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Remembering Coach Royal

 Several years ago, the Cemetery began compiling recollections of various plot-holders for posterity.  One such person we spoke with was Longhorn icon Darrell Royal.  Coach and Mrs. Royal were gracious hosts and were extremely generous with their time in speaking to me.  As a long-time Aggie fan and season ticket holder, I never much cared for the Longhorns.  However, being a native Austinite and avid college football fan you have to recognize and respect the transcendent personality and overall greatness of Coach Royal.  When I spoke with him, he loved the fact that I was an Aggie fan, he managed to get in a few good natured jabs.  Coach Royal shared many memories of his time at UT, playing OU and A&M and the famous “Game of the Century” against Arkansas in 1969.  Below is a summary of our conversation.


Since 1956, Darrell K. Royal was associated with the University of Texas.  Whether it was as a coach, athletic director, or special assistant – the relationship was special to Royal.  “It has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life,” Royal said.  “I have been blessed with so many memories, from coaching against my alma mater (University of Oklahoma) to playing against the Aggies.  There are so many memories of my players, coaches, administrative staff members and alums who contributed to our success.”


Royal began coaching football at the University of Texas in December 1956 after the Longhorns went 1-9.  The Longhorns found almost immediate success under Royal.  In his first year, the team went 6-3-1.  The first game he coached as a Longhorn was one his most memorable moments as a coach.  “I really and truly believe my most memorable game at Texas was my first game,”  Royal said.  “I was 32 years old at the time and was too young to be scared.  How you get started at a place makes a big difference.”  The Longhorns played Georgia in that first game and won 26-7, eventually earning a Sugar Bowl berth at the end of the season. 


One of the storied rivalries in college football gave Royal his most helpful victory. The Red River Classic between Texas and Oklahoma has long been a bitter rivalry, and in Royal’s second season he led the Longhorns to a narrow victory over the Sooners.  “The one game that helped me the most to establish myself as a coach happened during my second year,” Royal said.  “We played Oklahoma and beat them, 15-14.  I was young and just starting out and that game established me more as a coach at Texas than any other game.  The administration took note and had a positive perception.”


Royal was on the other side of the rivalry as a student-athlete at the University of Oklahoma.  Royal and the Sooners beat the Longhorns in his junior and senior years.  He was just as committed to beating the Longhorns as a player as he was to beating the Sooners as a coach.  “Most Texas fans know I played for Oklahoma,” Royal said.  “Regardless of what side you are on, you know that game is one of the most important games of the season, locally and nationally.  I played four years as a player and was 100 percent committed to beating Texas.  Later, coaching was my profession and I was just as committed to beating Oklahoma.”


During Royal’s first march to the national championship in 1963 the Texas/OU rivalry reached national significance again.  Royal explained, “The most important Texas/Oklahoma game would have been the 1963 game.”  It was the first time since the 1940s that the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country were playing one another.”  Texas won 28-7.  The win over Oklahoma put the Texas program on the map nationally, according to Royal.  “I was still relatively new in the profession and that win helped establish our program on the national level.  We went on to win the national championship that year.  But let me tell you we were close just as many times as we won it.  It is how those close ball games come out that determines the national championship.  We lost one game by one point in 1964 to Arkansas, which cost us an undefeated season and of course back-to-back national championships.  That was the most disappointing loss of my career.”  Texas was the defending national champion and ranked number one going into that game.  They lost 14-13.


To Royal, the difference between a loss and a win is sometimes a matter of how the game breaks.  “The year before in 1963 we were down badly to the Aggies on a muddy field.  We made it through and came back to win at the end of the game.  It looked like a loss for sure, but the players kept scrapping and they pulled out a victory.  Well, the next year we couldn’t quite pull it out against Arkansas.  In back-to-back years we had two examples of how close victory is to defeat.  You have to have some good breaks and good things need to happen to win the national championship or be selected as national champion.”


In 1969, the undefeated Longhorn faced an undefeated Arkansas team.  Royal had his chance to return the favor and ruin the Razorbacks chances at a national championship.  The game was deemed the “Game of the Century” and played before a sellout crowd.  Even President Richard Nixon attended. 


Texas had instituted the wishbone offense under offensive coordinator Emory Bellard and “went on quite a successful run,” according to Royal.  “We were behind 14-0 going into the fourth quarter, and like I said, you have to get some breaks and some good things have to happen to you,” Royal said. “We gambled and went for two on the first touchdown thinking that if we were unsuccessful when we were down 14-6, then, when we scored again, we could still go for two and tie the game.  But if you go for one and wait till the last to go for two, it is win or lose.  I’ve always thought it was better to go for two early when you are trying to make up a fourteen point deficit.  By going for two early on, you can still go for two later and tie the game up.  A tie is better than a loss.”


One of the most memorable and remarkable plays in the history of the University of Texas was inspired by Texas Wide Receiver Randy Peschel.  “Well, the most memorable play of the game was definitely not a no-brainer,” Royal said.  “Peschel, who caught the famous pass, came to me at halftime and told me, ‘They’re really coming up fast every time I’m going down the field, I’m having a hard time making a block on the option play, because the halfback is coming up so fast.  And if we ever need it, I think I can get behind the defensive back.’ Well, trailing late, obviously we really needed it at that point.  So, it was a call Randy Peschel made at halftime, and I remembered it and came back to it.  Of course, as it turned out their safety and cornerback were both close to the ball and it took a darn near perfect throw and catch to get in there.  It came as close to their hands as it did ours.  We went on to score a touchdown and win the game 15-14.”

Royal and the Longhorns won the national championship again the following year.  Royal’s third and final championship of his career.


I have been very fortunate to work at the Cemetery the last 13 years, and by far one of the most memorable and enjoyable conversations I have had was talking football with Coach Royal.  He will be remembered as one of the most successful college football coaches in history.  He helped change the game when he instituted the wishbone offense.  He was most proud when his players earned their degrees.  Royal presented each player with a ring with a “T” engraved known as the “T” ring, marking their graduation from the University of Texas.  His legacy is more than his win/loss record, it’s the lives he touched from his players, coaches and fans that still call him Coach.    


Jason Walker