He was the football coach who brought The University of Texas its first-ever national championship—then two more. He was the innovator of the wishbone offense, which led his team to 30 straight wins and six straight Southwestern Conference championships. But to the Longhorn community, he was simply “The Coach.”
Darrell K Royal, the Texas coach known both for his football acumen and unwavering dedication to his athletes, died last night at the age of 88 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
A Hollis, Okla., native and former All-American player for the Oklahoma Sooners, Royal wasn’t born in Texas, as the saying goes, but he got here as fast as he could. After stints as an assistant coach at North Carolina State, Tulsa, and Mississippi State, and a head coaching gig at the University of Washington, Royal signed on as head coach of the Longhorns in 1956, at just 32 years old.
In DKR: The Royal Scrapbook, author Jenna Hays McEachern writes of the night Royal and his beloved wife, Edith, received that life-changing call from D.X. Bible. “I’ll never forget that phone call,” Royal says in the book. “I covered the mouthpiece of the receiver with my hand and said, ‘Edith, this is it! It’s The University of Texas!’” And the Forty Acres would never be the same.
In his 20 years as Texas head coach, Royal never had a losing season. His record was 167-45-5, making him UT’s winningest football coach. He racked up 11 Southwestern Conference titles, 16 bowl games, and three national championships, including UT’s first-ever championship—70 years after the start of the Longhorn football program—which was hard-earned in a nail-biting 15-13 win over A&M in 1963. Sixty-one of his players were drafted into the NFL, and eight were round-one picks.
Royal himself was named National Coach of the Year twice and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. He also received the Texas Exes Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor bestowed to a non-UT alumnus, in 2006.
Despite all his accolades on the field, Royal was perhaps known best for his polite, dignified regard for others and his steadfast sense of integrity. With his athletes, he emphasized academics and discipline, even rewarding players who graduated with a coveted “T” ring. He and Edith sponsored non-athletes on the Forty Acres, and after player Reggie Grob passed away of heat exhaustion following a UT practice in 1962, Royal dedicated himself to keeping his athletes safe on the field.
Royal announced his retirement in 1976, following his 15th win over Arkansas and an impressive Longhorn football career that spanned two decades. The news sent shock waves through the UT community; Royal had come to mean—and still means—much more to Longhorns than a few national titles or winning seasons.
But Royal didn’t leave The University of Texas completely. He served as athletic director for four years following his retirement as head coach, and later as a special assistant to the UT president. As actor Ed Marinaro said in The Story of Darrell Royal: “He’s like the pope of Austin.”
Today, Royal’s name graces UT’s holy grail and the home of the Longhorns, the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The field at Hollis High School, where his long love affair with football began, was also renamed in 2003 as Darrell K Royal Field—no more fitting tribute is there to a legendary coach who had such an impact on the world of college football.
In February, the creation of the Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease marked the first public acknowledgment of Royal’s dementia. Flanked by Lance Armstrong, Matthew McConaughey, and Edith at a Texas Senate committee hearing, Royal—who hadn’t given an interview in years—spoke up to say simply, “Thank you very much. I feel like I’m home.”
A small-town boy from Oklahoma, Darrell K Royal will forever be larger than life to the UT community. Whether it was watching “The Darrell Royal Show” Sunday evenings during the season, seeing him on the sidelines at Memorial Stadium, or simply quoting his famous Royalisms (“Dance with the one that brung ya,” anyone?), nearly every Longhorn fan holds a memory of “The Coach”—a truly unforgettable man who left a huge impact on The University of Texas.
Update: UT head football coach Mack Brown released the following statement on the passing of Darrell K Royal.
“Today is a very sad day. 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. His council and friendship meant a lot to me before I came to Texas, but it’s been my guiding light for my 15 years here.
Coach gave so much more to the State of Texas and college football than he took away. 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. He will be missed in so many ways.
I lost my Dad when I was 54, and Coach filled a real void in my life and treated me like family. Sally and I gained a lot coming to Texas and being a part of this tremendous program but no more than our relationship with Coach and Edith. They were our closest of friends. Our heart pours out to Edith and the family and our thoughts and prayers are with her and the family. We will always be there to lend any and all support that we can as she and Coach always did for us.”
Check out The LBJ Presidential Library’s tribute page to Darrell K Royal here.
From top: Royal while playing for the Oklahoma Sooners; players carry Royal off the field after winning the 1973 Cotton Bowl game.
Photos courtesy UT Press (2), Jim Sigmon.