Darrell Royal: Sugar Bowl Legend

By Ted Lewis for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2020 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]

Darrell Royal’s lone coaching appearance in the Sugar Bowl was not a pleasant one – a 39-7 loss for his Texas Longhorns at the hands of Ole Miss. That 1958 game is tied for a third-most lopsided outcome in the bowl’s 86-year history.

However, that was Royal’s first year overseeing a Longhorn program that had posted the worst record in program history (1-9) the year before. The Sugar Bowl result may not have been favorable, but it laid the groundwork for a Hall-of-Fame career. And it also taught Royal a very valuable lesson.

“We went to Biloxi to practice, and he worked us harder than he had all season,” said Bobby Lackey, a sophomore quarterback on that Longhorn team. “A bowl is supposed to be a reward, but this felt like punishment. We didn’t enjoy it at all.”

So disgruntled were the players about what had happened that the following season when Texas was invited to the Gator Bowl, they voted against it and the Longhorns stayed home.

Things like that happened in those days.

In 1959 Texas won the Southwest Conference and the automatic Cotton Bowl bid that went with it. But the veteran players still had to hear from Royal that he had made a mistake in overworking his team before the Sugar Bowl, but that he was only following the practice routine his college coach, Bud Wilkinson, had used when Royal was a player there and the Sooners appeared in three straight Sugar Bowls.

“It changed him completely,” Lackey said of the players’ reaction to the physical Sugar Bowl practices. “He started listening to what the players wanted and it made him a better coach.”

The Longhorns getting to the Sugar Bowl during Royal’s first season, and the key lesson he learned, set the stage for one of college football’s greatest coaching careers – a 184-60-5 record (167-47-5 in his 21 years at Texas), three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference titles, and, after that first inauspicious postseason debut, an 8-6-1 record in bowl games.

“No individual has contributed more to athletics at UT-Austin than Darrell Royal,” then UT system chancellor William Cunningham said when he announced the Texas Stadium would be named for Royal in 1996. “He is a living legend.”

“Memorial Stadium,” the name of the facility honoring all Texans who served in World War I when the stadium was built in 1924, was retained as part of the title as well. And, in tribute to Royal’s service in World War II, each season includes a Veterans Appreciation Day.

Along with coaching the football team, Royal also was UT’s athletic director from 1962-80, helping to lay the foundation for a mega-department so powerful that it has its own TV network.

“Well deserved; very much deserved,” Mack Brown, whose 158 victories at Texas ranks second to Royal, said of the stadium name. “He had such a huge impact on an already great program, and it was felt beyond the University of Texas.

“To me, he was the best coach ever in college football.”

Other coaches won more games and more national championships, although retiring in 1976 at age 52 certainly prevented Royal from being higher on those lists.

As it was, Royal was 3-0-1 against Bear Bryant, including a 9-7 victory against Texas A&M in 1957 that earned the Longhorns that infamous Sugar Bowl bid, 14-5 against Frank Broyles of Arkansas, including the famous 15-14 victory in 1969 that netted his second national title, and 6-1 against Wilkinson in the Red River Shootout, the first of which left him devasted that he had beaten his mentor.

Despite his successes, Royal preferred deflecting the credit to others, such as giving assistant Emory Bellard credit for creating the wishbone offense that would dominate the game for two decades.

“He totally, completely had no ego,” Spike Dykes, a Royal assistant who later coached at Texas Tech, told ESPN after Royal’s death in 2012. “And yet, you never had to figure out who was the head coach.

“Darrell Royal didn’t claim to invent football, but I don’t know anybody who coached it any better. There’s just not that many people who are that good at what they do who don’t have an ego.”

Legendary Texas-born sportswriter Dan Jenkins said of Royal, “He was the smartest coach I’ve ever known. Not even close. I never saw his teams make a mistake. They’d get beat if somebody had a better team, but they didn’t do something stupid.”

The wishbone was ideal for Royal’s love of having a strong running game. Among his well-known sayings was, “Three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.”

