Bill Little commentary: Darrell Royal -- Marking a half-century
In what was a quiet morning, a cool breeze had announced that the fast approaching summer was on hold for a while. The gathering in the Lone Star Room of the Frank Erwin Center, a collection of honored staff members and their fellow workers, bore witness to a significant rite of passage.
It was in that space that Darrell Royal, who has won countless awards for excellence, was saluted for longevity.
Each year, The University of Texas at Austin honors employees who have served for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 -- you get the picture -- years. And Wednesday morning was no different.
Kasey Johnson, who has been Mack Brown's administrative associate almost since his arrival at Texas, was recognized for 15 years of service. Brook Whitaker, who is in charge of maintaining the turf in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, also had 15 years. Doug Wilson, who is in charge of operations, has been at Texas for 20 years.
When John Graham of the Erwin Center and women's AD Chris Plonsky and men's AD DeLoss Dodds had finished most of the award presentations, Dodds had one more plaque to give.
With help from Royal's friend and protégée Mack Brown and a letter from UT President William Powers, he recognized Darrell Royal for 50 years of service to The University of Texas.
Fifty years. Think about it.
It was in December of 1956 when Royal and his wife, Edith, were about to go to sleep at their home in Seattle, Wash., when a late night phone call changed their lives, and the face of college football.
Royal, who had played his college ball at Oklahoma, was in his first and only year as the head coach at the University of Washington. He had heard of the opening at Texas, and how, after a one-win season, Ed Price had stepped down at the Longhorns' head coach. He knew there was a long list of candidates, and he knew at the beginning, his name wasn't on the list.
But two of the people who had been contacted and turned the offer down -- Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech and Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State -- had recommended the 32-year-old Royal for the job. So when the voice on the other end of the phone that night said, "Darrell, this is D. X. Bible of The University of Texas," Royal covered the phone and said to his wife, "Edith, this is it...this is The University of Texas."
Now, on May 16, there stood Royal, getting a standing ovation from the Longhorns athletic family. Two years before, in another time and place, he had been with Dodds for perhaps his finest moment since he quit coaching.
It had been almost 30 years since he had coached his last football game, but the moment was not lost on Darrell Royal as he moved through the crowd and down the ramp into the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2005.
DeLoss Dodds walked with him and noticed the emotion in the eyes of the most famous figure in Longhorns football history.
As the sea of orange swelled the pride within him, and as Longhorns fans and college football fans alike saluted him and his friend, Michigan's Bo Schembechler in pregame ceremonies before the game, Darrell Royal took time to remember.
It had been a long time since he had hitch-hiked back to Oklahoma to stay with his grandmother and work at the local Ford Motor Company house so he could go to high school and play football, the game that would become his destiny.
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.
When he arrived at Texas that December of 1956, he was, at 32, the youngest coach in college football. He came to a program that had slipped in the mid-1950s, 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 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 top five in the nation 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 adviser to the UT president on athletic matters, and he served full-time in that capacity until he retired in 1990, and has since stayed on in an advisory capacity on a part-time basis.
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 that ranks as the best in modern history.
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 African-American institution in Alabama, and he parlayed his love of country music and golf into numerous fund raising 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.
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, Dodd, Daugherty 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."
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 with a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Royal's Longhorns were off on the first of those 16 bowl trips. 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-America 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. He served in the Army Air Corps from 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 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 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 backup 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 who 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 that first academic counselor position, and hired a high school principal named Lan Hewlett to be the "brain coach."
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. His record of 167-45-5 was the best mark in the nation over the period from 1957 through 1976. His teams finished in the Top 10 nationally 11 times, and he coached 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."
For 50 years, Royal has been the face of athletics at The University of Texas, and in a sense, he has been a vital force in the creation of the image of The University itself. And Wednesday in the Erwin Center, he humbly passed another milestone on a long road of success.