Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Good night, Coach

Former University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal, 88, died this morning after a short but ultimately debilitating fight with Alzheimer’s. The majority of those who knew Royal knew of him as Texas’ coach from 1957 to 1976, who won three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference championships and 167 football games. He was known as the coach who introduced the flip-flop offense in the early 1960s and somewhat later and far more famously the Wishbone Offense which dominated the college game from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

But I got to know him as a confidant during my years at UT and immediately after at United Press International.

I dropped out of college for five years in the mid-1960s and embarked on a global odyssey that took me to, among other places, South Vietnam where I became a war correspondent for a number of U.S. newspapers. Now this was back before the North Vietnamese had entered the fray and the conflict was strictly between the South Vietnamese government that had been installed by the United States and the Viet Cong rebels. It was easy to see right from the beginning which side would emerge victorious and, as a result, I became an avid opponent of U.S. military involvement in the country.

I brought that opposition with me when I returned to the United States and finally to the University of Texas, where, as a journalism major, I first resumed my position as a sports reporter for The Daily Texan, the university’s newspaper, and finally as the paper’s managing editor.

In that latter position I came under heavy pressure by my colleagues who also opposed American involvement in Vietnam to de-emphasize football coverage in the newspaper. I always had the main story on the University’s Saturday football game on the front page of the Sunday Texan. Their argument was football was trivial during times like these and that football coverage should be eliminated completely or at least reduced to a small story inside the paper.

My stance was simple and straight-forward: Any campus event that attracted 50,000 people (Memorial Stadium was a lot smaller back in those days) was a major news story and the front page was reserved for the day’s major news story.

After I graduated, however, and went to UPI my influence in that area disappeared. The views of the antiwar faction at the Texan obscured their news judgment.

UPI, in those days, had a coaches football poll. Each week, an invited group of college football coaches submitted their choices of the nation’s Top 25 college football teams. Every Sunday night during football season, Coach Royal would call the Dallas UPI office and give me his Top 25. And because he knew of me and my efforts while at UT, we would spend a lot of time talking about the current state of university journalism, which greatly saddened him. The coach only cared about how the team was covered in two publications, The Daily Texan and the Dallas Morning News, and so what was happening at the Texan was literally breaking his heart. Ivan Maisel, a sportswriter who formerly worked for the Morning News, crafted an excellent obituary of The Coach this morning.

Coach Royal was known for his folksy style ("We gonna dance with the one who brung us.") but what I will always remember Royal for was that he earned the respect of everyone he came in contact with.

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