It's finally here. A week filled with the sweet misery of anticipation.
It is one of 12 games on the schedule but it is THE game that is in the back of the mind of coaches, players and fans year round. We arrived at this place thanks to over a century of history - some of which has taken on mythic proportions as time passes.
Ask any casual fan about great rivalries and the best come easily to mind. Michigan-Ohio State. Alabama-Auburn. USC-Notre Dame.
There are common factors that help makes these games universally accepted as the best of the sport. Obviously they include great players and marquee coaches competing at a national level. There is usually a deep regional tie that brings out the fierceness in the fan base on both sides.
Then there are the unique factors that mark each game as separate from other great rivalries. For Texas-OU we can all rattle off what they are: it's a border war waged with players who know each other intimately, since both teams mine the fertile grounds of Texas High School football for elite players. It's held at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a neutral site equidistant from both campuses, and while 90,000 fans are having a heart attack on each and every play inside the stadium, just outside the Cotton Bowl, thousands more could not care less as they enjoy the State Fair.
Understanding The Passion -- From Both Sides
But it's the people involved throughout the decades that give the game the passion and purpose that drives fans to it. No one epitomizes that passion than Darrell Royal. I can't think of another rivalry game where one individual went from being an All-American for one side to a Hall of Fame coach for the other.
Royal participated as a player or coach in 24 of the 106 meetings between the two rivals. As a player for OU from 1946-49, Royal was 2-2 in the series. As a part-time starter at Quarterback Royal was 16-1. He was an All-American as a defensive back in 1949 and still holds the Sooner school record for career interceptions.
Even here there is a background story. Royal could have ended up playing at Texas. Royal's boyhood home was Hollis, OK, just five miles from the Texas border. Raised during the Dust Bowl Era, Royal was a HS star at Hollis. After graduating High School in 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force.
In 1946, when Royal was leaving the Air Force, he had a buddy of his, Kenny Baker, who had played freshman ball at Texas, write a letter of recommendation to the Longhorn coaches. Royal never heard from UT and went to OU.
He played for Bud Wilkinson, who took over as OU's head coach in 1947. Articulate, charismatic and photogenic, Wilkinson was seen as a ‘New Breed" of coach, one who had as much in common with a CEO as with a grizzled football coach. He spent more time in the macro-managing of a program than many of his predecessors; creating a clear vision of how the organization should run (offensive & defensive philosophies), having an eye for talent (recruiting players and assistants) and exhibiting the ability to harness the talent to advance the mission of the organization while also allowing for creativity to thrive.
These were lessons that Royal learned well, and would use them in a few short years against his alma mater.
Getting To Texas
On January 1, 1950, Darrell Royal played his last game for Oklahoma as the #2 ranked Sooners thrashed #9 LSU 35-0 in the Sugar Bowl.
Less than seven years later Royal would be named head coach at the University of Texas.
Let that marinate around in your head for a minute. That's as if Major Applewhite, after winning the 2001 Holiday Bowl, was named Head Coach at Oklahoma in 2008.
How Royal got to Texas is as instructive to his coaching philosophy as anything else. After finishing up at OU Royal quickly made a name for himself as a coaching nomad, jumping from one job to another.
Just three years after graduating from Oklahoma, Royal had already racked up assistant coaching jobs at North Carolina State, Tulsa and Mississippi State. He was just 27 when he was offered the head coaching job with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
Once again, Royal stayed for just a year when Mississippi State hired him back to replace Murray Warmath as head coach. Two years at Mississippi State (two 6-4 seasons) and he was off to the University of Washington where he went 5-5 in 1957. Seven years as a coach and six different stops. So why on earth would the University of Texas hire such an unstable candidate?
The act of hiring a new football coach at Texas was a mixture of missed opportunities, blatant campaigning from other candidates and even the intrusion of the press. The best place to find all the facts about the hiring is in Lou Maysel's historical tome "Here Come The Longhorns."
According to Maysel, one of the first names to pop up in the search was Frank Leahy, the ex-Notre Dame coach. He was out of coaching by then having won four National Championships in 11 years with the Fighting Irish. But Leahy was only interested in replacing D.X. Bible as Athletics Director and having a former assistant of his at Notre Dame take the head coaching position. UT officials were not interested in that deal.
Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Dodd was a favorite candidate of Bible's and he was very interested. Dodd was 101-27-3 in 12 years at Georgia Tech and had won a National Championship in 1952. But then the Austin American Statesman ran a front page article declaring Dodd the odds on favorite and he quickly removed his name from consideration.
While bowing out, Dodd did tell Bible that he considered Darrell Royal to be one of the brightest young coaches in the game. When Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State (who had turned down overtures about the job) also mentioned Royal's name it was enough to get him an interview.
Luck is When Preparation Meets Opportunity
Royal's moving around so much had a purpose. He wanted to be a head coach, but his time at OU under Wilkinson taught him that the jobs where you could win consistently were few and far between and he had to be willing to keep moving (and learning) until the right one came along. Texas was a job Royal really wanted. Two years earlier he and Edith had been in San Antonio for a coach's convention. The Royals took a side trip up to Austin just to see the campus. Royal said he drove around Memorial Stadium several times imagining coaching in its confines.
"One night we were in bed and I got a phone call," said Royal. "I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end said, ‘Darrell, this is D.X. Bible from the University of Texas,' and I remember covering up the phone and I said, this is it Edith, it's the University of Texas calling."
Before he came to Austin, Darrell and Edith went to the movies. They saw "Giant." Royal called Bible and asked him to describe every person on the Athletics Council involved in the interview process. He wanted to be able to address each and every one by name during the interview.
Royal won over the 5-member search committee and after meeting with the President they were ready to offer the job. At the time Darrell Royal was making $17,000 as the head coach at Washington. UT paid him $17,500 to move to Austin.
Creating a Culture of Excellence
When Royal Took over at Texas, the program was at low ebb. The Longhorns had gone 1-9 in 1956 and OU had won 8 out of the 10 ten games against Texas, including the last five in a row. Royal believed that his first priority was to restore the pride in the program and the belief that Texas belong among the elite. Royal went to work on the facilities; first cleaning off the practice field and purchasing practice gear (most teams used old game pads and jerseys). He started on other projects, such as a Letterman's lounge, a full-time academic advisor, and getting improvements in the stadium.
In the book "Darrell Royal Talks Football," Royal gave his blueprint for building a winning football program.
"If I have any philosophy of this wonderful sport, it is this: Pride is what causes a winning team performance...When you lose your pride (and defeat drains it like a leach), then you just can't generate much firepower.
So that's what I consider the primary task of a head football coach. Plant, fertilize, groom and develop that pride.
The University of Texas football team would fare just as well if I didn't coach a lick. Our staff handles most of the instructing...Fortunately we've been together long enough so that everyone thinks alike, and it's automatically understood what we're looking for in the way of technical tutoring.
But a head coach is guided by this main objective: dig, claw, wheedle, and coax that fanatical effort out of the players. You want them to play every Saturday as if they were planting the flag on Iwo Jima."
Darrell Royal has coached - and won more games than anyone else in this bitter rivalry. He is the only coach on either side to survive long enough to win at least 10 times (12-7-1), and yet his story arc over time fits the highs and lows of the series perfectly.
Royal became a lightning rod for both sides, starting out as a hero on the playing field for OU and finishing up as a reviled and cursed coach of its bitter rival. As we work our way through the long week towards Saturday we will take a look at three specific games that exhibit the pleasure and pain that arc, and how those games added to the intensity and history of this rivalry.
Anything to help the sweet misery of anticipation speed along.