Bill Little commentary: Friends, fans gather to celebrate Royal's birthday
July 26, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
Everything about Porterville, Calif., in 1940 seemed destined to talk about good times. The farming town on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley lies halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Just a handful of miles from the western side of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, its fertile soil yields citrus, olives, fruit trees, field crops, cotton, vineyards and hay -- just about every category of the modern term of "agribusiness" you can imagine.
It was to this lush land that scores of Oklahomans, driven away by the drought of the Dust Bowl, fled, family by family, in the time of America's "Great Depression." Farm owners became farm workers. Anything to make a living. Grown folks worked, and so did kids.
Darrell Royal was one of them, those children of the exodus whose roots had blown away with the Oklahoma red dirt in a vicious series of windstorms. But when things weren't going so well with a step-mom and the final straw came when he wasn't old enough to try out for the high school football team, he would learn the greatest of lessons: A person's roots grow deep, and home really is where the heart is.
The families who left southwestern Oklahoma for the valleys of California took only what they could carry. Today, if you want to travel to Porterville, you can either ride 1,262 miles -- mostly on I-40 -- to get there from Hollis, Okla., or fly a fistful of airline options that will get you easily within an hour of Porterville. Every day, at the surrounding airports, thousands of bags, from old suitcases to designer luggage, will come streaming down state-of-the-art conveyor belts into air-conditioned terminals.
But when Darrell decided he wanted to come back to middle America, all he had was a box, his thumb, and his baseball glove.
And as he turned 85 on July 6, Royal enjoyed a month of birthday celebrations -- several hundred fans and friends gathered Saturday night at the Red McCombs Red Zone to sing "Happy Birthday" -- and remembered that trip from the valley.
"I went to my Dad and told him I wanted to go back to Hollis," Royal said. "I could live with my grandma, and I got a letter from the high school football coach saying I could be on the team if I could find a way back."
"Victrola" was the name of the company which produced a reel and record player that was housed in a wooden box. It had a crank to wind up the motor, and inside the snaps holding the top of the case was the mechanism which spun the record or the sound reel. With the works removed, it served as a carrying box with a handle on it.
And so, with the box containing everything he had -- including his baseball glove (his most valuable possession), Darrell Royal got out on the highway and began hitch-hiking back to Oklahoma. He doesn't remember whatever happened to the box after he got back to Oklahoma -- it wasn't something that he treasured. The baseball glove serves as a symbol of the kids of the time.
What we do know, however, is what happened to the boy of that hot summer, walking and riding through the desert and over the mountains on a glory road that would begin an odyssey that would produce one of America's greatest sports figures.
The summer of 2009 -- and Royal's 85th birthday -- marked almost 70 years since that summer in the spring-time of his life. In fact, it had been more than 30 years since he quit coaching following the 1976 season. But his players, and those who worked with him, hadn't forgotten.
On July 25, team members from every squad during Royal's Texas tenure from 1957 through 1976 came back to a special birthday party in the "Red Zone" at the north end of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to pay tribute to their coach.
It is worth a note of irony that about the time Royal arrived at Texas in December of 1956, work began on an earthen dam just eight miles from Porterville, Calif. When it was finished in 1961 -- about the time Royal's teams at Texas were beginning to mature -- the dam formed a lake. Folks around Porterville called it "Lake Success."
And that was exactly the kind of era Royal was embarking on with his University of Texas Longhorns. His legacy had actually begun as a college football player at the University of Oklahoma, and following head coaching positions at Mississippi State and Washington, he had followed a dream and landed at The University of Texas prior to the season of 1957.
Texas Football was in a valley of its own when Royal arrived, but this one wasn't plush at all. After a national surge under the leadership of famed coach D. X. Bible during the 1940s, two of Bible's assistants -- first Blair Cherry and later former Longhorns player Ed Price -- had charge of the Longhorns ship.
Despite significant success (a record of 32-10-1), Cherry abruptly resigned in 1950. He later cited fan and media criticism as reasons for leaving. Price won early, but by 1956, the Longhorns slipped to a 1-9 record and the popular alum resigned and moved into the UT administration as dean of student activities.
