Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas coach who led the Longhorns to three national college football titles and 11 Southwest Conference titles in a 20-year tenure that ended in 1976, died Wednesday in Austin after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, the university announced. He was 88.
He remained a larger-than-life masthead for Texas football years after he retired and had been a trusted and devoted mentor to current Coach Mack Brown.
Royal, some would argue, was also generous to a fault for teaching Alabama Coach Bear Bryant the triple-option “Wishbone” offense that helped the Crimson Tide win three national titles.
Bryant, after a 1970 defeat against USC in Birmingham, called Royal in the off-season and told him he was coming to Austin for a visit.
“He stayed for several days,” Royal recalled in a 2005 interview with The Times. “And they were long days.”
Royal switched to the Wishbone, primarily developed by assistant coach Emory Bellard, after Texas went 6-4 in 1968. The Longhorns ran off a streak of 30 straight victories and claimed national tiles in 1969 and 1970.
Bryant secretly implemented the Wishbone for Alabama’s offense in the summer of 1971 and used it to defeat USC, 17-10, at the Coliseum.
Royal defended his decision to befriend Bryant.
“He had helped me when I was young and in coaching,” Royal recalled. “And he’d put in a kind word for me here and there. He helped me, so it was only natural that I’d help him.”
Royal was honest, fierce and loyal and remains on the short list of the sport’s all-time greatest coaches.
He offered folksy expressions like “Dance with the one who brung ya,” and often said about passing the ball: “Three things can happen, and two of them are bad.”
“Coach gave so much more to the State of Texas and college football than he took away,” Mack Brown said in a statement. “He forgot more football than most of us will ever know, including me.”
Royal was hired as Texas coach in 1956, at age 32, and led the Longhorns to a 167-47-5 record. He never had a losing season.
Darrell K. Royal was born July 6, 1924, in Hollis, Okla. He grew up poor in the Depression and later served in World War II. After returning home, he enrolled at Oklahoma and became a star quarterback and defensive back for legendary Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson.
Royal coached the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos in 1953 and spent two seasons at Mississippi State and one at Washington before taking over at Texas.
He turned the Longhorns into instant winners and became one of state’s highest-profile figures in the 1960s.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Royal had been designated to greet President Kennedy in Austin after a scheduled trip to Dallas.
Royal led Texas to the national title that season.
He would be criticized for being late to integrate Texas football. The Longhorns hold the dubious distinction of fielding the last all-white national title team in 1969.
Julius Whittier, in 1970, became the school’s first black player.
“I had black players in Canada, I had black players at the University of Washington,” Royal told The Times in 2005. “You know, it has never made one bit of difference to me what somebody’s color is. You want the best players you can get. Once you recruit and get them, they’re yours, and you just play the best.”
In 1969, Royal was involved in the so-called Game of the Century against Arkansas, coached by his friend Frank Broyles.
To increase ratings, ABC publicist Beano Cook persuaded both schools to move the game from October to December. Cook, who died last month at 81, was correct on his bet that both teams might be undefeated.
With President Nixon in attendance, Texas rallied to defeat Arkansas, 15-14. After the game, Nixon declared Texas the national champions.
Royal had a stellar record against some of the game’s best coaches: He was 6-1 against Wilkinson, 3-0-1 against Bryant and 14-5 against Broyles.
Royal did, in the 1970s, meet a nemesis in Barry Switzer, going 0-3-1 against the Oklahoma coach.
“Darrell Royal was one of ours,” Switzer tweeted Wednesday. “An All American at Oklahoma & great competitor. He cast a long shadow & will be missed.”
Royal retired in his prime, in 1976, at age 52, and never looked back.
“Climbing is fun; maintaining the high level was pressure,” Royal said in 2005. “It got so that I wasn’t elated when I won a game, I was just relieved. And if we were defeated, it just took me forever to get over it.”
Royal’s spirit was also dimmed by the 1973 death of his daughter, Marian, in an auto accident.
Royal’s son David died in a 1982 motorcycle accident. Royal shied away from Texas football for years but struck a special kinship with Brown, who arrived in 1998.
“I lost my dad when I was 54,” Brown said Wednesday. “And Coach filled a real void in my life and he treated me like family.”
Royal is survived by Edith, his wife of 68 years, and a son, Mack.