The journey to college football royalty began with a cross-country commute in a pickup truck driven by a one-armed stranger.
Darrell Royal, 15, packed all his worldly goods in a box that once held a Victrola record player and paid $10 -- a significant sum during the Great Depression -- to return to his hometown of Hollis, Okla., and escape an existence built around performing odds jobs to make ends meet with his displaced family in California.
Back in Hollis, the teenager had a place to stay with his grandmother. In the box, he had a letter from the football coach, Dean Wild, confirming a job at a Ford dealership that paid $5 per week and offered Royal the opportunity to rejoin the high school team. Royal said the letter was all the encouragement he needed to try to reshape his life around football.
From those humble beginnings, Royal went on to become an iconic football coach at the University of Texas, winning three national championships after an All-America playing career at Oklahoma.
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Royal, 88, died Wednesday in Austin but left behind legions of admirers from both sides of the Red River and across the country. At the height of his coaching career, Royal ranked "right up there with the Alamo" in terms of Texas icons, said Dan Jenkins, a renowned author and sportswriter from Fort Worth who serves as the official historian of the National Football Foundation's College Football Hall of Fame.
Jenkins, a TCU graduate, covered Royal's teams for both the Fort Worth Press and Sports Illustrated. He watched Royal fashion a 167-47-5 record in 20 seasons with the Longhorns (1957-76), claiming national championships in 1963, 1969 and 1970.
"If you did a Mount Rushmore with the faces of college football people from Texas, Darrell would be on there," Jenkins said. "[SMU's] Doak Walker would be one. [TCU's] Sam Baugh would be one. The fourth person, you could take your choice. But those three are inarguable."
Royal's popularity was not limited simply to those who rooted for the Longhorns, said former Baylor coach Grant Teaff, because Royal never lost touch with lessons learned during his Depression-era childhood.
"He never big-dogged anyone like people with his status could have done," said Teaff, now the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "He's always been one of the finest men in the coaching profession. The totality of what he accomplished at Texas will rank up there in the top 10 of all-time coaches. And that's a big mouthful when you can say that."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former yell leader at Texas A&M, called Royal "the face of football in the Lone Star State for a generation of Texans. ...I join Texans everywhere in mourning his loss."
Known as much for his down-home values and clever quotes as the triple-option wishbone offense that triggered a 30-game winning streak (1968-70), Royal had been battling Alzheimer's disease and recently fell at an assisted living center where he was receiving care. In 23 seasons as a college coach, including stops at Mississippi State and Washington that preceded his tenure at Texas, Royal never posted a losing record.
His Texas teams won 11 Southwest Conference titles, 10 Cotton Bowl championships and undisputed national titles in 1963 and 1969. The Longhorns also won UPI's version of the 1970 title, with the AP version going to Nebraska. The year before Royal arrived, the Longhorns posted a 1-9 mark in 1956.
"Back in those days, he made all the difference in the world in Texas being a top team and just one of many," said Fort Worth oilman W.A. "Tex" Moncrief, a longtime Texas booster and former regent.
Royal's shadow will hover over Saturday's game in Austin between No. 17 Texas (7-2, 4-2 in Big 12) and Iowa State (5-4, 2-4), to be played at the stadium renamed in Royal's honor in 1996. Texas coach Mack Brown said the Longhorns will run their first play from Royal's signature wishbone formation, with players also wearing "DKR" decals on their helmets. A public memorial service is set for Tuesday at the Erwin Center in Austin.
Royal, who also served as Texas' athletic director from 1962-79, was instrumental in helping Brown land the Texas job after the 1997 season. Brown said Wednesday that Royal's passing meant he lost "a wonderful friend, a mentor, a confidant and my hero."
Throughout his coaching tenure, Brown has stressed that Royal's legacy always will be the defining one at Texas even though Brown's record -- 148-41, with a 2005 national championship -- would be considered the gold standard at many schools.
"College football lost maybe its best ever and the world lost a great man," Brown said in a statement. "I can hardly put in words how much coach Royal means to me.... Coach gave so much more to the state of Texas and college football than he took away. He forgot more football than most of us will ever know, including me. His impact on ...the millions of lives he touched is insurmountable."
The list includes country music artist Larry Gatlin, who credited Royal with convincing him to enter an alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinic -- and then escorting him there -- in 1984. Years later, Gatlin said: "I believe I would be dead if not for Darrell."
The quick-witted Royal coined many famous phrases during his career. Explaining why he relied on a ground-oriented offense rather than an aerial attack, Royal quipped: "Three things can happen when you pass and two of 'em are bad."
Later in his career, he explained that he would not abandon a run-oriented attack because you've got to "Dance with the one who brung ya."
Royal is survived by his wife, Edith, and a son, Mack. The couple had two other children, daughter Marian, who died in 1973, and son David, who died in 1982.
This reports contains material from The Associated Press and the book Darrell Royal: Dance With Who Brung Us.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760