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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 470

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This is the grave of Darrell Royal.

Born in 1924 in Hollis, Oklahoma, Royal grew up with football in his blood. In 1942, he joined the Army Air Corps and played football there. In 1945, there were college football scouts looking for talent among soldiers and he was recruited from the Air Corps to the University of Oklahoma. There, he played both quarterback and defensive back in those two-way days, between 1946 and 1949. Even today, he is still the all-time interception leader for Oklahoma, with 18 career picks and 3 in one game. He split the quarterback duties with other talented players, but was an amazing 15-1 as a starter.

After his playing days, Royal went into coaching. He was an assistant at North Carolina, Tulsa, and Mississippi State. He then took over as the head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League briefly before coming back to the states as head coach of Mississippi State in 1954. He only coached there for two years before taking a job at the University of Washington, the most evil team in all of sports. He only poisoned himself in that position for one year before moving to the University of Texas in 1957, where he would become an all-time legend.

When he was hired, UT was in collapse, only going 1-9 in 1956. He instantly turned them into a 6-4-1 team his first year. Within just a couple of years, the Longhorns dominated the Southwest Conference and would remain at or near the top for his entire career. They won or shared 11 SWC championships and Royal’s Longhorns won the national championship in 1963, 1969, and 1970. He took over as the athletic director at UT as well in 1962. Like many coaches of his day, Royal focused almost exclusively on the running game and his teams were very difficult to stop on the ground. He was none to fast to integrate the team. The university had integrated in 1956 and had technically opened its athletic program to black athletes in 1963, but there wasn’t a black player on the football team until about 1970. He, was, uh, not a good man. Claire Potter has a great obituary of him:

What were those rules Royal disagreed with? None of the articles really say, but mandatory racial integration is one good guess. Academic eligibility might be another, since under Royal’s stewardship the Longhorns pioneered the practice of  hiring tutors to do the players’ schoolwork  because “we need somebody looking after the grades“ (emphasis mine). ”I don’t think coaches are good at that,” he explained. Otherwise sentient academics on Facebook have gone all weepy-eyed over Texas running a (modified) wishbone on Saturday, the play for which Royal was famous, (see it here: in my view, since the modification involved passing the ball, for which Royal was not famous, it was a dopey tribute.)

An equally valid tribute might have involved lining up a bunch of third-string players on the fifty yard line at half time and having them crash into each other until they started to cry or had to be carried off the field on stretchers. Here is Jim Dent’s obituary in the New York Times, onethat emphasizes Royal’s courage and sense of humor, but fails to even mention this accusation.  In the third ‘graph, Dent does note that “In the 1970s, Royal was a virile, driven, demanding man with a chip on his shoulder bigger than Bevo, the Longhorns mascot. He rarely raised his voice to players. ‘But we were scared to death of him,’ the former quarterback Bill Bradley said.”

The players had reasons to be scared of Darrell Royal: if Coach told you to resign from the team, and for some reason you decided you needed that football scholarship to finish college, you were $hit out of luck. Journalists who decide to mention Royal’s sadism seem not to know what to do with the information.  For example,  Jim Vertuno, of the Associated Press (I found this obituary published in Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and nowhere else) briefly calls attention to Gary Shaw’s 1972 expose of the Texas football program, Meat on the Hoof: the Hidden World of Texas Football (St. Martin’s Press, 1972). Meat on the Hoof was “a searing critique of the Texas program that accused the coaches of having a class system within the program and of devising sadistic drills to drive off unwanted players. Royal tried to distance himself from the claims, saying in interviews he had ‘never heard’ of the drills Shaw described.” Similarly, Richard Goldstein of the New York Times recounts Shaw’s claim that

Royal had put seldom-used players through drills in which they pummeled one another, hoping that many would quit so he could find more recruiting spots for highly talented high school players.

“I don’t deny at all that we ran a tough program, especially back then,” Royal told Texas Monthly in 1982. “I don’t think we ran it without feelings.”

He added: “I didn’t recognize some of those drills he described. We never had them ever — at any time.”

Tributes to Royal also sidestep his racism as if everybody simply has a side to this story and there is no way of establishing the truth. Vertuno notes that Royal was accused of hurling racist epithets at Syracuse players in 1960 (which I guess was OK back then in the prehistory of the world?); and although Texas announced that their teams would integrate in 1963,”didn’t have a black letterman until Julius Whittier in 1970.” And how is this passage from Goldstein about Royal’s resistance to integration:

“We should have done it a lot sooner,” Royal said in “Coach Royal: Conversations With a Texas Football Legend,” written with John Wheat. “That had to change eventually, and thank goodness it did.”

Royal was not like some coaches “who made it their goal to make sure college football stayed white,” Whittier told Terry Frei in “Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie’s Last Stand.” “I didn’t see that in Coach Royal. Not that he was some big social revolutionary or anything, but I think he recognized that to stay where we were, we were going to have to use black athletes.”

It’s pretty safe to say that “we were going to have to use black athletes” meant “Oklahoma and A&M are going to start beating us if we don’t integrate our team.” Royal is everything wrong with college football and most of those things have never really changed.

Royal retired from coaching in 1976 but remained athletic director until 1980. After that, he basically lived the life of a rich football hero, “working” as a special assistant to the athletic program, which I assume was getting paid a lot of money to show up at events. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. In 1996, UT renamed its stadium for Royal. I once saw a game there, in 2007. Texas lost to Kansas State and it was glorious to watch. Royal died in 2012.

Darrell Royal is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. If you would like this series to profile other college football coaches, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bear Bryant is buried in Birmingham, Alabama and Pop Warner is in Springville, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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