Coach Royal

   A national championship bought you only so much time at the University

of Texas, and by the spring of 1968 Darrell Royal was five years removed

from coaching the Longhorns to an undefeated season and the No. 1 ranking.

That 1963 defense, led by sophomore linebacker Tommy Nobis and senior

defensive lineman Scott Appleton, was dominating. The Longhorns

lost their best offensive threat, halfback Ernie Koy, to a shoulder separation

at midseason, and still went undefeated and beat Roger Staubach and the

Navy Midshipmen in the Cotton Bowl. The national championship came in

Royal’s seventh season in Austin, when he was only thirty-nine.

   Yet that raised the standards even higher. More than ever, winning at Texas

didn’t mean winning seasons, it meant dominating the Southwest Conference

and lording it over every one of the six other Texas-based schools in the

league. It meant providing the best punchlines of all for Texas Aggie jokes

(e.g., “27–0”). It meant going to the Cotton Bowl every January 1 and landing

virtually every high school prospect the Longhorns sought in the state,

whether the prospect was going to play or ultimately just be kept away from

Texas Tech or Southern Methodist or even Rice. And it meant beating the Big

Eight Conference’s Oklahoma Sooners every year in the heated Red River rivalry

in Dallas, enabling the UT boosters to continue forgiving Royal for being

an “Okie.”

   The Longhorns’ coach had been forced to grow up fast in Hollis, Oklahoma.

His mother, Katy, died in October 1924, when Darrell—her sixth

child—was only three months old. When he was sixteen, his father moved the

family to California. Darrell hated the West Coast and got permission from

his dad, Burley Ray, to return to Oklahoma on his own. After his high school

graduation in Hollis, Darrell had an offer to play football at Oklahoma, but he

went into the Army Air Corps in 1943 and eventually was trained as a tail gunner

on a B-24 bomber. His crew was held back from being sent overseas to be

trained for photo reconnaissance missions, and he still was in the United

States when the war ended. In the fall of 1945, he played for the Third Air

Force football team, based in Tampa, and was heavily re-recruited by the college

coaches. He was a prized prospect, although he weighed only 158

pounds, and he went to OU to play for Jim Tatum. As a senior All-American

quarterback in 1949, Royal was twenty-five years old and playing under

Tatum’s young successor, Bud Wilkinson. To the press, Wilkinson touted his

quarterback as a heady coaching candidate, and writers willingly ran with the

suggestion, as when Walter Stewart of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal wrote

after the 1950 Sugar Bowl that Royal “owns one of the most brilliant masses

of football cerebellum we’ve seen caged in one skull. . . . [T]hat night, he gave

us a clinical critique which was magnificently lucid and economically complete.

He’ll make someone a game-winning coach.”

   Royal’s first college job was as an assistant at North Carolina State in

1950. In 1973’s The Darrell Royal Story, author Jimmy Banks wrote that

even before Royal was on the sideline for his first game, he considered

quitting the business because he discovered he was petrified of public

speaking, which was part of the job for even assistant coaches. As dynamic

as he could be in informal situations, or with small groups, standing on a

podium was torture for him at first. But he managed to keep his poise and

get through a lecture about his experiences as a Split-T quarterback, and

about the offense itself, at a coaching clinic on the University of Tennessee

campus that July, and the big-name coaches in attendance—familiar with

him as a quarterback—found they agreed with the Memphis columnist’s

assessment. Royal was stamped as a hot coaching prospect before he had

coached in a game, and his knowledge of the hot offense of the period—

the Split-T—was coveted.

   After that season, Tulsa coach Buddy Brothers offered Royal a raise and a

promotion to a No. 1 assistant’s job, and Royal verbally accepted it. Before

he signed a contract, though, BudWilkinson called and offered him a job on

the OU staff. Royal wanted to take it, but when Brothers made it clear he believed

Royal would be going back on his word, the young coach swallowed

hard and went to Tulsa. As it turned out, Royal loved the experience, because

Brothers allowed him—a college QB only two seasons earlier—complete

freedom to run the offense, and the Hurricanes lost only once. Royal’s bona

fides as a precocious coach were solidified, and Mississippi State coach Murray

Warmath hired him away.