As for his off-the-field impact, Brown goes on so far to say that Royal deserves credit for helping make Austin the booming center of education, state government and technology it has become in the last few decades.

“I don’t want to say it’s the only thing, but Texas football is still the center of attention in Austin,” he said. “And Coach Royal definitely made Texas football what it is today.”

Small wonder that Royal is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, an honor generally reserved for political and military figures.

And yet, none of that likely would have happened had Royal joined his parents in the 1930s when they, like thousands of other Okies moved from the small town of Hollis in the southwestern corner of the state to California.

Royal actually did spend summers there, picking produce. But he hitchhiked home to Hollis to live with his grandmother and become a four-sport star athlete.

Coming out of high school in 1943, Royal joined the Army Air Corps where he wound up playing on the Third Army football team alongside All-Americans Charley Trippi of Georgia and Bill Swiacki of Holy Cross.

He’d also found time to marry Edith Thomason, whom he’d met outside a soda shop in Hollis. They were married for 68 years.

After his discharge in 1946, Royal enrolled at Oklahoma on a football scholarship.

Wilkinson became the Sooners coach in 1947, and Royal was his split-T quarterback for three seasons as well as a defensive back in those platoon days. Royal’s 18 career interceptions are still the school record.

The Sooners went 28-3-1 during Royal’s time at OU, going to the Sugar Bowl in his junior and senior seasons, beating North Carolina, 14-6, with a Royal 43-yard pass play setting up the winning touchdown, and LSU, 35-0, in what remains the biggest blowout in the bowl’s history.

Entering coaching in 1950, Royal had seven jobs in eight years, including a two-year stint as head coach at Mississippi State starting when he was only 28. Those MSU teams were both 6-4, and in 1956 Royal coached Washington to a 5-5 mark.

Then Texas had its disastrous one-win season in 1956. The Longhorns needed a new coach.

Texas athletic director Dana X. Bible made runs at Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech and Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State before contacting Royal.

As Royal recounted it, he put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and told his wife, “This is it, Edith – it’s the University of Texas.”

The Royals would never leave Austin.

Despite Royal’s youth – and the fact he had been an Oklahoma Sooner – Lackey said the players were receptive to him, especially after going 1-9 the season before.

“We weren’t real sure about everything at first because you never know what you’re getting in a new coach,” he said. “But he brought some really good people in with him and after we’d gone through spring, you could tell things were going to be different.

“There had been a lot of jealousy and infighting the year before, but we had a good freshman team and Coach Royal told everyone if you could play defense for him, you were going to get to play. He was tough, but he was also fair and he was a real leader.”

Texas opened the 1957 season by beating Georgia and Tulane before losing to South Carolina and Oklahoma. Two more victories – against No. 10 Arkansas and No. 13 Rice got Texas into the national rankings at No. 13, but a loss to SMU and a tie with Baylor had them unranked again with two games left – against No. 17 TCU and No. 4 Texas A&M.

The Longhorns won them both. The one against the Aggies is often credited to the fact that news had broken about Bear Bryant to Alabama the week before.

Regardless, the Sugar Bowl gave Texas (6-3-1) the bid to play seventh-ranked Ole Miss.

The game itself was one-sided with the Rebels’ Raymond Brown having one of the great days in bowl history – scoring two touchdowns, throwing for two more and coming up with three interceptions – two of them on passes thrown by Lackey.

Royal’s inaugural season at Texas may have had a sour ending, but he had established a standard of success that would continue until he retired after the 1976 season.

“He told me it had gotten to the point where the losses became devastating and the wins became relief, but without any joy,” Brown said. “That’s especially so when you coach at place like Texas where you’re supposed to compete for the national championship every year.

“I don’t think he ever regretted getting out when he did or not taking another job. He was very happy with his life after coaching.”

And, Royal did have those three national titles – in 1963, ’69 and ’70, the last season ending with a loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl which snapped a 30-game winning streak.

Royal was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and then the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018.

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