Royal was a complex man for complex times
NOV 07, 2012 12:35p ET
Any portrait of the former University of Texas coaching legend, whose death was confirmed Wednesday at age 88, had to be painted with fine brush strokes and a myriad of colors.
Royal was often depicted as "folksy" with his unpretentious nature and his chicken-fried quotations such as, "You've got to dance with the one who brung ya."
There are many more witticisms attributed to Royal, some of which he actually said. His impact as a coach, however, is undeniable and continues to influence coaches at all levels to this day. His face would be carved alongside Tom Landry's on the Mount Rushmore of coaching legends in the state of Texas.
The truth is, Royal was more than a coach -- he was a complex man and an innovator. Coaching in the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, he often reflected the times. He wasn't afraid to make changes, which is one reason why he was able to coach Texas to national championships in 1963, 1969 and 1970.
The Wishbone offense, which dominated college football for years, was birthed at Texas in 1968 under Royal. Emory Bellard, a Texas assistant, had been doodling who the offense and Royal had the courage to install it mid-season.
If you visited Royal's home in later years, you couldn't tell he was a football guy at all. There were no trophies or plaques in his living room. Golf was his game, until health problems prevented him from playing.
The only sign of Royal's connection to football at all was the burnt orange track suit he wore when he greeted visitors at his home on an Austin-area golf course. Royal and his wife, Edith, lived in the kind of place where it's easier to get around by golf cart than automobile.
Yet just a few miles away stood an enormous football stadium with his name on it.
Royal had become more involved with the Texas football program under current coach Mack Brown. Royal had kept his distance after retiring from coaching at the end of the 1976 season. Royal had wanted his longtime assistant, Mike Campbell, to replace him the but the job instead went to an outsider, Fred Akers.
Texas didn't win another national title until 2005 under Brown and QB Vince Young.
Here's the thing about Royal stepping down when he did: He had a running back named Earl Campbell who would be a senior in 1977. A lot of coaches would have held on to coach Campbell one more season, but Royal stepped aside. It was Akers who led Campbell to the Heisman Trophy and the Longhorns to the brink of a national title, losing only to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Texas' dominance of Southwest Conference football under Royal in the 1960s and 70s cannot be underestimated but it did have a backlash, however. One of the forms that backlash took was the book, "Meat on the Hoof" by a former player, Gary Shaw, who described Royal as the detached dictator of a program that brutally ran off players it no longer deemed useful.
It's hard to rectify that image of Royal as the same man who was BFF's with Willie Nelson. Then again, Royal's opponents tried to paint his program as racist in the late 1960s, and that label didn't stick, either.
Royal's 1969 team was the last all-white team to win the national championship. SMU had awarded the first scholarship to a black player in the Southwest Conference three years earlier while Oklahoma had its first black player back in the 1950s.
Oklahoma, incidentally, is where Royal was a standout college defensive back and quarterback under legendary Bud Wilkinson. It's somehow fitting that Royal, a man of contrasts, was an alum of one of Texas' most hated rivals.
The fact is, Texas had a black player in 1969, but lineman Julius Whittier was a freshman and first-year players were ineligible at the time. Texas had recruited another black player, Leon O'Neal, in 1968 but O'Neal left after his freshman year.
Royal never barred blacks from playing at Texas, but it was made clear to him by others that the program was not integrated and would remain that way.
"I coached blacks in Canada; at the University of Washington. I recruited blacks," Royal said. "That was nothing new to me to coach blacks. What's different about it? Nothing. Just play who's the best player."
Whittier became Texas' first black player in 1970, but it was running back Roosevelt Leaks who became the Longhorns' first African American star.
"They said Coach Royal was prejudiced against black players and all that," Leaks remembers being told when he was recruited. "I have a lot of respect for Coach Royal. It was a difficult time for me, but it was a difficult time for him, also ... I'm sure a lot of them [boosters] didn't want me to start."
Breaking the color barrier at Texas was one case where Royal didn't "dance with who brung ya." He could not be pinned down by a simple saying, for he was no simple man.
Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire
+ SHOW COMMENTS +