The Tyler Rose: The Story of UT’s Recruitment of Earl Campbell

In 1973, Darrell K Royal faced challenges landing top African-American high school football players, so he enlisted a team of recruiters. Led by Ken Dabbs, they set out to convince the state’s top running back, Tyler’s Earl Campbell, that The University of Texas was where he needed to be. In an excerpt from journalist Asher Price’s forthcoming book, Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact, Royal, Dabbs, and their crew show Earl—and his mother, Ann—that the Longhorns would give him the best chance to succeed, on the field and off.

In mid-August 1973, seven years after Darrell K Royal had told Ken Dabbs, then an assistant coach in a small Texas town, that he was not ready to offer a scholarship to one of his African-American players—no black players would appear on the Longhorns varsity until 1970—Royal tracked him down to ask him for a peculiar kind of help.

It was nearly 1 p.m. on a Sunday, a couple of hours after church. Dabbs was by then the head coach at the new football program at Westlake High, in a fast-growing suburb on Austin’s western fringe, and Royal, one of the most famous coaches in America, asked Dabbs to come by his house. “I was nervous, I was scared, but I went over there,” Dabbs said. Royal offered him a job as freshman backfield coach—and then he asked Dabbs, who is white, to recruit in East Texas and South Dallas, areas with high concentrations of African Americans.

“And he asked me, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I have one: When you can hire anybody in the United States of America, why would you hire a nobody coach from Westlake?’”

“I’ll be real honest with you,” Royal told him. “If I had listened to you in 1966, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now.”

Thinking back on it, a black coffee in hand in the corner of a cafe north of UT, a leaky heart valve recently replaced and his nose sounding stuffy, Dabbs said that Royal, intent on recruiting African Americans in the sunset of his coaching days, turned to him for a simple reason: “I don’t think anybody on that staff had even coached blacks in high school.” Royal’s final instructions for him were these: “There’s a kid in Tyler, Texas, named Earl Campbell, and I want you to get him for us.”

Campbell, BA ’79, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, was entering his senior year, and Dabbs had never heard of him. The John Tyler High team was taken lightly by pigskin prognosticators. John Tyler was returning just six starters, so Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, the state bible for all things gridiron, picked the team to finish fourth in its district.

But Royal had his sources, and after catching one of Campbell’s early games that season, Dabbs thought, That’s the most dominating running back I’ve ever seen. He was not alone. Barry Switzer, the impish, rapscallion head coach of Oklahoma, said that Campbell, with his combination of speed and power, was the one high school player he ever saw who could have gone straight to the pros. Campbell was fast becoming the most hotly recruited football player in the nation—during his senior year, more than 250 scouts would travel to Tyler to see him play—and Royal had told Dabbs to do whatever it took to get Campbell to commit to Austin. Campbell had been offered bribes (“inducements,” the recruiters called them—a brand-new shotgun stuffed with $100 bills, a suede coat, a car, a job—these were the sorts of goodies offered to players or their relatives), but had rejected them: “I’m not going to be any sold black boy,” he told a reporter in January 1974, less than a month after he led John Tyler to the state championship and two months before signing day. “I won’t be bought. Money doesn’t excite me. I don’t have a car, and a car doesn’t excite me. I’m interested in what schools can do for me in the classes. Can I get any help? I’m going to college for an education first and football second.”

Campbell mock arm wrestling an opponent ahead of a high school football all-star game in 1974.

A few years earlier, as an African-American athlete in the South, Campbell would have had many fewer options—either play below the radar for a black college or journey far from home to play at a place like Michigan State. Now, though, all the big schools were gunning for Campbell, and for elite African-American athletes of his generation, whatever the draws of a historically black school might have been, little consideration was given to playing for Prairie View A&M or Grambling State.

