Darrell Royal: 1924-2012
Nov. 7, 2012
His classroom had been a stadium, and he gave his exams publicly, before thousands of people each Saturday in the fall.
He taught not only the game, but he taught about life, and his students -- as tributaries of a great river -- carried his message far beyond the confines of the arena.
Those who audited the class -- the thousands in the stands and the millions watching on television -- saw a man dedicated to his trade, to his responsibility, and to his people.
Royal, who passed away Wednesday morning in Austin the age of 88, arrived at Texas in December of 1956. He was 32 years old and the youngest coach in college football. He came to a program that had slipped to a 1-9 record, and he quickly set about restoring pride in The University -- giving it unparalleled success for 20 seasons. More than 250 million -- a quarter of a billion -- people knew something about The University of Texas because they saw Royal's Longhorns on television.
In 1962, he assumed the dual job of head football coach and athletics director. In his time as an administrator, he was directly responsible for the rise in excellence of all men's sports and he was a guiding factor in the creation of what at the time was the best women's program in America.
Royal -- who was named a professor and given tenure by The University during his great success in the early 1960s -- was voted Coach of the Decade by ABC-TV for his work in that remarkable span between 1961 through 1970.
In that time, Texas won three national championships, six Southwest Conference championships, went to eight bowl games (winning six of them) and finished in the nation's top 5 seven times.
When he quit coaching after the 1976 season, Royal was a young 52 years old. In 20 years his teams had won 167 games, 11 league championships, played in 16 bowl games and claimed three national championships.
He stayed on as athletics director through the fall of 1979, helping lay the foundation for stricter NCAA guidelines on recruiting and admission standards for student athletes. His career was highlighted by efforts to maintain high standards of integrity and honesty in the workplace of college athletics.
In 1980, he became a special advisor to the UT president on athletic matters, and he served full-time in that capacity until he retired and was retained on a part-time basis in 1990.
He was an innovator on and off the field. In the game, he created two of the most potent offenses in football -- the "flip-flop" Winged T formation of 1961 and the famed Wishbone that appeared in 1968 -- launching the Longhorns on a 30-game winning streak.
Off the field, he created a position for the nation's first academic counselor for athletics. He stressed the importance of the college degree, creating a unique "T" ring which he personally gave former players who earned their degrees. Of the 48 lettermen on his 1963 national championship team, 45 graduated.
As athletics director, he served on several NCAA committees, including the Television Liaison Committee which dealt with national and regional televising of college football. In the early 1970s when Title IX helped bring about the creation of women's athletics programs nationally, Royal helped craft Texas' plan to finance its program in a way that allowed complete funding without diluting the men's program.
But his service would go far beyond just the university. He served on the Board of Directors for Stillman College, a small predominantly Black institution in Alabama, and he parlayed his love of country music and golf into numerous fundraising events that produced millions of dollars for underprivileged youngsters.
His honors are legion, from membership in the Longhorn Hall of Honor to the National College Football Hall of Fame to being a recipient of the coveted Horatio Alger Award.
Raised in the days of the Great Depression in Hollis, Okla., Royal played his college ball at The University of Oklahoma. He served in the Army Air Corps 1943-46 during World War II, and entered the coaching profession in the early 1950s. He served as head coach at Edmonton, Canada in the Canadian League, at Mississippi State and at Washington before coming to Texas.
Royal always believed that there were four kinds of people:
"Those who do not know, and do not know that they do not know; those who know, but do not know that they know; those who do not know, and know that they do not know; and those who know, and know that they know."
And Darrell Royal knew.
The hour was late, and Darrell Royal was sleepless in Seattle long before they made a movie about it. As one of the young lions of college football, he did dare to dream -- but even in his greatest fantasy, becoming the head football coach at The University of Texas was a stretch.
Royal was young, and as a college head coach he had had two 6-4 years at Mississippi State and one 5-5 season with Washington.
The Texas football job was one of the nation's plums. Publicity around the job search had mentioned such high profile names as former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy, Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech, Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State and Murray Warmath of Minnesota.
"I had kind of daydreamed about the opportunity of coming to Texas, and Edith and I had talked about it a lot," Royal once told the historian Lou Maysel. "It's funny how it happened. I was looking for the call, yet at the same time I knew there was not much basis to be called."
But when the phone rang late that night and the strong voice on the other end of the line said, "This is D.X. Bible of The University of Texas," Royal put his hand over the phone, turned to his wife and said, "This is it, Edith. It's The University of Texas calling."
Everywhere Bible turned in his search for a coach, Royal's name surfaced with glowing recommendations, and when he came for the interview, he left with the job. His charm was obvious, and his winning ways instantaneous.
