This is one of those where you wish you’d been there. There was somebody making music, and it could’ve been Willie Nelson, maybe Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard. When those outlaws came to Darrell Royal’s house, they came pickin’ and singin’. And soon enough, with the party getting louder, everybody yakking, you’d hear the famous football coach himself, Darrell Royal, University of Texas legend, shout out, “Red light! Red light!” Which meant what red lights mean: STOP! Only with Royal, “Red light” had more to it. It meant stop whatever you’re doing, shut up, and listen.
So you did. Not because Royal made you. You did it because he was Darrell Royal and you weren’t. He had won all those games. He made Texas football big. Back when Willie brought his fret-scratched guitar to Royal’s house, Texas hadn’t yet named its stadium Darrell K Royal Stadium but it soon would. There would be a statue, too, though some people aren’t sure a stadium and a statue are enough. “Darrell Royal would be two faces on the Mount Rushmore of Texas football,” Dan Jenkins says, “up there with Sam Baugh and Doak Walker.”
Jenkins was America’s best sportswriter in Royal’s time. He knew college football the way some scribblers knew the way to the free bar. The other day, when Darrell Royal died, 88 years old, heart condition, Alzheimer’s, Jenkins said, “He was one of those few guys who could give you one quote to hang a whole story on. Accessible, available, a great coach who knew how to get the best out of his players. Liked us print guys. Trusted those of us who made ourselves trustworthy. He’d say what he thought and tell you the truth.”
These were Royal’s contemporaries: Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Bud Wilkinson, Ara Parseghian, Frank Broyles, Bob Devaney, Duffy Daugherty. For 20 years, Royal won more games and lost fewer than any of them. His teams from 1959 to 1976 won the Southwest Conference 11 times. Twice they went 11-0 and won national championships. They won with defense and running. “Three things can happen when you pass,” Royal said, “and two of ‘em are bad.”
People kept track of Royalisms. He said complicated stuff in ways you could understand. He had a great linebacker, Tommy Nobis. “Aside from his super ability, Tommy’s just one of those trained pigs you love. He’ll laugh and jump right in the slop for you.” Maybe a guy who grew up picking cotton for a dime an hour in the Oklahoma dust comes out tough and wise. On how fast a guy was: “Quicker than a hiccup.” On defense: “You never lose if the other team doesn’t score.” On offense: “Sometimes you have to suck it up and call a number.”
The most famous number Darrell Royal ever called, he called the day Richard Nixon came to watch.
The situation was dire. Five minutes to play, Arkansas up 14-8. It was 1969, Texas No. 1, Arkansas No. 2, both undefeated going into the last game of the regular season, the last game of college football’s 100th season. President Nixon had come to Fayetteville to see it. Nixon had been a bench-warming end at Whittier College. That day in Arkansas, the wannabe jock brought along a plaque to present to the winner as national champion.
It was fourth down and two for Texas at its own 43. Life and death were the stakes. Royal couldn’t punt for fear he wouldn’t get the ball back. He called timeout to talk to his quarterback, James Street, whose teammates called him Slick for his good looks, flashy clothes, and ball-handling. Street had won 18 straight games for Texas, and would win this one, 15-14, only nobody knew that when Royal called him over on fourth down.
“We’re gonna run Right 53 Veer Pass,” Royal said.
He had sucked it up and called a number. A gambler’s number. Royal always said, “Ya dance with the one that brung ya,” meaning you depended on what had worked before. On fourth-and-two at his own 43, the one that brung him was the fullback off tackle or a quarterback keeper. But here Royal called a number where two of the three things that could happen were bad. If either of those two happened, he would lose, in which case everybody in Texas would fall dead.
“I started back on the field,” Street says. He’s 64 years old now and still a star in Austin, where he runs four money-managing companies. “But I knew what Right 53 Veer Pass meant. In Right 53 Veer, we set the formation to the wide side and ran the fullback off-tackle. Adding ‘Pass’ meant we ran the same formation but sent the tight end deep. He was Randy Peschel. Once that year, I think, we had sent Randy deep. I went back to Coach Royal and said, ‘Right 53 Veer Pass? That means Ted’ -- that’s what we called the tight end -- ‘is the only receiver going deep. So you’re saying Right 53 Veer Pass?’”
Street says he thought he saw hurt feelings on the coach’s face. “I wasn’t questioning the call at all,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page, that I’d heard him right. Our wide receiver, Cotton Speyrer, was fast. Randy Peschel had great hands, but he wasn’t fast. Once more I said to Coach Royal, ‘You sure that’s the play we want to run?’”
Only a quarterback called Slick might ask that question of Darrell Royal. Players were afraid of him in the way kids were afraid of authoritarian coaches back then. Royal ordered your hair short, your nails clean, your shoes shined. You represented your parents, the team, the school. You did what Coach Royal told you. Street says Royal would come into the locker room after a practice, a hundred guys rowdy, amped up on the day’s adrenaline. “And you’d hear somebody whisper, ‘Daddy D is in the room.’ That’s what we called him when he couldn’t hear us, ‘Daddy D.’ I’ve been in a thousand locker rooms, but when Daddy D came in, I never heard one get quieter quicker.”
So, when Street asked if Royal was sure, the coach said, “Hell, yeah, I’m sure.”
Royal had been a quarterback himself, at Oklahoma, a kid whose mother died when he was six months old, whose father tried to move him to California, who hitchhiked back to Oklahoma on his own, a kid who had scrapped his way out of the dust and cotton fields of Hollis, a tiny crossroads town at the western end of the state, five minutes from Texas. He hadn’t got where he was by walking away from a hard moment. He was a competitor. Street once heard the coach, then retired, explain how he wanted to die. “Coach Royal said, ‘Heart attack, coming off the 18th green, taking everybody’s damned money.’”
So, “Hell, yeah, I’m sure.”
“Randy, you get open,” Street said in the huddle. “Run a hook, run a curl, run anything you want, just get open and I’ll get it to you.” Then he said, “This is it, Randy.”
And Randy Peschel started running, and James Street heaved the thing, and the tight end ran fast enough and far enough to get his good hands on it, a 44-yard play on fourth-and-two that put Texas on the Arkansas 13-yard line. Two plays later, the Longhorns scored. And a little while after that, the president of the United States shook Darrell Royal’s hand.