“There was much more exposure” at the newly integrated athletic programs, explains Michael Hurd, author of Thursday Night Lights, a history of black high school football in Texas. “You’d be on TV on every Saturday. You’d be on a big campus. You were scouted better by the pros; the black colleges didn’t get that kind of respect.” Soon, that became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1968, the NFL drafted 11 players from a single historically black college—Jackson State, in Mississippi. Eleven years later, after Texas, Alabama, and other schools finally integrated, the entire Southwestern Athletic Conference, a constellation of black schools that included Jackson State, had only five players selected. When Dabbs first approached the door to the dilapidated Campbell property, the famed football coaches Bill Yeoman of the University of Houston and Switzer of Oklahoma had just emerged, and Dabbs thought to himself, Oh, Lord, how am I going to make this work? He had been entrusted with one real task by Royal, and it appeared unlikely that he would be able to pull it off.

But a modest bit of spontaneous wit helped ingratiate him with the family. Earl’s mother, Ann Campbell, inundated with recruiters, asked Dabbs how she could remember him. He told her about a hair-styling cream advertisement with the catch phrase “A little dab’ll do ya.”

“Well,” Dabbs said, “just add another B and an S, and you’ve got Dabbs.” A week later, Dabbs, persistent, stopped in again at the Campbell home. One of the girls answered the knock, saw Dabbs, and shouted, “Mama, Coach Brylcreem is here.” Down to earth and friendly, Dabbs made a quick connection with the family—even today, he can quickly name all 10 of Earl Campbell’s siblings, in birth order.

“Ken Dabbs was the sort of coach that if he were with you in your living room and you went off into the kitchen to fix something up, he went into the kitchen with you,” says Elmo Wright, one of his former high school players who went on to a pro career. “He didn’t do this because the man was uninformed about etiquette. He did this because Dabbs was Dabbs.” He was, in other words, genuinely interested in the people with whom he was dealing. “If I sold myself and they believed in me, I already had The University of Texas by my name,” Dabbs says. “You sell yourself not only to the parents, but to the coaches, the superintendent, the principals,” anyone, in short, the player might turn to for advice.

University of Texas coach Darrell Royal talking to the Longhorns during their New Year’s Day 1964 matchup against Navy at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Until 1970, there were no African-American players on Royal’s varsity football teams.

He flattered, calling Ann Campbell one of the best cooks in America. And he was persistent, making himself a fixture around Tyler. During one stretch, Dabbs spent 17 nights in Room 164 at the Ramada Inn, paying a dozen dollars a night for the pleasure. “Coach didn’t want me to leave till I got him,” Dabbs remembered. “You don’t get too many of that size, that speed, that power, that grace, that character.” Sometimes, because collegiate recruiting rules allowed only a certain number of visits to a player’s home, he would meet Earl Campbell in a room on the second floor of the home of Henry Bell, a banker in town, where Earl’s sister, Evelyn, was a maid. Young Henry Bell III, who was a student at Robert E. Lee High School and a member of the school’s Rebel Guard and is today the genial chief operating officer of the Tyler Chamber of Commerce, remembers coming home and no family member greeting him at all—“Did anybody know I was home?”—and seeing a strange 40-something man in the room painted all burnt orange. He said to Evelyn, “There’s a man in there.” “Oh, that’s Coach Dabbs,” she said. (Many decades later, just before Dabbs underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer, he got a call from an East Texas number. “We were watching television around eight o’clock and this number comes up, a 903 number, and my wife said, ‘Who is that?’ And I said, ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s Earl Campbell’s high school phone number.’ And then I hear on the phone: ‘Coach D, this is your 85-year-old girlfriend, Ann Campbell.’ And she says, ‘I talked to Earl today, and he told me you’re having some health issues. Tell Miss Marguerite’”—Dabbs’ wife—“‘you have nothing to worry about, because I’m praying for you morning, noon, and night to the good Lord, and he’s going to take care of you.’ I got misty-eyed crying.”)

