Bill Little

Bill Little, special assistant to the head football coach for communication, will retire Sunday after 46 years with the Texas athletics department. The football and baseball press boxes will be named the Bill Little Media Center in his honor. 

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

Seven years ago, Bill Little, special assistant to the head football coach for communication, made a promise to then-athletic director DeLoss Dodds and head football coach Mack Brown.

The longtime sports information director committed to stay at Texas for as long as Dodds and Brown did.

But, last January, just a few months away from turning 72, Little and his wife, Kim, realized that promise had been fulfilled.

“In January, I looked up, and both DeLoss and Mack were gone,” Little said. “A new group of people were coming in, and they needed their own people to do their own thing. So [Kim and I] said, in the words of Coach Royal, ‘Let’s just set our bucket down.’ And that’s what we decided to do.”

On Aug. 31, Little will retire, and, for the first time since 1968, he will no longer be an employee of Texas athletics.

The legendary wordsmith, who worked as a commentary writer and special assistant to Brown for the past seven years, saw the reigns of five football coaches, five basketball coaches and four athletic directors during his time in Austin. He attended 36 bowl games with the Longhorns and broadcasted more than 1,700 baseball games. Even Little’s honeymoon consisted of accompanying the Longhorns’ basketball team to New York during their NIT trip in 1978. But, after seeing six decades come and go at Texas, Little thought it was the perfect time to leave.

“It’s always hard to step away,” Little said. “But the timing was just perfect. I always said I never wanted to leave anywhere bitter, and that has always been important to me. The opportunity seemed right for the new administration — for Coach Strong and for everyone. It was a hard decision, but it was also an easy decision.”

Little grew up in Winters, a small town south of Abilene that encompasses under three square miles and has a population of just more than 2,500. After growing up a Longhorn fan, he followed in the footsteps of both his parents and began his college career at Texas in 1960.

As a student, he majored in journalism and worked in the sports information director’s office, creating a close friendship with football coach Darrell K Royal that would span until his death in 2012. In addition, he served as the sports editor of The Daily Texan for two years, witnessing Royal’s first national championship in 1963.

In 1968, at 26, Little started his full-time career at Texas as an assistant sports information director after a job interview that lasted just two sentences.

“I saw there was this really good job in public relations at the University of Texas,” Little said. “I called Coach Royal, and I said, ‘Coach, I want to come back.’ And he said, ‘I’d like to have you back.’ And that was the extent of it. I started that spring.”

Unknowingly, Little would spend the next 46 years involved in Texas sports. Ironically, though, sports weren’t Little’s passion. His passion stretched through sports to the stories that could be told and the people who were discovered through the game.

“I knew I loved journalism, and I knew I loved to tell the story,” Little said. “What I found in sports was the human element. It’s the conquest of the human spirit. It makes you love the game — whatever it is — and you cry with it, whether you win or lose.”

Little wanted to make a difference through his work and through his words.

“I always found that, if you can write something that can make a difference to somebody, it can change a life,” Little said. “I was a bad golfer and a worse tennis player. And I wasn’t big enough to play football, and I was too short to play basketball, so my only gifts were to write and talk. And, if I was going to do what God put me on this planet to do, then I needed to do those things.”

Little made that difference he was seeking and influenced so many around him that the football and baseball press boxes will now be named the Bill Little Media Center. A significant gift from longtime athletics supporter Marian Dozier created the funds to honor Little.

“It means so much to be able to honor my great friend Bill in this way,” Dozier said. “This naming will help honor his immense life work, the legacy he has left nationally on sports media and hopefully motivate young people to follow their passions in work and life.”

With his retirement approaching, Little — who has three children and ten grandchildren, all of whom are Texas fans — is ready to step away. He still hopes to stay involved with Texas athletics, though, by announcing home baseball games and doing radio work. He’s also written seven books on the Longhorns and hopes to finish a few more during his new free time. 

“Texas athletics has pretty much been my life for close to 60 years,” Little said. “This fall will mark the first time since 1957 I haven’t covered football for somebody. But now, I think I’ve earned the chance to set my bucket down.”

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.”

A special investigation published earlier this month found that 7 percent of players from top college football teams in the NCAA have criminal records. Sports Illustrated and CBS News conducted a joint six-month investigation into the criminal backgrounds of the top 25-ranked college football team players. Of the 2,837 players checked, about 200 had criminal records. UT’s football program has two players charged with criminal offenses, making it the program with the third-fewest players with criminal records in the top-25 ranking. The reporters found only two football programs that conducted background checks, and none of them looked at juvenile records. UT does not conduct background checks. “The first thing that our coaches look for in recruiting is character,” said UT football spokesman Bill Little. “And in a school like Texas, you have to achieve academically.” Little said the most important contact UT football recruiters has is with the high school coach, and then with the school counselor and principal and, finally, with the family. In this way, he said, the recruiters get a good sense of the family atmosphere and quality of life of the player. Both the football team and the university have rules based on behavior, Little said. The team can suspend a player for violation of team rules or the university can take action against any student that violates its rules. “But as far as our football team is concerned, we have very definite team rules and each case is handled on an individual basis,” Little said. The University of Oklahoma is one of the two schools that conducts background checks on its players, yet ranks seventh highest, with nine players charged. “What the article leads people to believe is that all of those offenses occurred prior to the time these players arrived on campus,” said Oklahoma football spokesman Kenny Mossman. “People have asked me, ‘If you saw that these players had offenses then why did you accept them?’ The truth is they had clean records when we accepted them.” Mossman found other faults with the article, such as the way in which all offenses — including simple police actions — were lumped together and compared with a felony assault case involving a Pittsburgh player. Radio-television-film sophomore Brittany Reeber said a football player’s criminal record does not matter to her. “Every student deserves an equal opportunity to prove themselves and make better lives, especially if they have talent. And if they screw up, they should have to deal with the consequences just like any other student,” she said. Rex Grayner, president of Student Athlete Showcase, a company that helps market high school athletes to college coaches, said the firm would consider taking on an athlete with a criminal record if they are athletically and academically qualified to play at the college level. “While there may be some college coaches who elect not to recruit an athlete with a criminal past, our goal would be to facilitate ongoing dialogue with those coaches who, based purely on the student’s athletic and academic credentials along with the coach’s individual recruiting needs and admissions criteria, might consider giving this athlete a second chance,” Grayner said.