There were many giants in college football when I was growing up, and Darrell Royal was one of the largest figures.
He wasn't physically imposing — he always looked rather ordinary to me — but he was still intimidating. Maybe it was his reputation as a winner.
Or maybe it was his way with words.
"You dance with who brung ya."
He was an honorable man, and he remained a beloved figure in Texas long after he left coaching.
My grandmother lived in Dallas most of her life, and there was a little Mexican restaurant about three blocks from her home. It was just a little family owned restaurant, not a franchise or anything like that, and the walls were filled with photos of Royal, many of which had been signed by him. Most of them said something like "To my friend [whatever his name was]. I always love to eat at your place when I'm in Dallas. Darrell Royal"
(I don't know if the owner and Royal really were friends or not. I once asked the cashier if the signatures were authentic, and she said they were, but I was never sure she understood my question. Her English wasn't very good, and the extent of my Spanish is that I can count to 10.)
His death today at the age of 88 truly marked the end of an era for me, even though it has been more than 30 years since he walked the sidelines — and even though he was my greatest nemesis when I was growing up.
One by one, the familiar faces from those days have been disappearing over the years, but Royal's death may be the biggest one yet from these parts. As Kirk Bohls writes in the Austin American–Statesman, Royal "became the biggest college football icon in a state that worships the sport."
Actually, a case could be made that Royal was the biggest football icon in Texas — period. Tom Landry may have surpassed him in popularity when he took the Dallas Cowboys to five Super Bowls in the 1970s, but in the 1960s, while Royal was winning national championships on the college level, people around here were talking about how Landry couldn't win "the big one" in the NFL.
I grew up in Arkansas, where the Razorbacks rule, and you just couldn't be an Arkansas fan without hating Texas. The annual football game between the schools was an event — even though it usually didn't end too well for Razorback fans. (I can count on one hand the number of Arkansas victories over Texas in the first 20 years of my life.)
As a result, there was a certain amount of resentment directed toward Royal. It seemed he always had the upper hand.
Arkansas fans knew Texas didn't have a better coach. Arkansas had Frank Broyles, who is justifiably regarded as a legend in the sport as well, but he might have been the most dominant coach in the Southwest Conference had it not been for Royal.
They had both won national championships in the 1960s. But when they met in 1969's "Great Shootout," Texas fans were strutting with confidence about the success of the wishbone offense that Royal had pioneered with assistant coach Emory Bellard. Any thought Arkansas fans had of beating it, Texas fans said, was nothing more than dreaming the impossible dream.
Texas was to Arkansas what Muhammad Ali was to Joe Frazier or what Secretariat was to Sham — the ever–constant barrier to greater things.
And, for that, many Razorback fans could never forgive him.
But they always respected him.