Coach Royal Regrets

Why he won. Why he quit. Why he doesn’t miss it.

Raising a great cloud of caliche dust, Darrell Royal zoomed away from the lake house in his van. He explained his haste as a measure of consideration for another driver behind him; by putting more distance between them, he was trying to spare the other car’s finish a cloak of biscuit colored grit. He did not, however, slow down appreciably when he reached the blacktop, which curved through cedar brakes into a bait camp on the Pedernales River, thirty miles west of Austin. Making his midday rounds, Darrell paused on the front porch of a beer joint the regulars call Mona’s Yacht Club, where he engaged the dull, cross-eyed stare of a young possum that Mona had offered him earlier, by phone, as a pet baby raccoon.  Inside, Mona and her boyfriend, Sonny, made their customary small fuss over Darrell and rushed to prepare his usual with meat and double cheese. They’re proud of their clientele. Willie Nelson even brought Barbara Walters here for the taping of that strange celebrity interview. Greeted by a neighbor who had come to Mona’s to cash his Social Security check, the coach dabbed his French fries in catsup and discussed how they might bring their dusty road to the attention of Burnet County paving crews.

Like other retirees, Darrell Royal at 58 lives a live that is a mixture of old hurry and new leisure: attention to homey details long neglected, vague itches, snapshots of grandkids, melancholy suspicions, rounds of golf, time on his hands. He was one of the top college football coaches, of all time, but today he entertains conversation about the game with an air of polite sufferance, not nostalgia. Among Texans he was a towering figure, an establishment icon, a symbol of toughness, command, and pride. Now he cherishes most those days when he goes unrecognized except by a few bearded, grizzled, disreputable friends. The autumn years of this amiable but saddened man are a season of underlying discontent.

Down the road from Mona’s is Willie Nelson’s private country club, the salvaged asset of a failed subdivision. With a posh clubhouse, terraced swimming pools, a nine-hole golf course, and a fine view of the blue cedared hills, it’s a dream toy if you can afford the real estate. Darrell, who has played some of the best golf courses in the world, likes this one because he doesn’t have to make appointments and observe tee-off times. He just wanders over when he feels like it and scares up a game with singer Steve Fromholz, screenwriter Bud Shrake, or—when the band’s off the road—the head man himself. “Willie shoots about bogey gold,” said Darrell, “though it’s hard to tell, because we don’t look for balls. We circle through the area, but if it doesn’t show up, we just drop another one. Last time, we played sixty or seventy holes. Started at ten and quit at dark.”

Sighting none of his regular companions, he detoured through the clubhouse to check in with his secretary at the university, who reported a call from Tennessee coach Johnny Majors. As special assistant to UT president Peter —occasionally—on matters like athletic department contracts and the proper status of club sports. He travels extensively, playing in pro-am and charity golf tournaments, and still maintains his Onion Creek home and a Mercedes given to him by the Longhorn Club. He has always had the poor boy’s taste for the blandishments of the country club—the Onion Creek kind, and lately the Willie Nelson kind, too. Willie’s main clubhouse has been converted into a plush and formidably equipped recording studio. “I watched every pick of the album he cut with Roger Miller,” said Darrell, with a reverence that those of us who are football fans might have felt had we stood at the coach’s shoulder and on an extra headset during the Arkansas Shoot-out in 1969. Hanging out at the lake. Playing second fiddle to Willie and Waylon Jennings and Billie Joe Shaver.

There were people who didn’t like it,” he acknowledged, “people who didn’t like it at all. They just couldn’t understand why the head coach at the University of Texas would want to associate with those guys. Same ones now that ask me to get Willie’s autographed picture for their grandkids. Now they want a personal introduction.” He laughed without much humor. “I’m friends with Don Williams too, and he’s straight as six o’clock. Somebody wrote in that rock magazine Crawdaddy that on occasion I’d been known to ‘widen my nose.’ I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I know now. But I’ve never taken one puff off a joint, never taken pills, never done any of that. Drink too much beer sometimes. I’m not around when all that’s taking place. They don’t do it when I’m there. They manage to like me in spite of my faults. And I’ve sure as shit got some chinks in my hide.”

Eighteen years ago, as the University of Texas chartered plane descended on the Austin airport, its passengers were the top-ranked college football team in the country. The Longhorns had just leveled Oklahoma 28-7 for their fifteenth consecutive win. Suddenly Darrell Royal rose from his seat and ran toward the cockpit. Moments later, at the coach’s request, the engines revived, and the plane broke its descent. The Texas players peered out, spell-bound, while the plane banked and circled back over the city for an elaborate second look at the stark spire of the university tower, with its triumphant crown of orange light.

To understand the quiet magic inside that propeller-driven plane and to appreciate Darrell royal now in early retirement, you must recall the lavish success of his working prime. During Royal’s glory years, in 1959-70, Texas’ record of wins, losses, and ties was 99-19-2. And only four of those losses were decided by more than a touchdown. Four times during that twelve-year span, Royal’s teams finished the regular season undefeated; four more times they lost just once. Seven times during those dozen

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