, a club that opened in Austin in 1987.
"He loved golf so much," said Crenshaw, who grew up in Austin with Royal's son David. "God, he just loved it. Of course, I know you've heard about his close friend, Frank Broyles. They just played, they played until they couldn't play anymore. Coach Broyles was a helluva player. Coach Royal was a very good player, and a student of the game."
In the first two decades of retirement, Royal kept Texas football at arm's length, and depending on the coach, it sometimes worked the other way, too. But when Texas fired John Mackovic in 1997, and Royal participated in the coaching search, he helped recruit Brown, the same young coach he had told to leave Tulane more than a decade before.
In his 2005 book "One Heartbeat," Brown described Royal's recruiting pitch as follows:
"When we had some time to be alone, he told me, 'You need to take this job.'
"I said, 'Why?'
"He said, 'Because we need help, and if you do at Texas what you did at North Carolina, you'll be appreciated more.'"
Royal became a regular presence at Brown's practices. The truth is, he still loved football. He often sat in Jamail's box at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Sometimes he would come to a game with a country music friend in tow. Crenshaw remembered meeting one in particular.
"This was very typical of Coach: 'Ben, meet Don Williams. He's straighter than six o'clock,'" Crenshaw said. " That was my introduction to Don Williams: 'He's straighter than six o'clock.' God, that's pretty straight."
As Royal aged, and arthritis banished him from the golf course, he turned back to football. On the first Thursday of every month, he would have lunch with a group of former assistant coaches and players. And he didn't turn down an invitation to a coaching clinic or any function where he could be out among people in the business. Eddie Joseph, the longtime head of the Texas High School Coaches Association, served as his chauffeur. They would drive in, stay for 30 or 45 minutes, and quietly leave.
As the head coach at Texas, Royal went out of his way to fuss over the high school coaches in the state, including Dykes, a young one who he would later hire.
"In about 2002, they had this big high school coaching clinic in San Angelo," Dykes said. "So he calls me one day and says, 'You're going to go to that clinic with me, OK?' And I said, 'Well, yeah!' He said, 'I don't want to be standing there and Charlie Jones walks up and I have no clue. I want you to say, "Hey, Charlie! How you doin'?" Give me a little clue. I want them to know I respect them and the way you respect them is know who they are.' It was important to him, that if a coach walked up and made conversation, that he knew who he was. Because that is what you do to people you respect."
Royal respected coaches. That is all he ever wanted to be, from his days growing up in Hollis to the day he succumbed to Alzheimer's.
In the 1972 book, "The Coaches," Royal told author Bill Libby, "[A]fter I've completed my career and the final ballots are in, I'd most like to be remembered as a guy who was fair, who was competent, and who was liked. I would much rather be a little less successful and well thought of than the other way around. I wouldn't want to be lonely as an old man."
Royal needn't have worried.