Darrell Royal: Remembering a Football Innovator
The annual Texas-Oklahoma football game, known as the Red River Rivalry, has been one of the most intensely fought college gridiron struggles since first played in 1900, seven years before Oklahoma became the 46th state in the Union.
The two teams do battle each October at the Texas State Fair in the Dallas Cotton Bowl.
This has always been serious business to Longhorns and Sooners. In times past, the inter-state fight spilled to the streets of Dallas as thousands of folks, emboldened by booze, did battle the night before the big game.
So it was rather unusual that back in 1957, after three years of declining fortunes on the gridiron, the University of Texas turned to an outstanding Okie to take over as head coach of the Longhorns. Not only did Texas select one of those “enemy” people from north of the Red River, but Texas chose as its football leader a man who had personally accounted for important Oklahoma victories over the Texas Longhorns less than a decade earlier.
This was Darrell Royal, a brilliant young coach who was something of an overly demanding task master with his players even though he was soft-spoken and, at times, played the part of the good ol’ boy.
Born in Hollis, Okla., in July 1924, Royal became an all-American quarterback at the University of Oklahoma under coach Bud Wilkinson. As such, Royal led the Sooners to victories over the Longhorns in the 1948 and 1949 Red River Shootouts.
The Red River Shootout moniker for the big game was changed to Red River Rivalry in 2004 due to concerns over the ever increasing use of guns and possible problems in those near riots the night before the big game.
Oklahoma, with Royal at quarterback, went undefeated in 1949 and was ranked No. 2 in the nation behind an undefeated Notre Dame.
Upon graduation, the young Royal got his first coaching job as an assistant to head coach Beattie Feathers at N.C. State in 1950. The following year he was an assistant at the University of Tulsa, and in 1952 he assisted at Mississippi State. He got his first head coaching job in 1953 in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos.
Then he became head football coach at Mississippi State, 1954 and 1955, followed by a year as head coach at the University of Washington before Texas hired him in 1957.
Successes, Not Regrets
Texas did not regret the move to an Oklahoma native despite some criticisms of Royal’s management style over the two decades he coached in Austin. There were no losing seasons under Royal as Texas had 19 winning seasons and one .500 campaign in those 20 years Royal coached the Longhorns.
Texas won national championships under Royal when it went undefeated in 1963 and 1969. The Longhorns shared the title with Nebraska in 1970.
This successful Oklahoma player and even more successful Texas head coach died 11 days ago in Austin at the age of 88. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some time.
Royal took over a team that had slipped to the lowest point in Texas football history, winning only one game in 1956. Before he hung it up, Royal had coached the Longhorns to 11 Southwest Conference titles, eight victories in 16 bowl games, and a presidential stamp of approval for the 1969 National Championship. He won 167 games at Texas, more than any other Longhorns head coach.
It was the 15-14 victory over Arkansas in the final regular-season game of 1969 that was Royal’s biggest triumph.
President Richard Nixon was on hand as these two undefeated teams met in Fayetteville, Ark., with the Longhorns ranked No. 1 and the Razorbacks No. 2. An undefeated Penn State was No. 3 and riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 straight victories plus 29 games without a loss.
Texas was on an 18-game winning streak when it rallied from behind to win the thriller, 15-14, as Royal ordered a two-point conversion following the Longhorns’ second touchdown in the final quarter. As a result, President Nixon made a presentation of a national championship plaque to Royal and his players in the locker room after the game.
In those days there was no playoff such as the BCS bowl game or the impending four-team playoff to decide an official major college national champion. The national title was decided by consensus of various groups such as the Associated Press poll of sports reporters and the UPI poll of football coaches.
This time it was presidential in nature, sort of a committee of one.
But an irate Joe Paterno, in his fourth season as head coach at Penn State, let it be known he was unhappy with Nixon’s presentation to Darrell Royal since the Nittany Lions remained undefeated and had the nation’s longest winning streak.
Nevertheless, Royal gladly accepted President Nixon’s offering, which was made on the ABC national telecast.
Royal had just beaten one of his best friends, coach Frank Broyles of Arkansas.
Those two coaches spent much of their non-coaching time on golf courses and whenever possible they spent it together. Each was an excellent golfer sporting a scratch handicap in those days.
On occasion Broyles and Royal would hit off the first tee shortly after sunrise and play as many as 54 holes before sunset during a long summer day.
A Hero and a Genius
Royal coached some of the finest college players of his time, including Earl Campbell, the running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1977, the year after Royal’s final season as Texas head coach. Other notable players under coach Royal included Tommy Nobis at linebacker and Roosevelt Leaks at running back.
But in a 1972 kiss-and-tell book written by one of his former reserve linemen, Gary Shaw, coach Royal was depicted as rather brutal toward some players, in particular his slightly used players who served as practice fodder. In that book, “Meat on the Hoof: The Hidden World of Texas Football,” Shaw accused Royal of putting those players in practice drills during which they were directed to punch one another hard.
Texas players admitted they were somewhat scared of and even terrified by Royal. James Street, an excellent quarterback for Texas in those “Meat on the Hoof” days of the 1960s, said, “We sure never went to Coach for fatherly advice.”
But to the Texas fans, including the important and wealthy alumni, Royal could do no wrong. He was a hero and genius.
Actually, Royal’s assistant coach and offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard, was the real genius who came up with the attack that changed college football drastically in the late 1960s. It was the wishbone, that Y-shaped formation that emphasized speed and agility over size and weight by using the triple option or veer attack.
With the quarterback over the center and the fullback directly behind the quarterback, the two halfbacks or tailbacks were set apart behind the fullback. This allowed the quarterback to give to the fullback, keep and run or pass himself or pitch back to one of the tailbacks.
Texas opened the 1968 season using this wishbone offense and in its first two games the Longhorns got a tie and a loss. Then the Longhorns won 30 games in a row, including that national title game over Arkansas ending the 1969 regular season for the 19th victory in that streak.
Soon after that, Alabama, under coach Bear Bryant, adopted the wishbone attack as did Oklahoma and UCLA among others. The offense became very popular and effective for many years. Even today, the smaller, fast teams at the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Naval Academy use a form of the wishbone triple option attack as they have for nearly 40 years.
Nobody seems to come up with such new ideas on offense anymore the way Darrell Royal and Emory Bellard spent the summer of 1968 devising new things with those old football symbols, blackboard X’s and O’s that became the Y’s of the wishbone.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
More like this story