   Then Royal took the unusual step of accepting the head job with the Edmonton

Eskimos of the Canadian Football League’s forerunner, the Western

Interprovincial Football Union—for a garish $13,500. North of the border,

football was a game of limited resources, twelve players, legal forward motion

at the snap, a 55-yard line, and a “rouge” single point when the opposition

couldn’t get the ball out of the end zone. It also was Royal’s chance to

get his legs as a head coach, and the Eskimos were 17–5. Royal cited the experience

when he talked with Mississippi State about returning—this time as

the head coach. He went 12–8 in two seasons in Starkville, then 5–5 in a

salmon-out-of-water season at the University ofWashington in 1956. When

the Texas job opened up, Royal left Washington with three years remaining

on his contract and became the Longhorns’ head coach in 1957—a year

ahead of Frank Broyles’s move to Arkansas. Royal was 17–13 as a college

head coach when he went to Texas, but he was only eight seasons removed

from being an All-American quarterback and had only solidified his image as

an offensive genius.

   One of the naïve assumptions in sports, whether expressed in the media or in

the casual chatter of fans, is that players on any team have a monolithic, easily

summarized opinion of their coach. Particularly in the late 1960s, it was

difficult to be a beloved and winning college football head coach at the same

time. Some of the best molders of young men and best-loved coaches weren’t

aloof and did heavily invest their emotions in their players. But that could

eat them up, and when they were fired or they resigned, it could be said: Just

not tough enough to be a great head coach.

   Above all, it was—and is—perilous to overgeneralize, even about Frank

Broyles. That said, summarizing the players’ views of the Arkansas coach for

the most part painted a fair picture. With Royal at Texas, it was far more

complex. The Longhorns felt a mixture of fear, respect, hatred, anger, confusion,

and reverence—and all of those emotions could swirl within one

player. Over the years, those who stuck it out in the Royal program tended to

forget the rest and remember the respect, and add to it. It’s a fair exchange: If

they stuck with Royal, he stuck with them, moving mountains for his former

players over the years.

   “If he never said your name the entire time, you’d be very happy,” 1969

guard Mike Dean says of him. “You were scared to death of him, literally

scared to death of him. I don’t know anybody who wasn’t scared to death. Afterward,

I realized what he was doing. He told me one time that he practiced

a system he called intermittent reinforcement. You never knew if he liked

you or he didn’t like you. He told me, ‘If I was down on you all the time,

you’d quit the team. If all I did was praise you, you’d let up.’ You never knew

where you stood with him. One day he would praise you and the next day

he’d make you feel like a piece of dirt. Because of this, we all feared him. To

be honest, we didn’t really like him. We certainly respected him. I love the

man now, but at the time, I just knew if he said my name, it wasn’t going to

be good.”

   Linebacker Scott Henderson, a junior in 1969, says of Royal, “Some people

thought he was ruthless. Some people thought he was unfair. I always

found him to be fair—tough, but fair.”

   Tight end Randy Peschel says Royal “was a psychologist and motivator

second to none. He knew what buttons to push to get you to do what you

needed to. I know my appreciation grew for him exponentially after I was

done. Maybe others did, but I know I didn’t realize at the time what he was

doing and how he was doing it and how he was helping me and all of us as a


   Royal, meanwhile, earned his players’ complicated opinion of him by

overseeing a sometimes brutal regimen: The “shit” treatment for the scrubs

in the Texas program, involving extra practice work, wasn’t unique in college

football in the 1960s, and it generated bitterness in those who felt they were

being punished—or run off. The Monday “Turd Bowls,” matching those

who hadn’t played on Saturday against the freshmen, were legendary for

both their sharp-edged competitiveness and their implicit punishment. The

upperclassmen were angry at having to play on Mondays and not Saturdays.

