Darrell Royal was long gone from college football by the time I gained sports consciousness. The legendary coach retired in 1976, a dozen years before I was born. It wasn't long after I became a fan of college football, however, before my dad called me to the living room, sat me down and told me we were going to watch the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game and that I was going to learn everything there was to know about Texas' greatest football coach.
I immediately thought of that moment Wednesday morning when I learned of Royal's passing.
The tower, UT's campus landmark, was lit orange on Wednesday night to honor Royal. A full orange tower is usually limited to mark occasions when Texas wins a national championship, something Royal accomplished three times while at Texas. Royal's teams came achingly close to three more national titles. His 1961 team was ranked No. 1 before it suffered a 6-0 loss to TCU, one of the biggest upsets in Southwest Conference history.
"They're like a bunch of cockroaches," Royal said of TCU. "It's not what they eat and tote off, it's what they fall into and mess up that hurts."
A year later Texas was again the top ranked team in the country when a 14-14 tie with Rice knocked team from down to No. 5. After breaking through with the school's first national championship in 1963, Royal's bid for a repeat ended when the top-ranked Horns suffered 14-13 loss at the hands of Arkansas, the eventual national champions. After scoring with 1:27 left in the game to pull Texas within one, rather than opt for a tie, Texas went for two and failed.
Largely considered a conservative coach, Royal had a penchant for rolling the dice in the biggest of moments. Against that same Arkansas team five years later, Texas fought back from a 14-0 hole with two successful gambles - a successful two-point conversion after Texas' first touchdown, and facing a 4th-and-3 with under five minutes to play, Royal ordered quarterback James Street to roll left and fire a bomb that snuck between two defenders and into Randy Peschel's outstretched arms to set up the Longhorns' go ahead score in a 15-14 win.
Royal's teams slipped to mediocrity after the 1964 season, going 19-12 from 1965-67 before he and assistant coach Emory Bellard implemented the Wishbone offense. After a tie and a loss to open the 1968 season Texas would not lose again until January 1971, a streak of 30 consecutive wins that brought Royal his second and third national championships.
Royal shared the ins and outs of the Wishbone offense with many coaching staffs, including archrival Oklahoma. That move ultimately contributed to Royal's early retirement when Barry Switzer's Oklahoma gained control of the rivalry using the Wishbone.
Royal's persona stretched well beyond just the game of football. He had well-publicized friendships with Willie Nelson and President Lyndon B. Johnson. In a state that worshipped football, Royal was the Pope.
My grandfather, at the time an executive in the Presbyterian Church, met with Royal in the late 1960's to invite the coach to speak at a men's conference. Royal declined, but their conversation eventually broached the subject of integration. SMU's Jerry LeVias had recently broken the color barrier in the Southwest Conference and Royal explained that Texas planned on breaking its own color barrier, he was just looking for the right player to do it with.
In 1970, Julius Whittier became the first black player to play for Texas. In truth, my grandfather had nothing to do with breaking the color barrier at the University of Texas. Just don't tell him that.
I had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of occasions as a student at Texas when he attended various football, basketball and baseball games. I told myself to cherish every moment in his presence, not only because I had the pleasure of being in close proximity with a living legend, but because, frankly, I never knew when I would run out of chances to see him with my own eyes.
Royal's passing shook the state of Texas on Wednesday. One day after the presidential election, news of Royal's death led Dallas newscasts with live dispatches from Austin.
On Saturday Texas will open its game with Iowa State by lining up in Royal's trademark Wishbone formation inside the stadium bearing his name. Darrell K Royal may no longer grace the sidelines of Texas football, but to many Texans he was, is and always will be the personification of football in the state of Texas.
The University of Texas tower lit burnt orange on Wednesday night to honor the life of Darrell Royal.
Longhorn Network feature on Darrell Royal's life and legacy.