Even as Dabbs got close to the Campbell family, a kind of secondary recruiting effort developed as universities interested in Earl deployed African-American coaches to mine whatever connections they might have. Royal summoned Bill Lyons, a 25-year-old black former UT basketball player and native of Tyler who had shown himself adept at straddling two very different worlds—cultivating powerful patrons (including Frank Erwin and Barbara Jordan) and calling on his ties in African-American communities far and wide to convince ambivalent young black men to attend The University of Texas. A few years earlier, for instance, he was dispatched to San Antonio to convince Julius Whittier and his father, a medical doctor who knew Lyons’ family, that the standout guard should attend UT. Now Royal directed him to the Campbell family. “Help me sell the program,” Lyons says Royal told him in the fall of 1973. “We got to have someone tell our story.”

Hair parted, dressed in a navy-blue jacket with a Longhorns lapel over a V-neck sweater and button-down shirt, Lyons at age 70 still looks charming, as if he is preparing to have his ninth-grade school picture taken. Even as Lyons called on family ties to steer Ann Campbell to Texas—his father’s mother knew the Campbells—he deliberately went about examining which of the wealthy white families that Ann Campbell worked for had UT connections, “I said, ‘Let’s see who Mrs. Campbell knows,’” he recalls, and deputized them to encourage the Campbell family to pick Texas.

But it was Royal who was the closer, like the queen played from the back row late in a chess match. And so, a couple of days after Texas lost to Nebraska on New Year’s Day in 1974, Dabbs and Royal set out from Dallas on frozen I-20. It would be the head coach’s first meeting with the coveted recruit, and the pair hoped it would clinch the deal, as it had for countless other young men, most of them white, around Texas. Royal had always been a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust operator, favoring a bruising, grinding running game to an aerial assault.

“When you pass,” he liked to say, “three things can happen—and two of them are bad.” He “scorned passing because it was art, not muscle,” the journalist Jan Reid once wrote in profile of the coach in Texas Monthly. “It introduced randomness to the game. The rushing game, on the other hand, forced one-on-one confrontations, strength versus strength. By running the football, you not only defeated people, you established your physical dominance. The victims remembered. And word got around.”

No one could better deliver that message, Darrell Royal had concluded, than Earl Campbell. With Dabbs at the wheel, they made their way carefully to Tyler, passing no fewer than a half-dozen tractor-trailers that had skidded off the road. Finally, they swung off on U.S. 69 and stopped at a supermarket on the outskirts of Tyler. They picked up groceries so that Ann Campbell could make everyone a steak dinner; they thought she’d like to show them hospitality, but they didn’t want her to have to shell out for food. Back on the road, they took a left at the old Tyler Pipe Company onto the blacktop of County Road 492 and drove up to the Campbell place, just by an auto salvage lot.

When Ann Campbell apologized for the state of her house, Royal gently waved it off: “Mrs. Campbell,” he told her, “I grew up in a house not near as nice as yours.” The comment immediately relaxed her. But Earl Campbell appeared aloof. Dabbs was accustomed to a warm reception—he was on genuinely good terms with the Campbells—but this time, with Royal on hand, something felt awkward, especially with the young man they had come to court. Given UT’s history of segregation—the 1969 Longhorns had been the last all-white team to win the national championship—and a recent newspaper series about alienated black Longhorn athletes, Dabbs had a sense of what was wrong. It didn’t help that nearly four years earlier, the Associated Press had reported that at a meeting of coaches in Washington, D.C., Royal told a group of black coaches that “the black coach has not reached the point where his coaching is as scientific as it is in the major colleges.”

The meeting never actually took place, and even if it had, Royal was in Austin that night accepting an award from Lady Bird Johnson. “Such thoughts are not in my heart and I could not have made those statements,” he said after the article appeared, in a University of Texas news release. “The whole thing is a vicious invention.” The wire service ran a retraction, but the episode, fairly or not, cemented the feeling that Royal and his program were hostile to African Americans.

“Every black athlete that Royal has attempted to recruit since 1970,” the journalist Gary Cartwright reported in 1974, the year Darrell Royal and Ken Dabbs showed up at the Campbell family home, “has heard the story (though not the retraction), and most of them have received laminated copies of it, courtesy of rival recruiters.” Royal considered suing for libel, but decided to let it drop—a decision he forever regretted.

