AUSTIN — Earl Campbell, Hall of Fame running back who played at the University of Texas, compared the forceout of Mack Brown to the early retirement of the legendary Darrell Royal after his 5-5-1 season in 1976. Appearing on Showtime’s Inside the NFL, Campbell said, “I was there when Coach Royal had to leave my junior year.”
Note the phrasing “had to leave” as opposed to “chose to leave.”
Campbell was subtly acknowledging what was known by his teammates but was not publicly disclosed, that Royal retired at 54 because of early-onset dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease would keep eroding him until his death last year at 88.
One of Campbell’s teammates once said, though not wishing to be identified, “In Coach Royal’s last season he lost track of his X’s and O’s. He’d be at the chalkboard, drawing up a play, and he’d stop and say, ‘I can’t remember where it goes next. . .’”
Royal, who won three national championships, was still in his prime in 1975, when his Longhorns went 10-2. But his quick, creative mind began to slip in his final season of coaching football. He was aware of what was happening, and his players were aware of it, but hardly anybody else aside from family members knew.
He still had his delightful wit, he still had his aura, his command presence. For most of the time he appeared as sharp as ever. He could have remained for years as a sort of figurehead emperor, like Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno in their later years, their faculties much diminished, whatever the medical diagnosis.
There really was no need for Royal to keep diagramming plays as the head coach. He could get by on being a legend and a goodwill ambassador for his university.
But he chose to retire rather than pull back from the front line and be a shell of what he once was. He had enough self-awareness to know his 5-5-1 season was no fluke, that he no longer could compete at the elite level of football coaching. It bothered him to no end that Barry Switzer in Oklahoma had come to dominate him in their Red River Rivalry.
The more or less “official” version of why Royal retired young was that he was frustrated over increasingly losing the recruiting wars to a cheating Switzer. The scene we remember is Royal throwing up on the field after his final loss to Oklahoma.
That story skips some uncomfortable truths.
One, for all his folksy charm, which came out of Hollis, Okla., Royal did not enjoy being an overt salesman the way Switzer did.
Two, by 1977 Royal did not have the mental acuity or the will to try to pull it off, the way a mumbling Bear or a self-righteous JoPa could do.
With what we now know of concussive brain damage, it should come as no surprise that Royal could have suffered cognitive impairment. He played in the era of two-way football, so he was a quarterback getting tackled and a defensive back trying to create collisions.
At the time of Royal’s retirement, it was assumed he would go on to a lucrative television career. It’s hard to imagine a more engaging color announcer. Let’s review a few of his famous witticisms:
– “Football doesn’t build character, it eliminates the weak ones.”
– “Punt returns will kill you quicker than a minnow can swim a dipper.”
– “Where I grew up you danced with who brung you.”
– “We’re as average as your everyday wash.”
– “Don’t matter what they throw at us, only angry people win football games.”
– “Three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”
– “He’s not very fast, but maybe Elizabeth Taylor can’t sing.”
– “You get lucky eventually. The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day.”
But Royal never went into TV because he knew he would end up embarrassing himself, just as he did at the blackboard in front of his players.
As for the recurring endorsements of his return to coaching, Royal said: “I knew that when I resigned from the University of Texas that I would never coach again.”
So he had a long and quiet retirement, playing lots of golf with his pal Willie Nelson, who used to show up at Longhorn practices when I was sports editor of the Daily Texan in the l970s.
Royal became increasingly close to Campbell, which tends to belie the often circulated slam – never much substantiated — that the coach was a racist. Campbell described having “a father-son relationship” with Royal. “I’m one of the few players who really got close to him,” he said.
Campbell began to bond with Royal when the coach invited him to hear a guitar-picking friend, Willie Nelson, who was only then becoming nationally known. Campbell, who had been no aficionado of country music, immediately liked Nelson’s artistry.
When Campbell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was Royal – not Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips – who introduced him. Royal could still summon enough mental power to be very lucid on occasion, and he rose to that occasion.
As the years progressed, of course his powers waned. He had a fascinating life and career, but he didn’t want anyone writing a book about him. Renowned sports writer Mickey Herskowitz, who named the Wishbone formation that Royal used to dominate opponents, repeatedly tried to talk him into a book commitment, but Royal was not interested.
Another of Royal’s sportswriting friends, Jim Dent, wrote touchingly of his final years in an article for the New York Times. Dent pointed out that Royal’s wife Edith “did not hide him. Instead, she organized his 85th birthday party and invited all his former players. . . . The players hugged the coach, then turned away to hide the tears.”
By 2010, Dent wrote, “his mind had faded. Often he stared aimlessly across the room.”
Still, to the end Royal could still flash his incomparable wit. Three days before he died, Dent recalled, Royal said to Edith, “We need to go back to Hollis. Uncle Otis died.”
“Darrell, Uncle Otis didn’t die.”
“Well, Uncle Otis will be glad to hear that.”
While Royal was alive and even when he died, little was said of the Alzheimer’s. And no one wanted to go on record talking about when it really began. Until now, I haven’t wanted to write about it, out of immense admiration for the man. He did not run as squeaky-clean a program as he’d want us to remember, but he treated everyone with respect and warmth; never a trace of arrogance. And he was fun to be around.
During my senior year at UT my father visited me and asked if it would be possible to meet Coach Royal. I managed to work it out for him to attend a postgame press conference, though I made it clear he had to sit in the back and not ask any questions — terms which he found quite acceptable.
Finally, when Royal asked, “Are there any more questions,” who should pipe up but Dad with an inquiry that was not especially incisive, a sort of question that usually would elicit a lacerating rejoinder from one of the quickest minds I’ve ever known.
But Royal was quite pleasant, giving a polite and thoughtful response. So I was spared the embarrassment of hearing my fellow reporters ask, “Who’s that clown in the back of the room?”
So why write this article now?
Because Campbell has revealed a fact that has long been overlooked, that Royal did not have a viable option to continue coaching the way he had for most of his 23-year career. He won 77% of his games at Texas.
There was a reason why he left, and I don’t think he would mind his fans knowing. After all, a major part of his legacy is the Darrell K. Royal Research Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease.
People tend to think this illness can strike you at 70 or 80 or maybe 65. Not that it can happen at 54. The more who realize what it did to Darrell Royal at an early age, the more hope there is for a cure.