He came to the Austin campus with a folksy sense of humor that produced a phenomenon called "Royalisms" and a style of football that produced solid success.
Texas went from a 1-9 season in 1956 to a 6-3-1 regular season in 1957--and with it a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Royal's Longhorns were off on the first of 16 bowl trips they would make over the next 20 years. In 23 years as a head coach, he never had a losing season.
Royal's roots came from the depression days in Southwestern Oklahoma, where he chopped cotton for 10 cents an hour as a kid and where the Hollis native began his life in football as a high school star in the early 1940s. He was an all-American quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, and in his time at Texas, the Sooners would make several overtures to try to get him to come home to coach -- but he never left.
Royal became the media's dream -- always turning a phrase in a unique way. He coined sayings that became part of Americana, and they would be repeated again and again.
"Luck," he once said, "is when preparation meets opportunity."
Thirty years later, television personality Oprah Winfrey used the same quote.
Perhaps his most famous saying came when he was asked if he was planning any changes before a particular game.
"We're like the girl at the school party," he said, "we're gonna dance with who brung us."
Sometimes, some folks just didn't take it right. When he was forced to use a back up punter named Kim Gaynor because of an injury to his star Ernie Koy, Royal recalled the fellow who was being chided because his date wasn't particularly good looking.
"Old ugly is better than ole nuthin,'" Royal said.
And he spent the next day apologizing to Gaynor's family, some of whom took offense. From that time on, Gaynor was known around the media as "pretty ole Kim."
But Royal was far more than folksy sayings.
He changed the landscape of college football with one of his early hires. Seeing the academic challenges facing athletes, Royal created a position of academic counselor, and hired a high school principal named Lan Hewlett to be the "brain coach." Hewlett was the nation's first athletics department counselor concentrating on the academics of the student athletes.
The competitor in Royal seethed at losing. After his first Texas team lost to Ole Miss, 39-7, Royal gave his bowl watch away the night of the awards banquet following the game. The best way to combat hating to lose is to win, and Royal did that as well as anybody in the game. In his 20 years as the Texas coach, his teams won more Southwest Conference games (109) and more games (167) than any team in league history. His record of 167-45-5 was the best mark in the nation over the period from 1957-1976. His teams finished in the Top 10 nationally 11 times, and he coaches 77 All-SWC players and 26 All-Americans.
But as much as the wins, it would be the honesty and integrity of Royal that would be remembered. With values etched by the winds and the dust, Royal came from a time and a place where sometimes all a man had was his will and his integrity. The benchmark of his career was the universal understanding that he ran a program where cheating would not be tolerated.
"I have a pretty strict code as far as athletics is concerned," he once said. "If you are playing under the real rules of golf, for instance, there is something weak in a person who moves his ball from behind a tree...who nudges his ball or miss-marks his ball.
"Adherence to the rules, sportsmanship and ethics...those are the things we have to stand for. Athletics is a whole lot like life. You will always be tempted to 'cut across.' If you do that in college athletics, you are doing it with those who are the future citizens who will be leading our cities, our states and our country. You are sending them the wrong message."
Royal and his dashing young staff -- including defensive genius Mike Campbell who would coach with him throughout his Texas tenure -- flashed on the Texas football scene like a shiny new pocket watch. His first team defeated Bear Bryant's team led by Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow, 9-7. By 1959, he was competing for national honors, losing only to TCU in the ice in Austin, 14-9, and to national power Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl. The 1959 league championship was the first for Texas since 1953.
Two years later, Royal would put Texas on the threshold of history. The 1961 Longhorns, featuring a running game that was as swift as it was powerful, rolled to a No. 1 in the nation ranking before a 6-0 upset by TCU sidetracked them. But the 12-7 victory over highly regarded Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl was Royal's first bowl victory, and it set the stage for a run that would include a 9-1-1 season in 1962 and the school's first ever National Championship in 1963. From the start of the 1961 season through mid-1965, Royal's Longhorns were an incredible 44-3-1.As with anything, timing was everything for Darrell Royal. His 1967 recruiting class -- dubbed "the Worster Crowd" because of the notoriety and prowess of fullback Steve Worster -- was the nation's best. By the time they were sophomores in 1968, Royal had installed the Wishbone offense, and was off on a 30-game winning streak.
As Royal was growing, so was live sports television. The handsome Oklahoman with the winsome smile and the quick wit was an instant hit, and his teams appeared on television more than any other in the nation.
League championships in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973 were a record, as were six straight Cotton Bowl appearances.
But while he was teaching football, he was also teaching about life. With all his all Americans and even a guy who would win the Heisman Trophy, Royal had no player more famous or more valuable than James Street, who quarterbacked the national championship team of 1969 and was never beaten in 20 starts as the Texas signal caller.
