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Royal a gridiron treasure

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

Advancing age, for which there is no known cure, has robbed Darrell Royal of the spryness of yesteryear. He now walks with measured and calculated steps, and his caustic wit, which endured him to Texas Longhorn aficionados for two decades, has lost its edge. But the respect he earned as a football coach has not subsided.

Young coaches, gathered here this week at the sprawling Marriott across the interstate from Disney World, were eager to get a glimpse of Royal and shake his hand as the American Football Coaches Association honored him with its Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, which is given to an "individual, group, or institution whose services have been outstanding in the best interests of football."

Royal's an old coach now, but he doesn't live in the past. He won three national championships coaching at Texas, but probably is prouder of having hired college football's first academic counselor. Four out of five players who lettered for Royal went on to earn a degree. That sets him apart as much as multiple national titles.

Hired by Dana X. Bible -- whom he has always referred to as "Mr. Bible" --Royal brought immediate success to Texas following a 1-9 season in 1956. His first year (1957), Royal posted a 6-3-1 record, which was good enough for the Longhorns to be invited to the Sugar Bowl. With his Winged-T offense, the innovative Royal came up with a flip-flop formation, which allowed the offensive picture to flip right or left to simplify blocking assignments.

With many, Royal is best remembered for his poignant and pithy commentary, which is what you would expect from a down-home, fundamentals-oriented football coach. "Dance with the one that brung you," he often said. In other words, stick with what has made you successful. An advocate of the rushing game, popularizing the wishbone offense, he once said, "When you throw the ball, three things can happen, and two of them are bad."

A native of Hollis, Okla., Royal made All-America at quarterback, playing for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma but became the most popular football personality in Texas. In addition to those national championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles, Royal sang country music with Willie Nelson and had President Lyndon Johnson help him recruit. No football coach was ever better connected than the laid-back Royal, but the one thing that made him different was his modesty and his ability to connect with the "little" guy.

There could be no better experience than to join him for breakfast at his favorite place in Austin, Cisco's Bakery on East Sixth Street, where he had a corner table which was always open for him. Anybody was welcome to pull up a chair. Working class guys felt comfortable and were eager to sit at his table. One day I met Royal at Cisco's, and a graying Hispanic man in a cowboy hat joined us. He recalled a game when Texas came from behind in dramatic fashion to win, remembering key details in victory. After he finished, he looked my way and said, "This is why we loved Coach. He knew how to win, and then he would have a beer with us nobodies." It is doubtful that the oft honored Royal has ever had a greater tribute.

Mack Brown, who has given Texas the most success since the Royal era, has embraced the former coach with the greatest of enthusiasm. "A lot of young people take over a program," Mack says, "and they forget about the past. I have learned from Coach Royal since I have been here, and I want everybody to know that I appreciate his contributions to our program. I want our fans and alumni to know I care about Coach Royal."