Sports

December 6, 2012

Loran Smith: Royal remembered as a happily common man

We all live with unfinished business. There is not enough time in the day to get to all that flows into our midst, technology being the curse that it is.

Somebody has a birthday and we forget until it is too late to send a card. Somebody gets recognized by some organization, and you intended to send a note — but you let it slip by. Somebody dies and you are late getting around to sending out an expression of sympathy.   

The following comes later than I would have preferred, but circumstances, nonetheless, compel me to compose my own goodbye to Darrell Royal, the late coach of the Texas Longhorns. It was my good fortune to know this most fundamental thinking of coaches, who was a as down home as they come.

It was nice to experience the bright lights of Manhattan, but he would rather be at Cisco’s Bakery in Austin, a hangout where I used to see him on trips to Austin. He would rather be up close and personal with his friend Willie Nelson, with Willie pickin’ and singin’ at some place where any man who walked in with a tie would be as out of place as a redneck at the Louvre.

Not that there was anything wrong with such a fellow from Darrell’s perspective — in fact, far from it. This was a coach who didn’t often hang out at places where folks dress up. He knew what it was like to wear a tux in New York City, and he probably patronized a symphony or two. But he was a man who chose to be among the blue collars who preferred beer, barbecue, and country music.

Success in his job meant that he would mingle with the moneyed and the well-to-do. He would be invited to cavort with the high-falutin’ — but was more comfortable with those who had an affinity for Red Man tobacco.

He would not insult anybody, but he couldn’t wait to get home to be with Willie and the boys.

To best sum up Darrell Royal as a coach would be to use an old line of his that also became the title of a book about him. When somebody asked him about his plan for a bowl game, he said, “We are gonna’ dance with what brung us.” In other works, stick with what has made you successful. Run the ball and stop the run. If you succeed in football, you must be efficient at blocking and tackling. If a headline comes your way, remember the modicum of difference it is, in football, from the penthouse to the basement.

Royal was a quarterback after World War II under Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. Wilkinson had played for Bernie Bierman at Minnesota.  Wilkinson learned the Split-T at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station from Don Faurot, who later became the head coach at Missouri. Football fundamentals were in Royal’s genes.

Over the years, I often made trips to Austin for one reason or another. Royal always had time for me. He was generous with his time if you wanted to talk football and country music.

A man of enduring courtesy, he was accommodating and considerate — the kind of man you would expect if he was not conflicted by a troublesome ego. That affliction, by the way, has tripped up more coaches than lousy play calling and sideline decisions that backfired.

There are two things in particular that I remember about Royal. He popularized the wishbone offense but gave credit to his assistant Emory Bellard, who actually discovered it from a Texas high school coach.

“We didn’t have a name for the formation,” Royal said.  “Emory simply un-stacked the I-back and put (the halfbacks) off to each side of the fullback so that one could be a lead blocker when the formation went to the right and the other halfback was the ball carrier on the pitch. We just reversed it when we ran the other way.”

All Royal was doing was keeping is simple.

The other thing that always was fascinating was those his presence attracted when we sat down to talk at Cisco’s Bakery — delivery men, blue-collar workers, waitresses and hangers-on. They were all welcome to pull up a chair. Most of them did.

As I interviewed this collegiate football icon, I had a lot of help. None of them or their commentary got on Royal’s nerves. He interacted with them and grinned as they interrupted and threw in their two cents.

How could a man like that not have been a remarkably successful football coach — and human being?

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu

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