It was in this atmosphere that the relationship between Earl Campbell, then all of 18 years old, and Darrell Royal began frostily. “I understand you don’t like black people,” Campbell finally told the famous coach.

Royal was stricken but composed. “No, Earl, that’s wrong,” he said. The coach told Earl and his mother that he wasn’t going to talk about what other people had said about him, but that he would tell them anything they wanted to know about his own thoughts and feelings and about The University of Texas. “I asked simply that they not let other people taint their impressions of me,” he once told the journalist Sam Blair. “They seemed to like that attitude.”

Earl Campbell told him that his dream was to be able to buy a new house for his mother someday—and Royal told him and Ann Campbell about his own mother’s early death, how his grandmother looked after him in Oklahoma as a teenager, and how he always regretted that she died before he had grown up and was able to help her.

A relationship that had started off chilly began to warm. The coach went on the offensive. He told Earl that even though his abilities were impressive, he would have to prove himself to earn playing time. And then, in a savvy move, he addressed the “inducements” that he suspected were being offered to Campbell. These were the early days of under-the-table “scholarships:” only a couple of years later, Texas A&M boosters allegedly gave Eric Dickerson, a Texas running back from Sealy, a Pontiac Trans Am, which he supposedly drove to Dallas to accept an offer to attend SMU—to the chagrin of the A&M supporters.

The seedy recruiting hijinks of his competitors wearied Royal, who claimed to run a clean program, and they eventually played a role in his decision to retire from coaching.

In a sense, Royal outmaneuvered Campbell. Just as the player had tried to confront him at the beginning of their meeting, Royal now tried to call him out on the possibility that he would be tempted by inducements. “Earl, if this is a factor, and that is what you want, please don’t string me along,” he told Campbell. “Some way or another, let me know you’re not interested in us if you’re going to go for that kind of deal.” Now it was Campbell’s opportunity to show his faithfulness to the civil rights struggle, and he framed it in a strikingly self-aware way: “Coach,” he told Royal, offering a line similar to the one with which he had rejected bribes, “my people were bought and sold when they didn’t have a choice. Nobody is going to buy Earl.”

That might have been the decisive moment in the recruiting battle to land Earl Campbell, but Royal still had to convince Ann Campbell. “Mrs. Campbell,” Royal told her, “we are here to tell you that we are offering Earl a good place to earn an education and the opportunity to make the Texas football team.” The emphasis on education, and her fast affinity for Royal, clinched the deal for Ann Campbell. “We’re coming to Texas,” she told Royal and Dabbs. In the end, the coach and his lieutenant ended up staying two hours. “The atmosphere was cold when we came in,” Dabbs said, “but extremely warm when we left.”

Privately, however, Earl continued to be dogged by an indecisiveness he rarely exhibited on the field. “He stopped me in the hall one day in school,” Leon Van Alstine, an assistant coach at John Tyler High, remembered. “‘What do you think I should do?’ ‘Earl, you’re going to have to make up your own mind,’” Van Alstine told him. “‘But if it was me, I’d go to UT because you will get an education, and Darrell Royal will see to that.’”

Still, weeks later, just as it appeared Campbell was a lock to go to Texas, Dabbs learned that he had taken a trip to Norman to meet with the Sooners: “I thought it was over. I knew if they picked him up, they had to have him back by noon on Saturday [because of NCAA rules]. About 11 or 11:30, a single engine red-and-white plane lands. He gets off it. He’s carrying—he doesn’t like me telling about it—he was carrying pictures of the [famed Oklahoma football players] Selmon brothers and Joe Washington. He had an Oklahoma shirt on. I picked him up—he didn’t have a way home. I’d been there three hours, I think. Well—he won’t talk. He just answers questions: ‘Fine.’ ‘No.’ ‘Hm-hm.’ And I say: ‘I’ll come out and see you in the morning at church.’ ‘No.’ He was totally confused and didn’t want to talk. Well, I went back to the Ramada that Sunday night, I sat there, I sat there, I sat there. I was frustrated. I didn’t know what to do. I guess it was about five or five thirty that afternoon I said to hell with it. I got in the car and drove out there. She was in the back room on the old couch, in bed, with a red handkerchief. And Earl came in, and I started all over again like it was the first day. About that time the phone rang. And he goes up over there to pick it up. ‘Yessir.’ ‘Yessir.’ ‘Yessir.’ ‘Mama, this is Barry Switzer on the phone. He wants to know if he can come by tomorrow night and visit with you.’ And she raised up out of that bed just like the good Lord raised her up, and she said: ‘Earl Christian Campbell, we ain’t lost one thing in the state of Oklahoma. And you know good and well you’re going to school with Coach Dabbs at The University of Texas.’ And he just turned around and said: ‘Coach Switzer, I’m going to The University of Texas.’”

