AUSTIN, Texas — A son of Depression-era Oklahoma, Darrell Royal came to Texas to take over a sleeping giant of a football program. Over 20 years, his folksy approach to sports and life, his inventive wishbone offense made him an icon of college football.
Royal, who won two national championships and turned the Longhorns program into a national power, died early Wednesday at age 88 of complications from cardiovascular disease, school spokesman Bill Little said. Royal also had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Royal didn’t have a single losing season in his 23 years as a head coach at Texas, Mississippi State and Washington. Known for their stout defenses and punishing running attacks, his Texas teams boasted a 167-47-5 record from 1957-1976, the best mark in the nation over that period.
“It was fun,” Royal told The Associated Press in 2007. “All the days I was coaching at Texas, I knew this would be my last coaching job. I knew it when I got here.”
It almost didn’t happen. Royal wasn’t Texas’ first choice.
Texas was coming off a 1-9 season in 1956 – still the worst in program history – and wanted a high-profile coach to turn things around. The Longhorns were rebuffed by Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd and Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty before turning to Royal.
Royal led the Longhorns to a 6-3-1 record in his first season, but he was so sickened by Mississippi’s 39-7 thrashing of his team in the Sugar Bowl that he gave away the commemorative bowl watch he received.
Under Royal, Texas won 11 Southwest Conference titles, 10 Cotton Bowl championships and national championships in 1963 and 1969, going 11-0 each time. The Longhorns also won a share of the 1970 national title. Royal was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Royal will be buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, an honor typically reserved for the state’s military and political leaders.
On Saturday, the Longhorns will honor Royal at their home game against Iowa State by lining up in the wishbone formation for their first offensive snap.
“Today is a very sad day. I lost a wonderful friend, a mentor, a confidant and my hero. College football lost maybe its best ever and the world lost a great man,” current Texas coach Mack Brown said Wednesday.
“His council and friendship meant a lot to me before I came to Texas, but it’s been my guiding light for my 15 years here.”
The national title season in 1969 included what was dubbed the “Game of the Century,” a come-from-behind, 15-14 victory by the top-ranked Longhorns over No. 2 Arkansas to cap the regular season.
President Nixon, an avid football fan, flew in by helicopter to watch. Afterward, Nixon greeted Royal with a plaque in the Texas locker room proclaiming Texas the national champion.
The Longhorns also were named national champions by United Press International in 1970, a year in which Texas lost its final game to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and finished 10-1.