The national search for a successor brought mentions of some of the greatest names in the college coaching profession. Some were interested; some were not. Bible, who as athletics director was head of the selection committee, called some old friends in the business, and the name that began to surface was that young coach at Washington, Darrell Royal. Bible had begun with a list of 100 names, and Royal's wasn't on it.
But when Bible went against the odds and hired the 32-year-old Royal as the youngest head coach in America, Texas was about to enter its own voyage on its version of a lake of success.
His first year, 1957, produced a 6-3-1 regular season and a stunning 9-7 victory over No. 4 ranked Texas A&M in College Station -- a team that featured Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow. At the celebration on Saturday, Nike announced that it was producing a one-of-a-kind road uniform for the Longhorns to wear in honor of Coach Royal and that team when they travel to Texas A&M this Thanksgiving night.
The victory over the Aggies that season actually proved to be "too much, too soon" for Royal and his Longhorns, who earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl against a powerful Ole Miss team which soundly defeated UT, 39-7. The game, however, revealed Royal's burning desire to win. Legend has it that he showed his frustration by giving his bowl watch away almost as soon as he received it.
That, however, would be one of the few such moments after his very early years. Royal's teams dominated the decade of the 1960s, so much so that he was named "Coach of the Decade" by ABC Television. In the seasons between 1961 through 1970, Royal's teams would win three national championships.
During his 20 years as head coach, he would take teams to 16 bowl games. His Longhorns would win 11 Southwest Conference championships and finish in the nation's top-five eight times. He would become known as an innovator on and off the field, first creating an offensive powerhouse in 1961 with a "flip flop" concept where his offensive line flipped sides to coordinate with a winged T attack.
But his bench mark would be the installation of a three running back set fashioned from the Veer that would become known as "The Wishbone." From 1968 through 1970, Royal's Longhorns would win 30 games, lose only two and tie one. In the middle of that string was a 30-game winning streak, which was second only during that era of college football to Oklahoma's 47-game record string in the 1950s.
Royal's success, however, would not only come with the trophies and the award winners. When he first came to Texas, he hired the first academic counselor for athletics in the country, and began presenting a specially designed "T" ring to those players who lettered, and went on to earn their college degrees.
Again, in a touch of irony, as Royal and his players celebrated in the "Red Zone" (named for his friend and UT benefactor Red McCombs), work was being completed in the south end of the stadium on a state-of-the art academic center for Longhorns football players that is an addition to the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center. In his time at Texas, Royal became the winningest coach in the history of the Southwest Conference. And while the success helped create the legacy that serves The University of Texas on the landscape of college football, in the twilight of a summer's evening in Austin, the memories of those who gathered in the stadium which now bears his name were not about what they had done, but more about who they had become.
Spearheaded by Bill Hall, a manager for Royal in the 1960s, and his good friend James Street, the idea caught on quickly with a thought of such a gathering by Randy McEachern, who was recruited by Royal in the 1970s. Hall and his group contacted the captains of every one of Royal's 20 Texas teams, and used them as the keys to invite as many of his former players as they could find.
It was therefore fitting that the evening focused on Royal and a poem he learned as a young man when he was first entering coaching, and was struggling with public speaking. The poem was entitled "The Builder," and was sent to Royal by a minister who told him to learn to read it without "sing songing" it.
Ironically, it not only taught him a lesson, but it told the story of Royal's life.
The poem read:
An old man, traveling a lone highway,
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm deep and wide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
For the sullen stream held no fears for him,
But he turned when he reached the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," cried a fellow pilgrim near,
"You are wasting your strength with building here,
Your journey will end with the ending day,
And you never again will pass this way.
You have crossed the chasm deep and wide,
Why build you a bridge at eventide?"
And the builder raised his old gray head:
"Good friend, on the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today
A youth whose feet will pass this way.
This stream, which has been as naught to me,
To that fair-haired boy may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim -- Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."
And that is why, on a summer evening, they came back to say thanks.