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Ahead of Their Time

It has been almost 30 years since legendary Longhorn coach quit, but he still gets Royal treatment

January 02, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — If it wasn't someone knocking on the door, it was the phone ringing.

"Edith, can you get that!"

People wanting tickets.


Bob needing a picture signed.

A photographer wanting to know where he could set up his tripod.

A visiting reporter looking for an angle.

A pest-control man -- unrelated, we think, to the reporter -- traipsing around the living room.

The visiting writer asking to see the trophy room and being told he'll more likely find a Texas A&M gift shop.

No wall of fame?

"It's kind of like bragging, I feel," the man explains as he stands on his deck overlooking the golf course at Barton Creek Resort & Spa.

It's almost a round-the-clock job, being the football coach at Texas, five days before Christmas, two weeks before Texas plays USC for the national title in the Rose Bowl ...

... And almost 30 years since he coached his last game.

Darrell Royal can't believe people still fuss over him.

He retired at 52, in 1976. His legacy was secured and his back nine beckoned.

Royal won three national titles, 11 Southwest Conference crowns and the admiration of many.

He played quarterback for the legendary Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, played golf with Alabama's Bear Bryant and coached in the last "game of the century," involving Texas -- vs. Arkansas, Dec. 6, 1969; President Nixon flew in via helicopter; Billy Graham gave the invocation; Texas won, 15-14, and former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles still refuses to watch the film.

Yet, somehow, Royal fancied he would fade to black like some cheesy ending to a Western.

"I thought when I quit coaching that all that would disappear in two or three years," Royal says. "That's just the way I envisioned it would be. But it hasn't. I was wrong about that."

Mack Brown is the coach of Texas football, but Darrell Royal will always be the face of it.

Brown is four quarters from winning his first national title but does not pretend to be anything other than a torchbearer.

Brown, as do most Longhorn-fearing Texans, refers to Royal as "Coach Royal," never as Darrell.

Brown says, flat-out, he would never have left North Carolina for Texas in 1997 had not Royal approved, adding, "I'm not going to take the job unless he's interested in helping me."

Arthritis prevents the 81-year-old Royal from turning his own head, which sorely interferes with his golf game, but he still turns plenty in town.

How to explain it?

Bill Little reckons Royal burrowed into Texas at a time when Texas needed him.

Royal arrived in December 1956, but it was during the 1960s that he forged a connection. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was going to stop in Austin after visiting Dallas.

Royal, who was leading Texas to the national title that year, had been designated to greet the president.

"At the time, we needed heroes," Little, a Texas graduate, the school's longtime sports information director and author of "Stadium Stories ... Texas Longhorns," explains of Royal's grip. "We had the war in Vietnam. Everything else was going to hell. We wanted someone to hang our hat on.

"Coach Royal was still a young man. He was just kind of dashing."

On the Mt. Rushmore of 1960s college coaches, in the pre-ESPN age of limited network television glimpses -- there were Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Royal, Broyles, Ara Parseghian and John McKay.

Arkansas State didn't get on television then -- there was no Champs Sports Bowl.

Bill Fleming and Chris Schenkel called the action on ABC; the graphics were primordial.

Royal was A-framed old school. He coached from a tower and, as a player, you never wanted him coming down from that tower and walking toward you.

A stickler for details, Royal was.

"He was big on planning," James Street, who went 20-0 as a starting quarterback for Texas, says of his college coach. "We would go over the exact same things over and over. He would say the exact same things over and over."

Royal will not technically have his hand in the game planning for this Rose Bowl, but his fingerprints are all over the game:

* Winning streaks?

USC has won 34 consecutive games and Texas has won 19.

Royal played quarterback for Wilkinson, who led Oklahoma to winning streaks of 31 and 47 games, the latter the longest in major college history.

Getting Royal to talk about Wilkinson is like getting a mom to talk about her son.

"He was the greatest influence of all," Royal says. "He never raised his voice. I never heard him chew anybody. Never saw him show flashes of anger. He was a good speaker, which helped make him an excellent teacher.... Never at any time did I feel confused as a player, because he did such a great job of instructing us.

"So it boils down, it's not how much football do you know, it's how much can you teach."

Royal asked a visitor to "take a pencil" to these numbers.

From 1948 through 1958, Wilkinson posted a record of 107-8-2.

"You add that up and that's something that will never be matched," he said.

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