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Remembering Texas coach Darrell Royal

There is no good news when you consider the ravages of a pandemic, but I have heard many friends and neighbors talk about a surfeit of unfinished projects that have suddenly gotten latent attention.

I’m in that category, having organized and cleaned my basement where I have a working corner that is delightfully relaxed and functional. Reference books are within economic reach and there is ample desktop space for open folders and books, which accommodate the crafting of a document for print.

For years, I have saved artifacts and mementos which make me reflect on the past when there was a competition or a time when an athlete talked into my tape recorder for an extended duration. Plus a few prized photos and mementos. I get a lift from my surroundings.

Owing to technology, I can stick a CD, with a recorded interview, into the computer, engage a novel app which then takes “talk” and turns it all into a word document. Last weekend, I pulled out a recorded conversation with Darrell Royal and reflected on the times when I enjoyed a conversation with him in Austin, Texas, where he lived out his life after coaching Texas to three National Championships.

As often as I could manage a trip to Austin in the past, I was eager to embark. Before I made final plans, I would always call ahead to see if I could schedule breakfast with Coach Royal.

His favorite hangout was Cisco’s Bakery on East Sixth Street. There were a lot of street folk, including a couple of Mexican-Americans who, without invitation, would pull up a chair and join the conversation. They soon were reacting to something the coach said and were given to recalling signature victories from the Longhorn past. A lady with a mop moved in and cocked an ear. The waiter seemed oblivious to other customers, camping out with us.

None of that bothered Royal who was as “down to earth” as any big time coach who ever wore a whistle around his neck, which is why he was a successful recruiter, teacher, coach and confidante.

A devout country music aficionado, Royal and his wife, Edith, became close friends with Charlie Pride and his wife, Rozene. They vacationed together. Nothing Royal liked more than to join Willie Nelson on the golf course during the afternoon to be followed by pickin’ and singin’ after supper.

In addition to three National Championships (1963, 1969, 1970), Royal won 11 Southwest Conference titles. No coach ever underscored the fundamentals of football more than this Hollis, Oklahoma, native who was a big star for Bud Wilkinson in Norman.

Early on, Royal worked with coaches, schooled under Gen. Robert Neyland of Tennessee. At one of those breakfast outings, Roy said emphatically: “I think General Neyland had more influence on the game of football than any other coach that ever lived.”

Royal was enamored with the Neyland view that if you can’t run off tackle, you can’t win. And, you play defense, first and foremost. Further, you best underscore all phases of the kicking game if you want success. Royal was an advocate of the Wing-T when he began head coaching at Mississippi State. He then coached at Washington before settling in at Austin.

While at Texas, his offensive assistant, Emory Bellard, sold Royal on the wishbone formation in 1968. The Longhorns ran roughshod over the Southwest Conference before opponents figured out how to stop it. Actually, the best they could do was slow it down.

Spike Dikes, a Royal assistant who later became head coach at Texas Tech, was of the same “downhome” persuasion. Once when he came to speak to the Athens Touchdown Club we drank beer on my porch and talked football. Spike’s take on Royal: “He absolutely had no ego, but you never did have to figure out who was head coach. He gave Emory total credit for the wishbone, calling it ‘Emory’s deal.’”

Famous for his homespun humor, Royal said of his All-America running back James Saxton, “He could run like small town gossip.” When he introduced Masters champion and Austin resident Ben Crenshaw to country singer Don Williams, Royal said of the singer: “He’s straighter than six o’clock.” In your mind’s eye you quickly conclude that is damn straight.

Perhaps, his best quote, one which reflects the humility with which Royal lived was, “There ain’t ever been a horse that can’t be rode and there ain’t ever been a man that can’t be throwed.”

When he beat his former coach Bud Wilkinson for the first time, it was hard on Royal, emotionally. He wanted to win the biggest game on the schedule, but he told a friend, “it just didn’t seem right to beat Mr. Wilkinson.”

I have always thought that he and Frank Broyles of Arkansas were classic coaches, truest to the tenets of the game, as in life. Fight it out on the field but embrace warm friendship and fellowship afterwards. They passionately loved golf. Broyles, a member at Augusta, arranged for them to play a few rounds at the home of the Masters—often 36 holes a day.

Broyles once told me, “Darrell and I truly loved the game. We were not scratch golfers, but our wives were scratch shoppers.”

The college game is much more advanced today, but I am not sure that in its truest sense, it is better. Of this I am certain, coaches enjoyed the game more a half century ago. As they likely say in Hollis, Okla., “It’s all bidness now.”