“It was the freshmen against everybody in the world,” says 1969 All-American

tackle Bob McKay, who went through the Turd Bowls as a freshman in

1966. “The sophomores were the worst because they had just gotten out of

it, and they treated you like shit anyway. They just took delight in trying to

kick your ass, so you had to learn pretty quick that you had to stand up for

yourself, and the only friends you had were the other freshmen.”

   Similarly infamous were the off-season conditioning drills under veteran

trainer Frank Medina—drills that some players concluded were tougher for

the marginal players. “Medina was somewhat of a henchman,” guard Bobby

Mitchell says. “He was running people off, really.” Others thought Medina’s

workout program was egalitarian hell. “He was the one who kept us in

shape,” Mike Dean says. “We were in incredible shape and he deserves some

credit for our success.” Regardless, Medina considered the workouts biblical

trials, challenging the Longhorns to measure their faith. It also was rationalized

as a Darwinian test in a tough sport: Only the strong would survive, and

maybe they even would contribute to the program. If they stuck it out but

didn’t play, they still would be stronger and better men for it, wouldn’t they?

And if they didn’t survive, if they quit or dropped out of the program, they

weren’t strong enough to be missed.

   That’s just how it was.

   The numbers game was cold: Texas annually brought in about fifty

scholarship freshman players, the elite of the state’s prospects. Even when

the lack of a ceiling on the total number of scholarship players in the program

lessened the need for attrition, the numbers were unmanageable if all

the scholarship players remained in the program. If they left cussing your

program, that wasn’t a tragedy. They hadn’t been playing for anyone else in

the league. If they transferred, it often was to where they could play right

away, and that wasn’t possible within the Southwest Conference because of

the transfer rules. It’s naïve to assume that everyone who left did so only or

even primarily because of the physical rigors; players didn’t like seeing their

name on a little circular disk hanging in the seventh slot below the position

name on the depth chart board, and they often wanted to go somewhere they

could play. Or they decided to end their college football careers on the spot.

But if they stayed with Royal and the Longhorns, they knew they were subject

to exhausting physical workouts and caustic reviews.

   “When Coach Royal came off his tower at practice, you hoped to hell he

turned right because that meant the defense screwed up and it wasn’t us,”

McKay says. “The thing is, it was a different time. We didn’t ask questions.

When we were told to do something . . . hell, there were three hundred people

on the field at any one time. If you didn’t like the way things were going,

they didn’t give a shit, you were more than welcome to leave. It wasn’t, ‘Well,

do we think this is going to work, do we really want to do this?’ It wasn’t up

for discussion.”

   As the head of that Texas program, Royal was universally respected, if the

definition included the understanding that he was the supreme power.

When the Longhorns gathered on Sunday to watch game film as a full team,

there was plenty of collegial chatter in the room as players filed in, sat down,

and waited. Then, as Royal walked in from the back, the silence followed

him up the aisle like a wave, until those in the first few rows sensed it and

shut up even before the coach passed them.

   And the odds were pretty strong that none of the players in the room

would have a personal conversation with Royal any time soon. In Fayetteville,

Frank Broyles seemed uncomfortable with closeness; in Austin, Darrell

Royal seemed disdainful of it. Everyone understood that, including Bob

McKay and defensive tackle Leo Brooks, both stars. “A guy from a newspaper

out in West Texas, where we were from, talked to us, and he couldn’t understand

that we just didn’t walk in and talk with Coach Royal,” McKay says.

   “That would be like me going to play with rattlesnakes. I’m smart enough to

know that you don’t do that. Coach Royal was always nice, but he was Coach

Royal. I didn’t stop in to shoot the shit. It wasn’t something you did for fun. I

told that kid I was in his office five times in my college career and four of

them weren’t worth a damn.” The fifth, McKay said, was late in the 1969

season when Royal called him in and told him he had been named an All-

American, but that he needed to keep it quiet until the official announcement.

