Legendary coach, admired leader Darrell K Royal dead at age 88


1924 - 2012: A Royal Legacy

Former Texas head football coach Darrell K Royal is hoisted on his players’ shoulders following the Longhorns’ 42-7 win over No. 4 Arkansas in 1970. UT won three national titles under Royal, who died of complications from a cardiovascular disease Wednesday in Austin.
Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The UT community paid tribute to legendary football coach Darrell K Royal, who died from complications of cardiovascular disease early Wednesday morning at an assisted living facility in Austin. Royal was 88.

Visitors began gathering at Royal’s statue around noon, laying bouquets of flowers. The southeast gates to the stadium near the statue will remain open until 11 p.m. Thursday. To further remember Royal, the Tower was lit burnt orange Wednesday night.

Royal is survived by his wife, Edith, and son, Mack. His two children, Marian and David, preceded him in death. A memorial service will be held at noon Tuesday at the Frank Erwin Center, and is open to the public. Royal’s burial will be private.

“Today is a very sad day,” head football coach Mack Brown said in a statement. “I lost a wonderful friend, a mentor, a confidant and my hero. College football lost maybe its best ever and the world lost a great man. I can hardly put in words how much Coach Royal means to me and all that he has done for me and my family. I wouldn’t even be at Texas without Coach.”

Royal came to Texas in December of 1956 at age 32 and immediately began to turn around what was a downtrodden football team. In his first season, Royal led the Longhorns to a No. 11 national ranking and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. The rest of his coaching career (1956-76) at Texas brought much of the same, with the Longhorns going 167-47-5 with Royal as head coach, including three national championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles. Royal, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, remains the all-time winningest coach in program history.

On Saturday against Iowa State, the Longhorns will wear “DKR” decals on the side of their helmets and the first offensive play from scrimmage will be run from the wishbone formation, Royal’s brainchild.

“He built the foundation we’re working off of today,” athletic director DeLoss Dodds said in a press conference. “He absolutely got us started in the right direction. He took a program that was struggling and took it to new heights. He gave us confidence to help build and brand the University. This is a tough time for all of us.”

Royal was responsible for the integration of the football team, which had its first African-American member, Julius Whittier, in 1970. Integration had already been mandated at that point, but many of Royal’s bosses thought the football field should be a place without color.

“He took a lot of criticism that Texas wasn’t integrated by then, but that wasn’t his call,” Bill Little, a close friend and special assistant to football coach for communications, said.

Whittier told The Daily Texan in 2010 that he “owed everything” to Royal.

Born in Hollis, Okla., on July 6, 1924, Royal grew up a child of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. He starred at quarterback, defensive back and punter at the University of Oklahoma, where he still holds the career record for interceptions. Royal was a coach at four universities as well as the Edmonton Eskimos of what was then known as the Canadian Rugby Union before coming to the 40 Acres.

In 1963, his seventh season in Austin, Royal led the Longhorns to their first national championship. Facing the Roger Staubach-led Navy Midshipmen at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas jumped out to a 28-0 lead by the end of the third quarter and triumphed, 28-6.

After three consecutive four-loss seasons, Royal hired Emory Bellard in 1968 to be his offensive coordinator. Together, they invented the wishbone formation — an offensive alignment that put the quarterback under center, a fullback directly behind him and two running backs lined up, offset, behind the fullback.

The formation, perfected by quarterback James Street, helped Texas win two more national titles under Royal, the next coming in 1969. In the top-ranked Longhorns’ regular season finale that year against No. 2 Arkansas — dubbed “The Game of the Century” — they faced a 14-0 deficit after three quarters. ­

Street engineered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives that gave Texas a 15-14 victory, leading President Richard Nixon to proclaim the Longhorns the best college football team in the country in the locker room after the game.

That triumph was Texas’ 20th in a row, a streak that reached 30 straight victories in 1970, when the Longhorns captured their third national championship under Royal. They fell to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, 24-11, that season but still earned a share of the title.

That year also marked the last time Royal’s Longhorns beat Oklahoma. Royal won 12 of his first 14 games against OU as Texas’ head coach before losing five in a row from 1971 to 1975. His Longhorns won 17 of their first 18 games against Texas A&M before falling to the Aggies in 1975 and 1976, Royal’s 20th and final year as Texas’ head coach.

Royal, who served as UT’s athletic director from 1962 to 1980, played an instrumental role in convincing Mack Brown to leave North Carolina for Texas in December of 1997. In Brown’s 2001 book, “One Heartbeat,” he describes an Atlanta meeting with a Texas committee, of which Royal was a part, set to find its new coach.

“When we had some time to be alone, [Royal] told me, ‘You need to take this job.’”

“I said, ‘Why?’”

“He said, ‘Because we need help.’”

Brown is currently 19 wins away from tying Royal as the program’s career leader in wins.

“Coach gave so much more to the state of Texas and college football than he took away,” Brown said. “He forgot more football than most of us will ever know, including me. His impact on the game, the coaches and players, the community and the millions of lives he touched, is insurmountable.”

At a time when the nation was divided by an unpopular war and trembling under the threat of the Red Scare, Royal was a hero in a time of need, Little said.

“Coach was a larger-than-life figure who came along when we needed a hero,” Little said. “He was young and he stood for something fun.

Certainly the state of Texas and college football were hooked onto that trailer and the things he stood for. Integrity was the number one thing in his life. He wasn’t going to cut corners. That’s why he touched so many people.”

Beloved for his folksy quips, Royal believed that “only three things can happen when you throw the football and two of them are bad,” that you “should dance with the one who brung ya” and once called an opposing quarterback “as quick as a hiccup.”

“He had a great sense of humor,” Dodds said. “I played golf with him and he had some great lines, especially about my golf game. I hit a ball into the rough once and he said, ‘Lassie couldn’t find that ball if it had bacon wrapped around it.’”

Dodds saw Royal before Texas’ game against Wyoming Sept. 1, when Royal and his wife were honorary captains for the pregame coin toss. A victim of Alzheimer’s disease, Royal had to be helped to midfield.

“I watched that and knew that’d be the last time he’d be at [the stadium],” Dodds said.

The Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease was launched in February to “expand the paradigms of care and access for Texans enabling exposure to preventative and treatment strategies aimed at combatting the epidemic.”

University of Texas President William Powers Jr. is hopeful the new medical school will adequately serve those with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It would be a great legacy to Coach if significant progress and breakthroughs on Alzheimer’s could take place on our campus,” Powers said.

Royal befriended a wide array of personalities, including 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson, musician Willie Nelson and astronaut Charlie Duke. Johnson wasn’t a fan of football, Little said, but would watch the Longhorns play just for Royal.

“LBJ was a fan of people,” Little said. “Coach Royal was the rarest of people.”