"The more removed I am from my days as a player, the more I appreciate what he did for me," Street said. "He had a way about him. He taught us how to live life with class...things like polishing your shoes and cleaning your fingernails were as important to him as the game of football. He didn't just teach you something, he gave you something. He put the lesson out there, and it was up to you to accept it. If you didn't get it, it was your own fault."
The lessons of life included a stroll back to the basics, and for Royal, life at times was tragic. It helped shape a compassion. Denne Freeman, a regional sports editor for The Associated Press and a good friend of Royal, always felt that Royal's zeal for coaching dimmed some with the death of his daughter, Marian, in an automobile accident in the spring of 1973.
"It definitely had that effect," Royal said quietly. "There is no question about that. It took some of the sharp, aggressive edge. I wasn't quite as demanding after that. It didn't matter as much."
Several years later, the Royals lost another child when son David died in a motorcycle accident. In times of tragedy for others, Royal is often the first to respond.
"You develop more compassion for others," he said. "It is something I can definitely relate to. All of us have lost members of our families, but there is nothing quite like losing a child. We always think we'll die before our children, but it doesn't work that way in all cases."
Once asked by a subordinate about the key characteristic of a person, Royal replied, "I have always thought the mark of a man is how he treats people who can never do anything for him."
That is why people loved Royal. Regardless of who you were, he made you feel special.
Perhaps the richest irony of the Royal career at Texas comes from the fact that in his early days, he was afraid of public speaking. A friend helped him by giving him a poem to learn, and when he had mastered the poem, he had conquered the fear. But the poem told a story that would best capture what Royal was all about.
"It's about the old guy who came to a chasm and crossed the chasm in the twilight of the evening and stopped when he was safe on the other side to build a bridge over where he had been.
"The thought was that some of the passersby saw the old man building the bridge and asked him why he built it. He was already across the chasm, and why would he stop and build the bridge? He said that a young person would follow along sometime, and they'd need that bridge to cross the chasm.
"It's a heckuva story...it tells a beautiful story when you tell it, and I would wind up a lot of my talks with that...about the youth and what a great commodity they were and what a great asset they were. It wasn't oil, and it wasn't money that were our greatest assets. It was our young people. And we all should be trying to build a bridge for them," Royal said.
The poem read:
In a tribute video to Royal shown at a celebration in 1996 announcing that his name would be added to the official name of the stadium on the UT campus making it Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the words "Orange Towers earned with effort were all lessons in the stream" appeared. The author thought about changing them, but the young singer, a talented UT student named Emilie Williams, protested. The Orange Towers -- symbols of victories, were, in fact earned with effort, and there were lessons that were learned, she said.
"Exactly," said James Street. "It was all about effort. Whether it dealt with your personal life, or a game. He taught us that nothing comes easy."
At age 52, following the 1976 season, Royal quit coaching.
"The down side of coaching was getting to me more and more, and the up side of it wasn't nearly as pleasing because all I was doing was trying to maintain a position. I had lost the really big thrill of winning, and the negative side of it was bothering me more and more, and I knew the balance was such that it was time for me to quit. My time was at a rather young age. I still had plenty of energy and plenty of desire to coach, but I got to where I couldn't stand losing, and I wasn't getting that much pleasure out of winning."
In the mid-1980s, Texas football hit a valley. The Longhorns, who had dominated the 1960s and were a presence in college football through the 1970s and early 1980s, disappeared from the national landscape. When the Texas administration decided to make their third coaching change in 11 years after the 1997 season, Royal was asked to serve in the selection process.
It was there that he became reacquainted with Mack Brown, the head coach at North Carolina, and a person whom Royal had advised when Brown was head coach and athletics director at Tulane in 1985. While other candidates were mentioned prominently, Royal was part of a group which met with Brown and his wife, Sally in Atlanta.
The bond was immediate, and it was strong. Brown became Royal's choice, which was certainly a helpful boost in his getting the job.
Brown reached out to Royal and his wife, Edith, in a very special way, and once again, he was embraced as a part of the Longhorn football family. Royal's pride in Brown's success, and his relationship with the young players on the Texas team energized the octogenarian--even in his final days in a long battle with memory loss. For years he was a regular attendee at football practice, He was an honorary captain for the team which beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl in 2005, and this fall he and his wife, Edith, served as honorary captains at the Longhorns' opening game.
There was a popular country song that once paid tribute to the legendary Bob Wills with the line, "it don't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king."
So it was with Darrell Royal. When he walked into a room -- even more than 30 years removed from the game and over 50 from the day he first stepped on the Texas campus--heads would turn.
He always had a presence about him, a presence of greatness achieved, of respect earned, and of time and a place in college football that would never come again.