The immortals aren’t supposed to perish. Long after they’re done stalking a sideline, calming boosters and tolerating fans, the titans of college football dispense sage advice inside stadiums bearing their names. They are legends among us, kings of a sport quick to idolize and desperate for results.
And this morning, we lost another.
Darrell K. Royal’s passing doesn’t echo those of Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno. Demigod’s all of them, Royal retired as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns at age 52. He wasn’t afraid of dying when the whistle stopped blowing.
When the frustration of losing was enough and life required another path, the man whose name is emblazoned on Texas-Memorial Stadium voluntarily resigned from the best college football job in the country.
He is so identifiable with Texas that many forget he played for the Oklahoma Sooners. He still holds their career interceptions record (18).
But it wasn’t his time in crimson that made him a potentate of the Lone Star State, it was beating them. Royal’s mark in the Red River Shootout (12-7-1) remains the gold standard, like so many others, in Austin. He treated the most important Longhorns game of the season like it was more than a typical Saturday, a view those in burnt orange fiercely expect.
Royal’s three national titles (1963, 1969, 1970) and 11 Southwest Conference titles moved Texas from gargantuan potential to blue blood program. I wasn’t around to enjoy his success on the field. For me, Royal is one of the few men your dad talks about in glowing, reverent tones. The resources and sheer addiction to football in the state might have pushed Texas to towering status under another coach. Without Royal though, the Longhorns aren’t a premier brand.
Mack Brown is widely praised for claiming a national title, the first since Royal’s retirement, though his path to glory wasn’t smooth. It was Royal who acted as a mentor, a friend, an ear when Bob Stoops and the Sooners were in the midst of a five-game winning streak. When Brown hit his nadir, it was Royal who offered the sternest of truths. Asked how he would help the head coach respond to a losing season (5-7) in 2010, Royal replied, “I don’t know, never had one.”
Honest, loyal, introspective and victorious. These tenets bound him. They don’t put adjectives on the cement of sporting venues. Perhaps that’s too close to a tombstone for the man described.
In Austin, he doesn’t need any of those words anyway. When you’ve built a behemoth, invented an offense (the Wishbone) and made a lasting friendship with Willie Nelson, the name alone tends to reverberate.
It’s the life of a sports fan to watch his father’s heroes die. Down the road, my own will follow. I’d like to think I’ll tell similar tales and impart the same aura on a son as my dad and Darrell Royal did on me.
Legends aren’t easily written. Darrell Royal isn’t easily replaced.