I almost killed Darrell Royal. The first time I met the legendary coach, who passed away Tuesday night at the age of 88, I was backing up from the bar at La Zona Rosa about 10 years ago. Coach Royal was behind me. I didn't see him, I swear, but I nearly knocked him to the ground — probably would have if he hadn't caught the arm of friend. Yes, probably not a deadly act, but frightening given his fragility, even then.
I immediately apologized profusely and tried hard to get far away as quickly as I could. Royal looked at me and said "It's ok son, I've been hit harder." It was then that I learned how a great man becomes a legend.
Football is still the first thing you think of when the words "Darrell Royal" enter your ears, but to simply call him a football icon is to sell Darrell Royal short. He was an advisor, a teacher, a poet; he and his wife Edith together were some of Austin's great philanthropists; his support for Texas music — especially the songwriters — helped make Austin the Live Music Capital of the World, and was nearly as legendary in those circles as his football.
And his football was the stuff of legends. Besides being known as the hardest working coach and the man who brought the wishbone offense to college football, he was also known as the consummate sportsman. A few accomplishments:
- All-American quarterback for Oklahoma
- The Texas Longhorns all-time winningest coach with a 167-47-5 record from 1957-76
- 20 consecutive winning seasons (he never had a losing season)
- Three National Championships
- 11 Southwest Conference titles
- Six-time Coach of the Year
- Induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame
- Induction into the College Football Hall of Fame
Royal became my idol the first time I stepped foot into Texas Memorial Stadium in 1979. He was just three years out of coaching and athletic director at the time. The stadium did not yet carry his name.
Texas football had been good before Royal entered the scene in 1956. Good, but not great. Texas had never won a national championship, unlike arch rivals Texas A&M and Oklahoma, even TCU. Royal had been an All-American quarterback at Oklahoma and spent a couple years coaching at Mississippi State and Washington, but when Dana X. Bible, Texas pre-Royal legendary coach, called in 1957, Royal, the Oklahoma Sooner All-American, became a Longhorn.
His first season built the foundation for his legend. He took a 1956 1-9 team and immediately turned it into a 1957 6-3-1 team, taking the Longhorns to the Sugar Bowl. In 1963, Texas won its first of Royal's three National Championships.
Football, and wife Edith, may have been Royal's first loves, but he cheated on them a lot with music. Royal loved Texas music and especially supported the Texas songwriter. His football work ethic gave him an understanding of the musician's passion.
Royal once said "I have always thought the mark of a man is how he treats people who can never do anything for him." He saw the best in people, often overlooking their foibles. That was never more true than with his friend Willie Nelson.
They first met over 60 years ago before either was a household name, but they became best friends. The friendship started with the music of course. Royal loved the lyrics which is why he loved the songwriters. Whenever I saw Darrell Royal out and about, he was there for music.
Darrell Royal is the standard upon which all Texas coaches are measured. It's an impossible standard to equal of course.
When Royal left coaching, Texas hired Fred Akers as head coach. Fred Akers was criticized as not one of "Royal's guys," and despite taking Texas to the threshold of two national championships, it took only the 1986 losing season — the first since Royal had arrived in 1957 — for Akers to be out and David McWilliams, one of "Royal's guys," to be in. Texas football wandered in the desert until Royal entered the hiring committee again and brought Mack Brown to Texas.
In 1996 the University of Texas added Royal's name to Texas Memorial Stadium. There is no other person now or in the future of Longhorn football who will ever deserve it more. "He is Texas football," Mack Brown once said of Royal.
"He put us on the map. He's our trademark. He's one of those handful of guys who've done more for college football than college football did for him."
Darrell Royal did a lot for a lot of people. His work may have revolved around football, but the man made better people of anyone he met, and he made Austin a better place.
A year ago, the Royals created the Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer's Disease. Donations can still be given to that fund.