Darrell K Royal, University of Texas football coach and athletics director, was born on July 6, 1924, in Hollis, Oklahoma. He was the youngest child of Burley Ray Royal and Katie Elizabeth (Harmon) Royal. His middle initial was “K” but he had no middle name. The initial K honored his mother Katie, who died when he was an infant. As a youngster, he worked a paper route and picked cotton to help the family make ends meet.
Royal grew up in Hollis and played high school football there. He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces (today the U.S. Air Force) during World War II but was never sent overseas. While on furlough to Oklahoma, Royal married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Marie Thomason, on July 26, 1944. They later had three children: Marian K, Sammy Mack, and David Wade. While in the military he played for a service team, and he continued his playing career, as an All-American quarterback, punter, and defensive back, while earning his degree in business at the University of Oklahoma.
Royal went into coaching and worked as an assistant at (in order) North Carolina State, Tulsa, and Mississippi State. His first head coaching job came in 1953 with the Edmonton Eskimos, a professional team in Canada. He coached at Mississippi State and the University of Washington before coming to Texas in 1957. He was thirty-two years old when he and his family moved to Austin.
By his own admission, Royal ran a tough program at the University of Texas. He wanted his players to get the support they needed to be successful both on and off the field. At practice, when a player made an extraordinary play, Royal would call out, “Let’s give him three,” and everybody clapped three times. Off the field, Royal was responsible for hiring the first academic advisor for student-athletes, a common practice today. The advisor worked with student-athletes to ensure they made their grades and earned their diplomas.
“We were the first school in the country that I have any knowledge of that hired a guy, full-time, as an academic counselor who was not a coach, not interested in being a coach,” Royal said. “He was a teacher. And that thing has spread: there’s not a single school in the country that doesn’t have an academic counseling program now.”
Royal also began the practice of giving “T” rings to Texas football players who graduated. The ring features a “T” in white set against an orange stone. Subsequent Texas football coaches have continued this tradition, which has been expanded to include all Texas student-athletes who graduate.
In 1963 the Longhorns won their first football national championship. They defeated Navy, led by Heisman Trophy winner (and future Dallas Cowboys star) Roger Staubach, 28–6, in the Cotton Bowl. They followed that season with a strong 10–1 record in 1964 and won the Orange Bowl against Joe Namath and Alabama.
In 1968 one of Royal’s assistants, Emory Bellard, created an offensive formation in which three backs lined up behind the quarterback. The fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback, and two tailbacks lined up behind the fullback in a split formation resembling a “Y.” The formation focused on the quarterback’s “reading” of what the opposing defensive tackle would do on a given play. The quarterback could hand off the ball to the fullback, keep the ball and run to the outside, or make a quick pitch to the trailing tailback. The formation became known as the “wishbone” and played a large part in the resurgence of the football program’s fortunes. Many teams in college football adopted the formation.
Royal was known for pithy quotes to illustrate his points. Among them:
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Football doesn’t build character. It eliminates the weak ones.
Dance with the one who brung ya.
Royal’s 1969 team finished 11–0 and won the university’s second national championship. Its most noteworthy game, dubbed “The Game of the Century,” that season came on December 6, 1969, when Texas, ranked No. 1 in the nation, faced off against No. 2-ranked Arkansas at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas. With President Richard M. Nixon in attendance, the Longhorns came back from a 14–0 deficit to win 15–14. Nixon visited the Texas locker room to offer his congratulations after the game.
The victory preceded sad news for the Longhorns. Safety Freddie Steinmark was diagnosed with cancer in his leg, which doctors amputated days later. Remarkably, Steinmark, on crutches, attended the Cotton Bowl game on January 1, 1970, and watched Texas defeat Notre Dame, 21–17. The team awarded Steinmark the game ball, but his story ended tragically with his death in 1971. A movie about Steinmark, My All-American, was released in 2015. Aaron Eckhart played Royal.
Sports journalists named Royal “Coach of the Decade” for the 1960s. In 1970 the Longhorns repeated as national champions, though this time they lost the Cotton Bowl to Notre Dame.
Royal’s successes at Texas came amidst personal tragedy. In April 1973 his daughter, Marian Royal Kazen, died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Austin. She was twenty-seven years old. After his retirement, Royal later reflected on this loss and its impact on his approach to coaching.
“Made me look at what I was doing in the game and the intensity and that maybe…it wasn’t all that important. I think I eased back and became a little bit softer and not quite as aggressive after that as a coach....I know that we weren’t as demanding probably after that, or I wasn’t.”
In March 1982 Royal’s youngest child, David, was killed in a motorcycle accident not far from the site of Kazen’s fatal accident. David Royal was twenty-nine.
Darrell Royal was hailed as a father figure to many of his players and praised for his steadfast integrity. He also had some critics. A former Texas player, Gary Shaw, wrote Meat on the Hoof (1972), a book that was critical of the football program. In response, Royal said that Shaw was forced by his father to play football at an early age. “…put yourself in his position,” Royal commented, “a guy out in uniform, and a coach pushing him and pressing him into doing some things that he doesn’t like to do. It’s a bad experience. He’s not going to like the people he’s around.”
Royal retired from coaching in 1976, following a 5–5–1 season. He finished his twenty-year Texas tenure with a record of 167 wins, 47 losses, and 5 ties. His teams won eleven Southwest Conference championships and made sixteen bowl appearances, including six consecutive trips to the Cotton Bowl. He never had a losing season as a head coach and, as of 2019, remained the winningest football coach in UT history. Still in his fifties at retirement, Royal continued as athletic director and later became a university advisor. He was active in charitable causes and, as a country music fan, got to know many musicians through his close friendship with country music star Willie Nelson, among others. He especially enjoyed golf and cosponsored an annual charity golf tournament to help children of East Austin.
Royal received many accolades for his career. The year of his retirement, 1976, he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Texas Men’s Athletics Hall of Honor. The National College Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 1983. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. The University of Texas in 1996 renamed Texas Memorial Stadium in Royal’s honor. That same year he won the Horatio Alger Award. In 2000 he was the inaugural recipient of the National Sports Media Association’s Bear Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006 he was honored with the UT Distinguished Service Award.
Darrell K Royal died in Austin on November 7, 2012, of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease and cardiovascular disease. He was survived by his wife, Edith, and their son Sammy Mack Royal. In light of his illness, Royal and his wife had established the Darrell K Royal Fund for Alzheimer’s Research. A memorial service was held at the Frank C. Erwin Special Events Center in Austin. He was buried at the Texas State Cemetery. Royal was inducted posthumously into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame in 2013.