   At the Thanksgiving game at Texas A&M, Royal saw McKay’s parents

after the game and congratulated them. They asked why.

   Later, Royal approached McKay.

   “You didn’t tell ’em?”

   “No, sir, you told me not to tell anybody, so I didn’t tell anybody.”

   Royal’s authority was unquestioned. Yet by Texas standards, Royal’s program

struggled mightily from 1965 to 1967. At Texas, 6–4 records were

abominable, and that was their record in each of the three regular seasons.

The Longhorns beat Mississippi after the ’66 season in the Bluebonnet Bowl

to finish 7–4, but Royal vetoed any thought of going to a bowl game after the

’67 season. The Longhorns didn’t deserve to go anywhere, he declared. It really

didn’t matter all that much that the Texas boosters—the men with the

money and the influence—were applying heat, because Royal was plenty hot

himself. He was going to do something about it, ordering that the 1968

spring training and the 1968 fall practices be living hell. He didn’t even try to

pretend it was something other than a test. The candy asses, those who

couldn’t take it, those who didn’t want it bad enough, were going to be gone,

one way or another.

   “We were coming off three 6–4s,” Royal says of the 1968 practices. “You

bet it was hard. You always do that. You always had it stern enough to find

out who wanted to and who didn’t. Who wanted to late? Who wanted to

when you were behind? Who wanted to when they were tired? Who wanted

to, when it would be easier to take a lazy step or two? You have to push them

hard enough to find that out.”

   By 1968, Royal was ahead of his time in one area, disdaining water deprivation,

which was a part of the testing mechanism for so long, from coast to

coast: In 1962, reserve sophomore guard Reggie Grob suffered heatstroke

during fall practice, went into a coma, and died four days before the season

opener in Austin against the Oregon Ducks. Royal’s angst was palpable, and

he openly talked and agonized about whether he and his staff should have

been able to prevent Grob’s death.

   “Coach Royal had gone through a tough time, when that kid had died,”

guard Randy Stout says. “We always had water, all the time.”

   In 1968, they weren’t thirsty, but they were so sore they often couldn’t

even make the walk from the stadium to the football dorm, or vice versa, on

the way to the second practice of the day in the fall, without stopping or lying

down to rest. Royal’s pride and his job were on the line, and if he was going

to go down, he was going to go down with the toughest.

   “I wasn’t surprised that it was that tough,” Scott Henderson says of 1968

spring ball. “I was surprised that so many guys quit and left. But Royal made

it very clear it was going to be whoever wants to play.” Henderson had undergone

knee surgery after his freshman season, so he was watching the practices,

not participating. The rehabilitation from his surgery to repair a torn

anterior cruciate ligament was difficult, but Henderson wasn’t sure it was any

worse than what he witnessed on the field.

   Bob McKay was more certain. He had to drop out of spring ball to have

rotator cuff surgery. “I swore to God, I was the happiest man in the world

when I got to go to the hospital.”

   Bill Zapalac, then a sophomore-to-be tight end who turned into a star

linebacker for the ’69 team, says those spring drills were “hellacious, and

they weeded out some of the upperclassmen. I don’t know if it was intentional,

but a lot of people quit.”

   The survivors added it up: About thirty players quit, and about thirty

more were hurt in spring ball. They weren’t just the scrubs, either. Tommy

Orr was expected to challenge to start at tackle. Gone. Jack Freeman, the guy

in the dorm room next to McKay, had played for Odessa Permian High

School, where they were as tough as they come. Gone. McKay managed to

say goodbye, but star tight end Deryl Comer—McKay’s roommate—was so

drained he couldn’t even get up. Freeman understood. Comer himself “quit”

during spring drills, but came back after a day. Everyone understood that the

staff wouldn’t have let him come back—he paid for his impudence with extra

sprints—if he had been a Turd Bowl regular.

