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The Tributes To Darrell Royal Avoid An Uglier History

November 11, 2012, 10:23 am

Lyndon Johnson congratulating QB James Street in 1970. Royal (center) credited Johnson with changing his view about integrating the Longhorns (the first Black Longhorn lettered in 1970.) Photo credit.

As the nation goes all dewy-eyed over legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal’s death from cardio-vascular disease last week, I find the historian in me curious about the many memorializations to his legacy that either fail to mention, or equivocate about, his brutality and racism. No, instead of curious, make that really offended.

If one more journalist describes the man as “folksy” I will discharge my breakfast.  And I would like to point out that, despite the love that is being showered on his memory by the fans, few obituaries quote any of his former players. Those that do seem to have been unable to winkle out a really moving recollection about the experience of playing for Darrell Royal.  ESPN summarized Royal as a man “known as much for his folksy, simplistic approach to life as for his creative wishbone offenses and two outright national championships[.]“ He was a “stickler for following the rules, even when he disagreed with them.”

What were those rules Royal disagreed with? None of the articles really say, but mandatory racial integration is one good guess. Academic eligibility might be another, since under Royal’s stewardship the Longhorns pioneered the practice of  hiring tutors to do the players’ schoolwork  because “we need somebody looking after the grades“ (emphasis mine). ”I don’t think coaches are good at that,” he explained. Otherwise sentient academics on Facebook have gone all weepy-eyed over Texas running a (modified) wishbone on Saturday, the play for which Royal was famous, (see it here: in my view, since the modification involved passing the ball, for which Royal was not famous, it was a dopey tribute.)

An equally valid tribute might have involved lining up a bunch of third-string players on the fifty yard line at half time and having them crash into each other until they started to cry or had to be carried off the field on stretchers. Here is Jim Dent’s obituary in the New York Times, one that emphasizes Royal’s courage and sense of humor, but fails to even mention this accusation.  In the third ‘graph, Dent does note that “In the 1970s, Royal was a virile, driven, demanding man with a chip on his shoulder bigger than Bevo, the Longhorns mascot. He rarely raised his voice to players. ‘But we were scared to death of him,’ the former quarterback Bill Bradley said.”

The players had reasons to be scared of Darrell Royal: if Coach told you to resign from the team, and for some reason you decided you needed that football scholarship to finish college, you were $hit out of luck. Journalists who decide to mention Royal’s sadism seem not to know what to do with the information.  For example,  Jim Vertuno, of the Associated Press (I found this obituary published in Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and nowhere else) briefly calls attention to Gary Shaw’s 1972 expose of the Texas football program, Meat on the Hoof: the Hidden World of Texas Football (St. Martin’s Press, 1972). Meat on the Hoof was “a searing critique of the Texas program that accused the coaches of having a class system within the program and of devising sadistic drills to drive off unwanted players. Royal tried to distance himself from the claims, saying in interviews he had ‘never heard’ of the drills Shaw described.” Similarly, Richard Goldstein of the New York Times recounts Shaw’s claim that

Royal had put seldom-used players through drills in which they pummeled one another, hoping that many would quit so he could find more recruiting spots for highly talented high school players.

“I don’t deny at all that we ran a tough program, especially back then,” Royal told Texas Monthly in 1982. “I don’t think we ran it without feelings.”

He added: “I didn’t recognize some of those drills he described. We never had them ever — at any time.”

Let’s underline this: the “drills,” which eventually drove Shaw from the team, consisted of sending unwanted players to a secondary practice field where sadistic coaches ordered them to line up across from each other and come hard off the line as they would at the beginning of a play. The exercise, repeated over and over until players collapsed in pain or exhaustion, was explicitly designed to injure athletes, or force them to quit the team, so that their scholarships could be vacated and used for new recruits. This also meant, for many, that they had to leave college. Shaw died in 1999 at the age of 53, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and living on the streets of Dallas.

You have to wonder, given what we know about traumatic head injuries, whether those drills had anything to do with it.  Anybody tracking other ‘Horns from that era who, in Royal’s view, “lacked character”?

Tributes to Royal also sidestep his racism as if everybody simply has a side to this story and there is no way of establishing the truth. Vertuno notes that Royal was accused of hurling racist epithets at Syracuse players in 1960 (which I guess was OK back then in the prehistory of the world?); and although Texas announced that their teams would integrate in 1963,”didn’t have a black letterman until Julius Whittier in 1970.”  And how is this passage from Goldstein about Royal’s resistance to integration:

“We should have done it a lot sooner,” Royal said in “Coach Royal: Conversations With a Texas Football Legend,” written with John Wheat. “That had to change eventually, and thank goodness it did.”

Royal was not like some coaches “who made it their goal to make sure college football stayed white,” Whittier told Terry Frei in “Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie’s Last Stand.” “I didn’t see that in Coach Royal. Not that he was some big social revolutionary or anything, but I think he recognized that to stay where we were, we were going to have to use black athletes.”

This is the “interpret yourself” portion of the blog post, but in case you are having trouble look to the following for hints:

  • Lack of coach’s agency in first quote;
  • Strategic use of the word “eventually,” same ‘graph;
  • Lack of the words “committed racist” between “some” and “coaches” in final paragraph;
  • Implication that to integrate earlier would have made Royal a wild leftist, same ‘graph;
  • Super strong implication in final phrase that integration only occurred, not because it was right, but because the Texas program could no longer ignore the fact that other teams were getting better because they were drawing from a larger pool of excellent athletes.

Until some of these journalists deal honestly with college football’s past, they sure as heck aren’t going to be able to deal with its present.

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