One Degree of Separation
I made my decision to go to The University of Texas when I was in the fifth grade. Unlike my earlier goals of becoming an astronaut and a United States Senator destined for the presidency, this ambition was realized. At the first fraternity party I went to a few days before my first classes at U.T.,I was asked several times, why I came all the way from Reston, Virginia to attend The University of Texas. My answer: because they have a good football team. I thought it was a pretty good line and people laughed that night every time I said it. It wasn’t a joke. It was the truth and Texas wouldn’t have had a good football team if not for Darrell Royal. To be totally honest the fact that my two older brothers had graduated from U.T. and lived in Austin also had a lot to do with my choice of a college.
During that fall semester in 1974 I watched the Texas-Texas Tech game, that some of us reminisced about last week, with my older brother David and his roommate Robert at their Riverside apartment. Robert was a graduate assistant football coach and former U.T. reserve quarterback. During the first half of the game, Texas’ quarterback, Mike Presley, scrambled around on one play far behind the line of scrimmage and without purpose. Eventually he was tackled for a big loss and Texas had to punt. Robert told us that Presley would not be going back in the game after that because Coach Royal didn’t tolerate screwing around and making dumb plays the way Presley just had. David and I were surprised to hear that Presley would be yanked for that one bad play and thought Robert’s prediction was a little hasty. Well what did we know? Presley didn’t play again that day and lost his starting job for the rest of the season after that game. Royal was demanding of his players and had little tolerance for sloppy play and mental errors. Royal was a hard ass.
Over the next three and a half years I had the quiet thrill to meet and become acquainted with a handful of Texas Football Players who were fraternity brothers of mine. A couple of them were starting linebackers. One of them was All Southwest Conference. I would describe their feelings about Darrell Royal as somewhere between fear and loathing. I never heard the term “nice guy” when they talked about Royal. I don’t know this for a fact but I didn’t get the feeling that my football player fraternity brothers considered Royal a father figure. Nor do I believe that Royal told their parents that he would take care of them and treat them like family. I never got the sense that the program under Royal had a family atmosphere.
After my mother died and my father moved to assisted living my brothers and I sorted through and divided up furniture and their personal belongings. Among the items that I kept was a treasure trove of letters that my brothers and I wrote my parents while we were in college. Many of the letters included news about the football team. One of the letters, from my brother David in November of 1971, mentioned that all the players hated Royal.
In the middle eighties I was in the convenience store business and my banker was a former Texas defensive back who was a starter in 1967 and 68. Naturally we talked a fair amount about football. At the time the Texas Coach, Fred Akers, was under heavy fire for an 8-4 record in 1985. In the context of one conversation about Akers and coaches my banker said, “Royal can kiss my ass. The only time he ever spoke to me was when I had a bad ankle and he asked me before a game if I was going to play.” Remember he was a two year starter and not some bitter reserve player.
As I listened to former U.T greats Bill Bradley, Tommy Nobis and Ed Small talk about Royal this week on sports talk radio I heard them express genuine feelings of admiration and love for Darrell Royal. They told great stories about playing for Royal. Some of the stories were funny and the funny ones usually had something to do with Royal’s reaction to a misstep or mistake on the field that they had made. The bottom line was these guys never made the same mistake twice because they were afraid to face Royal if they did. As players Royal was not their friend. They became friends after their playing days were over.
I’m not trying to tear the cover off the Darrell Royal that is being mourned and celebrated this week. Darrell Royal is probably my favorite of all Longhorns coaches and players alike. The Darrell Royal that I learned about from the people that I knew who knew him and played for him is a man that I respected and admired. It was fascinating to hear first-hand accounts about how one of the all-time great College Football Coaches led and motivated. Royal’s style and methodology probably wouldn’t work in today’s world and to me that’s a shame.
Royal’s retirement from coaching at an early age was something else about him that I came to admire. My father may not have been the first one to say it but he told me somewhere around 1975 that he thought perhaps Royal found it difficult to be hard on his players after his daughter was killed in an auto accident in 1973. I think what many people now admire about Royal is his growth into the person he became after football which was something much larger than just being a great football coach.
I must bore you with a personal anecdote as it relates to Darrell Royal. In the 1973 Cotton Bowl Texas defeated heavily favored #4 Alabama. It was a thrilling win which wasn’t decided until Texas stopped Alabama on a dramatic fourth and one very late in the game. The Frinks of Vestal, New York were jubilant. A few days after the game my father and I couldn’t help but to continue to talk about our team’s great win. My father thought it was perhaps Royal’s finest coaching performance and admitted, that rightly or wrongly in the grand scheme of things, how much he appreciated the joy the win had given us. I suggested we write Darrell Royal a Thank You note. So together we sat down at the dining room table and collaborated on the letter that my father wrote out on a legal pad. If memory serves the letter ended up being two complete pages and part of a third. In addition to talking about the team’s performance we introduced our family telling Coach Royal that David was a student, Clayton was a U.T. graduate and that we were former neighbors and good friends with Dan and Corey Adams whose son Dan was a Texas player.
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