   Survivors, such as undersized and unheralded guard Mike Dean, saw

themselves move up the depth chart without doing all that much except

making it through practice and not throwing up on Royal when he came

down from the tower. “That was one of the most difficult times I have ever,

ever had,” Ted Koy, eventually the cocaptain and starting right halfback for

the 1969 team, says of the 1968 spring drills. “We would hit from the time

we broke from calisthenics. Coach Royal was going to go the next year with

the survivors.”

   James Street, a backup quarterback in 1967 as a sophomore, also was fortunate

enough to miss the ’68 spring practices: He was pitching for the

Longhorns baseball team, under first-year head coach Cliff Gustafson.

Street came over to watch the football workouts and wince. He remembers

Royal saying, “The circle’s getting tighter, we’re losing a lot of players, but

the ones staying here want to play ball.”

   Yes, that was 1968, but it was crucial in the development of the 1969 team.

Royal and the staff knew they had “The Worster Bunch”—featuring fullback

Steve Worster—coming into their sophomore years for the 1968 season, to

go with a holdover starting quarterback, Bill Bradley. The Texas coaches

were pondering installing an offense that suited the prospects’ talents and

also took advantage of the skills of the upperclassmen survivors. The fact

that the Longhorns didn’t come up with the new offense until after spring

ball was one indication that those workouts primarily were designed as a

screening process. The survivors had the guts to stick around, and they

weren’t always the biggest and the most talented, but they had spunk and, in

most cases, brains. Sometimes it seemed sane young men wouldn’t have put

up with the hell the Royal staff put them through, but they did, and he was

going to take advantage of the thinning ranks.

   After that cornerstone ’68 spring training, Royal told his new offensive

coach, Emory Bellard: Come up with a scheme that takes advantage of what we’re

gonna have left.

   As a high school head coach, Bellard won Texas state championships

at three different schools. After San Angelo High won the 1966 Class AAAA

title under Bellard, he finally made the jump to the college game, joining

Royal’s staff as linebackers coach. Following the third 6–4 season, Royal reorganized

his staff, making Bellard the offensive backfield coach—effectively

the coordinator.

   Bellard doodled and tinkered in his office for hours, pondering splits and

formations and pitchouts and belly rides and quarterback improvisations. He

was barely a year removed from coaching high school, yet he eventually went

into the office of one of college football’s legends and said: This is what we should do.
Bellard suggested a four-man backfield, a variation of the fullhouse

“T” formation with the fullback within arm’s length of the quarterback

and the halfbacks a couple of yards back on each side. The “T” had

become a “Y,” and the basic triple-option play would start with the quarterback

“riding” the ball in the fullback’s belly before deciding—quickly—

whether to more emphatically jam in a handoff, or pull the ball out and go

down the line himself. Then the quarterback’s second and third options

would be to cut upfield himself or pitch out to the trailing halfback—the

halfback who had started on the other side of the formation. The basic formation

would call for a tight end on one side (the “strong” side), a split end

on the other.

   “It took some guts on his part to do it,” Bellard says of Royal. “We got a

bunch of guys together who had completed their eligibility who were in

summer school to look at it. One time, I played quarterback and another

time I found one. I messed with it to see if the quarterback could do the

things we were going to ask him to do, and I felt if I could do it, I knew

darned well I could teach it to an athlete.”

   In late July, James Street got a call in his hometown of Longview. James,

he was told, it might be a good idea to be back in Austin by August 1, so you

can be a part of the first look at a new offense.

   The introduction was low-key. “We were out there working out,” Street

says, “and they said, ‘Let’s set up here and see how this works, see what y’all

think about this.’”

   With the fullback so close, the quarterbacks—Bill Bradley and Street—

found it impossible to “ride” the fullback long enough to survey the defensive

reaction. “Bradley and I kept saying we could do it,” Street says, “but

neither of us thought it would work. You just didn’t have enough time.”

