On the field, Royal was known for his play-calling genius, taking the biggest of risks in the biggest of games and coming out a winner more often than not. Off the field, he rose from humble beginnings during the depths of the Depression to become a homespun populist rivaling Will Rogers.
Royal was the winningest coach in University of Texas history, compiling a 167-47-5 record in 20 seasons from 1957 to 1976, and his name has been synonymous with Longhorn football for a half-century.
Today, the Longhorns’ 100,000-seat stadium bears his name.
He is survived by his wife, Edith, and a son, Mack. Two of his children, Marian and David, preceded him in death.
In recent years, the legendary coach battled Alzheimer’s disease, but he did make one last appearance at a Longhorns football game this season, participating in the ceremonial coin toss before the Longhorns’ win over Wyoming.
In February, Edith Royal announced the creation of the Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease in an emotional appearance in the Texas Senate chamber. There, with her husband at her side, she spoke of the impact of the disease on her family and praised the support of their Longhorn family.
“It is now members of those teams and our football family that return from all over the country almost daily to shower Darrell with love, engage him in activities, play music, sing for him, take him out for a barbecue sandwich or a ride in a new pickup truck, and, as importantly, provide some element of relief for me. It is not just the free time for me, but I know that those moments with his former players and lifelong friends are pure enjoyment for him, even if it is only in that moment,” she said.
She said her husband remembered games, players, even plays from many years ago, but “events of the here and now are much more difficult for him to recall. Occasionally, he will come up with one of his humorous sayings or break out in song.”
Indeed, Royal’s coaching career was matched only by colorful Royalisms, a lifetime of sayings that are still quoted today. He is credited with the oft-repeated line, “Dance with one who brung ya” to describe a reluctance to change football strategy in mid-game or midseason. He’d say a fast running back was “quicker than a hiccup.” Royal oft said luck was a result of “when preparation meets opportunity.” Before his final season, which ended with a 5-5-1 record, he fretted that his team looked “as average as everyday wash.”
But there was nothing average about Royal. In 23 years, all but three of them with the Longhorns, Royal never had a losing season. He won three national championships in 1964, 1969 and 1970, the first two uncontested titles that included Cotton Bowl victories. His teams won 30 straight games between 1968 and 1970, still the 10th-longest college football win streak.
Royal’s teams were noted for their outstanding defenses and conservative but powerful running attacks. His greatest victories, though, were punctuated with stunning passes that secured wins over rivals like Arkansas and Notre Dame.
His unbeaten, untied 1969 team nipped the Razorbacks 15-14 in a classic December game in Fayetteville, Ark., with a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback in a contest called “The Game of the Century” that was attended by President Richard Nixon.
Despite being antagonists in one of the most memorable showdowns in college football history, Royal and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles remained lifelong friends and golfing buddies. The two coaching giants retired on the same cool December evening in 1976 after Royal’s Longhorns had won a 29-12 game in Austin.
“I’ve been in a billion dressing rooms, but I’ve never seen anyone like Coach Royal,” James Street, who quarterbacked 20 games without a loss under Royal, recalled years ago. “He could walk out there and just stand there, and it’d be quiet.”
Royal’s only losing year as a player or a coach came in 1941 when his team in his junior year at Hollis, Okla., was 3-6-1. While he was at Texas, his teams won 12 of his first 14 meetings with the Sooners, including a 15-14 upset of No. 2-ranked Oklahoma in his second Longhorn season in 1958, and were 12-7-1 against his alma mater for whom he was an All-American.
Known for his ties to Texas, Royal actually grew up in Oklahoma in the dusty, financially pinched 1930s and never forgot his roots. Longtime UT sports publicist Jones Ramsey used to call him “a sweet Bear Bryant.” Royal embraced people whether they worked in corporate board rooms or as a janitor at the school and, in turn, was loved and revered by even his biggest adversaries.
“He was one of those rare people who never changed,” former UT basketball coach Jody Conradt once said of Royal.
Darrell K Royal had a middle initial that stood for nothing but was such a principled, ethical man that abuses by other coaches finally drove him from his cherished profession. He always said the highs were never as extreme as the lows, and he couldn’t enjoy a victory for very long before worrying about the next game.
Stung by recruiting setbacks, many of them at the hands of Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, who later admitted NCAA violations in his own autobiography, Royal quit at the relatively young age of 52 after the 1976 season.
He remained as athletic director for three years before retiring from public life in 1980 to serve as a part-time consultant to the university president and play golf. For years, Royal, along with close friends Willie Nelson and Ben Crenshaw, sponsored an annual charity golf tournament that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit East Austin youth.
Today’s Longhorn fans know Royal both from the name of the football stadium (his name was added to Texas Memorial Stadium in 1996) and from his relationship with current coach Mack Brown, who used Royal as an example for how to coach at UT. Throughout his 15 years at Texas, barely a news conference passes without Brown invoking Royal’s name or citing one of his pearls of wisdom.
“He was a man of his word, whether it was a good word or bad word,” said David McWilliams, who played for and coached under Royal before becoming Texas head coach himself in the late 1980s. “It wasn’t always the word I wanted to hear. But you know you could count on it.”