Ann Campbell, the matriarch of the Campbell family, tending to roses on her small family farm in October 1977.

It appeared to be a victory, but Campbell, at least the way he tells the story, remained unsure through the eve of signing day. He decided to do as he had been taught by his parents whenever he had a dilemma—he prayed: “God, if it’s your will that I should attend The University of Texas, then I’ll get up during the night to pee. If not, if I sleep through the night, then I’ll know your choice for me will be the University of Oklahoma.”

That night in March 1974, Dabbs and Royal returned to Tyler, bunking down at the Ramada where Dabbs had virtually camped out through the fall. After a morning coffee, they headed over to the Campbell place. There, Campbell could be found, quiet and calm, on the family’s sole couch—the lion in repose. Here was a great man, it seemed, judging by all the people pressed into the house—and yet he was only 18. He was shy about the attention he was getting from these adults, pleasantly smiling now and then as the Reverend J. H. Williams of the Hopewell Valley Baptist Church No. 1, or the bank president, Henry Bell, and his wife, Nell, presented a hand to shake. There was hardly room for Earl’s many siblings, all of whom were on hand, all of whom had come back to pay witness to the moment when their family’s trajectory promised to shift.

Campbell said he mostly couldn’t wait to put his shoulder pads on again, to prove to The University of Texas that he was worthy of their commitment. “I liked what I saw, what I heard,” he said of Texas. “The campus looked beautiful, and the people were friendly. They offered to help me get my education. Texas did not buy me. Blacks are through selling themselves, or at least I’m not going to sell myself. Texas offered me everything legal, and there was none of this stupid talk of cars and money.”

The reverend made an invocation. Darrell Royal praised his star recruit and compared him to Roosevelt Leaks—a Longhorn running back who had just rushed for 1,415 yards in his junior season and had finished third in the Heisman balloting—one of the few other black players on the team. “He will get a fair chance to prove himself. Everyone who starts for me has to prove they are worthy,” Royal announced. “But in view of personal appraisal, sure, Earl has the ability to play his first year.”

Royal handed Campbell his pen, and Earl cracked a small grin and raised his hand to flash the Hook ’em Horns sign, an index finger and pinkie finger raised upward. He was a little afraid of leaving home—and, especially, of leaving his mother. Ann Campbell was asked to say a few words on the occasion. She said, in her loving, proud, yet stern way: “Here at home there has been a wonderful relationship between mother and son, and I know that wherever Earl goes, he will not give anybody any trouble.”

A few months later, in July, with Earl Campbell delivered, Royal arranged for Lyons to be hired full-time, as an assistant athletic director, even as he was finishing up at The University of Texas law school. UT paid Lyons $25,000, more than the school’s head baseball coach earned. A jotted note by one of UT’s public relations specialists, charged with putting together a press release announcing the hire, reveals one of Lyons’ mantras that proved helpful as he faced pushback from black families—he was called an Uncle Tom, he said—for working for the university. “When people ask him about black and white,” reads the note, “tell them the only color that matters is orange.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this excerpt incorrectly stated that Texas beat Nebraska on New Year’s Day in 1974. Texas lost 19-3. Additionally, Young Henry Bell goes by Henry Bell III, not Henry Bell Jr. as it was previously written.

 
 
 

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