After the coaches moved the fullback a yard farther back, the timing began

to work. Street and Bradley discovered the offense wasn’t complicated. All it

required was intuitive and intelligent reaction on the fly and taking care of

the ball.

   The Longhorns had a terrific holdover halfback, Chris Gilbert, and

putting both Steve Worster and Ted Koy—each previously listed as fullbacks—

in the backfield with Bradley and Gilbert was an astute deployment

of resources, not just a strategic wrinkle. The split end was going to be

Charles “Cotton” Speyrer, a speedy sophomore from Port Arthur who

wasn’t able to play freshman football because of shoulder surgery. He was a

highly recruited running back in high school and wasn’t sold on the position

switch. “I thought that was a demotion because UT was notorious for not

passing the ball,” Speyrer says. “I had my head down a little bit.” As it turned

out, though, with the Longhorns overloaded with running back talent, it was

the best thing for Speyrer—and his future.

   Royal considered the wishbone a “modernization” of the Split-T he rode

into coaching and up the ranks. “You make it a triple option instead of a double

option,” Royal says. “It’s kind of unique that the side you’re running the

ball to, you can leave two guys totally unblocked and turn them loose.”

Indeed, that was revolutionary: The offense allowed the reactions of one

or two unblocked defensive players to help determine the quarterback’s decision.

That freed an offensive lineman or two to charge and block elsewhere,

going after linebackers or defensive backs.

   There were variations, though: On counter options, the fullback went one

way and the quarterback did a reverse pivot and headed the other. On simple

power plays, the fullback led the way through the hole for the halfback, who

took a handoff, or the halfback took a handoff from Street after the usual

“belly” ride with Worster. Passes usually came off play-action fakes to the

fullback, with Speyrer typically the primary receiver.

   Bellard didn’t even think the offense was revolutionary enough to give it a

pretentious name: To him, it was a variation of the veer option offense, using

three running backs instead of two. He says the original name for the package

was “right-left,” which he thought emphasized that the triple-option

principles could work to either side—meaning not just right and left, but also

to either the split-end or tight-end side. To Bellard, that was “balance.”

Bellard and the staff taught the system to the Longhorns in the fall of

1968. And as with all experiments, there were early problems that had to be

worked out in games. Bradley struggled and lost the No. 1 quarterback job

after the Longhorns tied Houston 20–20 in the 1968 opener (in front of the

Houston writer Mickey Herskowitz, who coined the name “wishbone-T”

for the Texas offense), and then lost 31–22 to Texas Tech in the second

game. In that Tech loss, Worster, Gilbert, and Koy combined for over 300

yards on the ground and Street replaced Bradley in the third quarter. Street

was named the starter in the middle of the next week, while Bradley’s handling

of the demotion earned him the respect of his teammates. When the

change seemed imminent, he broke the tension at practice by running pass

patterns as a wide receiver, loosening the cord on his sweatpants and allowing

them to drop down in midroute. Within two weeks, he was a full-time

safety, where he almost immediately was one of the best at the position in the


   What was going on here? Three straight four-loss seasons, an 0–1–1 start,

a new offense, and a switch to an unproven quarterback? Was this time for

panic, time for the assistant coaches to get their résumés ready or hope that

Royal would get another job and take them with him if he got fired?

   But then the Longhorns raced through the rest of the 1968 season undefeated,

setting conference records for total offense, rushing yardage, and average

points in conference games. Each week, as one of the senior leaders,

Bradley would say something along the lines of: “Don’t worry, boys, Rat’ll

get it done,” “Rat” being James Street, the little quarterback who replaced

him. The Longhorns beat Arkansas, finishing in a tie with the Razorbacks

for the Southwest Conference title and going to the Cotton Bowl because of

the head-to-head victory. Texas drilled Tennessee 36–13 in that game, finishing

9–1–1. Although Chris Gilbert’s career was over, the Longhorns were

certain their period of mediocrity had ended. And much of the optimism was

based on the success of the wishbone, and on the records of the backs returning

for 1969.

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