The line of mourners waiting to honor former Texas football coach Darrell Royal stretched for several hundred feet outside the locked doors of the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.
But two Texas A&M football legends waited patiently that day in 2012, surrounded by legions of Orangebloods. Because A&M’s recent jump from the Big 12 to the SEC had strained relations between the two fan bases, I jokingly asked John David Crow and R.C. Slocum if they felt comfortable being outnumbered in their current setting.
Crow, one of the classiest individuals I’ve met in three decades spent covering college football, smiled broadly. Then he made it clear that he and Slocum, the winningest football coach in A&M history, were exactly where they needed to be. He said he was happy they were spotted and hoped their presence sent a subtle message to both fan bases.
“We kind of wanted it that way,” said Crow, the Aggies’ 1957 Heisman Trophy winner. “Coach Royal was a good man and a good coach. But he was a great, great friend. I think that’s the most important thing that a person can be is a great friend.”
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Those words resonated loudly Thursday when A&M officials announced that Crow, 79, had died peacefully at his home Wednesday night while surrounded by his wife, Carolyn, and other family members.
Regardless of the color of your class ring, college football lost a great friend and a Texas legend when it lost the two-way standout (running back, strong safety) that former A&M coach Paul “Bear” Bryant called “the finest player I ever coached.”
Crow, who also served as A&M’s athletic director from 1988-1993, will have a long line of mourners from a wide variety of schools at his memorial service, just as Royal did, when arrangements are finalized. They were pending Thursday night, and the family requested privacy at this time.
But the testimonials began pouring in immediately, with Slocum recalling how much he learned to admire Crow during the time they worked together to make A&M the state’s dominant football program during the 1990s.
“I loved, admired and respected John David. He was a ‘man’s man’ in every way,” Slocum said. “He was a great man, devoted husband, father, grandfather, friend and Aggie. I am honored to have known such a giant of a man.”
How big is Crow’s legacy in Aggieland? Bigger than the larger-than-life-size statue of him that sits outside the A&M football facility. It is no accident that the street leading to the building is named in his honor.
But Crow’s role at the school, where he served as an athletic administrator in multiple capacities from 1983-2001, goes much deeper than his status as the school’s first Heisman winner or his 11 seasons as an NFL player (1958-68).
His legacy can be found in the 10 national championships claimed by women’s teams at a school that did not admit its first female student until 1963. The list includes women’s basketball (2011), track and field (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014), softball (1982, 1983, 1987) and equestrian (2002, 2012).
“It was John David who really took the lead in helping develop women’s athletics at our university,” said A&M athletics director Eric Hyman, reflecting on the school’s 40-year history of women’s sports programs. “In getting to know John David, one thing was quite clear: He believed if you were going to do anything, you better do it right and to the best of your abilities.”
That included dealing with media members, a lost art with some of today’s college administrators and coaches. Crow, during his tenure at A&M, regularly proved helpful in shedding insights about issues related to his school or its conference. He loved to discuss college football.
I recall one lengthy conversation about the Heisman merits of A&M running back Greg Hill, the SWC’s leading rusher, in relation to other candidates that season. Crow, a Heisman voter, broke down the strengths and weaknesses of the top contenders and his insights proved helpful in filling out my ballot.
During the final season of the SWC’s existence (1995), the Star-Telegram selected an All-Time All-SWC football team. We sought input from lots of potential honorees. But Crow’s comments helped us place four Heisman recipients on the 26-member squad (11 starters on offense and defense, plus a punter, kicker, kickoff returner and punt returner).
“Everyone thinks of the Heisman Trophy as an offensive award. But I always thought of myself as a defensive player first,” said Crow, a running back who also intercepted five passes and ranked among A&M’s top tacklers as a rover/strong safety during his Heisman-winning 1957 season.
That’s where we placed him on the list of the best football players in SWC history. Crow liked the decision. In turn, most everyone in college football liked Crow.
Rest assured, he’ll be missed by more than just the folks in Aggieland.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760