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RIP, Darrell Royal

Darrell Royal played black and white football, but spoke in pure technicolor.

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Darrell Royal had no signature totem, no hat like Bear Bryant, no dark glasses to glower behind like Joe Paterno had. He coached a defense-first, conservative brand of football where punting took priority over passing. His sideline attire was simple: golf shirts and slacks, occasionally topped by a Texas varsity jacket. He had no pregame superstitions, did not pray before games because he didn't think God cared much, and claimed "compulsive hand-washer'" as his greatest personality quirk. Time Magazine called him "a man who looks both ways before crossing a oneway street."

For a state priding itself on outlandish living standards and outsized behavior, Royal kept a black-and-white profile as the coach of Texas football. Fortunately for him, Royal spoke only in technicolor.

I was so poor that I had a tumbleweed as a pet.

If worms carried pistols, birds wouldn't eat 'em.

You've got to think lucky. If you fall into a mudhole, check your back pocket - you might have caught a fish.

Football doesn't build character. It eliminates the weak ones.

Three things can happen when you pass, and two of 'em are bad.*

*This quote is often attributed to Woody Hayes. Most historical data leans towards Darrell Royal as the origin for the quote, but if you're really upset about it, just let them split the championship for the quote, a fine solution for two legendary pre-BCS era coaches.

Royal partially made up for his blandishment by being instantly quotable. Winning excused any other complaints about Royal's style (or lack thereof.) After stints at Mississippi State and Washington, Royal landed at Texas in 1956, coaching against his mentor, Oklahoma legend Bud Wilkinson. Royal would play a large part in breaking the Sooners' streak of dominance in the rivalry, finishing 12-7-1 in the Red River Rivalry for his career. There are 155 other victories in his Texas career, and three national titles and 11 Southwest Conference titles, but no wins matter more than those 12 against the Sooners.

Royal's teams won mostly with staid fundamentals, but two of those national titles (1969 and 1970) came after Royal did something entirely contrary to his image: he changed. In 1968, looking for a way to "make a slow fullback faster," Royal and offensive coordinator Emory Bellard unveiled the Wishbone offense. The rush-first attack dominated the college landscape for 20 years afterwards, so much so that even Bear Bryant rushed to Austin to learn it and take it back to Tuscaloosa. Royal, in a move that would be deemed suicide today, happily let him into the Longhorns' war room. In gratitude, Bryant offered to build a room onto Royal's house. Bellard, meanwhile, parlayed the offense's success into a head coaching job at rival Texas A&M.

That same offense--honed into killing form by Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, who went 3-0-1 versus Royal--would eventually help run Royal out of the Texas job in 1976. It was about more than that, of course: age, fatigue, and increasingly cutthroat competition in recruiting were said to have caught up with him. Royal himself would admit as much in later interviews, even though Royal in his prime ran a program where players were described as "meat on the hoof," and forced to compete constantly for limited scholarship space.

Royal did abhor cheating, with his dispute with Barry Switzer over Oklahoma sending a spy to Texas practices standing as his most famous and most public outrage over the rulebreaking rampant in SWC country. Simultaneously, Royal clearly worked the advantages of the scholarship system to the limit of the rules like any other coach of his day, embracing a boiler room approach to roster management and running off his share of players he found unproductive. If this sounds like cutting and pasting from contemporary headlines, it should. Little has changed in that respect.

Royal was also slow to come around to the idea of racial integration but was persuaded by a heavy hand on the matter: President Lyndon Johnson, a friend who pushed Royal to integrate the football team in 1969. Johnson chipped in personally in the effort by landing his helicopter on the lawn of his on-campus Presidential library during visits, waltzing across the lawn and giving both black and white recruits the hard-but-undeniably-flashy sell on Texas football.

Royal lived for 36 years after his retirement in 1976, staying on as the athletic director for the University. He played golf with Willie Nelson, going as far to pay for Willie Nelson's country club membership at Pedernales Country Club when Nelson declared bankruptcy and had his membership seized by the IRS. He hung around Longhorn football to fundraise, shake hands, and see his name emblazoned on the football stadium on the Austin campus in 1996.

He enjoyed his retirement, just as he had enjoyed the rest of his life, despite a long streak of tragedies. The middle initial "K" in his name came from his mother, Katy, who died of cancer in his infancy. He was told she died in childbirth, and believed this well into adulthood. Royal lost two sisters to disease before he turned 11. Two of his three children--his daughter Marian and son David--died in accidents before they reached thirty. He looked both ways before crossing a one-way street with good reason.

Royal suffered from Alzheimer's toward the end of his life. It is a disease anyone who has dealt with knows has its good and very bad days. This was Royal on one of his better ones.

"The other day, he said, 'Edith, I have to go to Hollis (Okla.). Uncle Otis died.' I said, 'No, Darell. Uncle Otis didn't die.' He said, 'Well, Uncle Otis will be glad to hear that.' You have to see the humor in it sometimes," Edith Royal said.

Quotable to the end, Royal died this morning at the age of 88.

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