I began my conversations with Coach Royal in the spring of 1993 to record in his own words the story of his legendary career at the University of Texas. I was eager to embrace this project because I had run on the UT track and cross-country teams in the early 1960s, and knew many of the personalities and events from Coach Royal's era. We sat down in the quietest corner we could find at the Barton Creek Country Club: in the wine cellar, surrounded by a thousand bottles of vintage wine.
As head of sound archives at the university's Center for American History, I intended merely to add the tapes and transcripts to the center's growing collection of Darrell Royal papers. The project took on a new dimension ten years later, however, when editors at the University of Texas Press read the transcripts and saw in them the potential for a fascinating book. To that end, I revisited with Coach Royal (again in the wine cellar) in the summer of 2004, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, to update his story. Our conversations were all brought together and arranged under different topics. Although they do not include every anecdote from Coach Royal's fabled career, these conversations paint a compelling self-portrait of one of the most honored figures in the history of the University of Texas.
JW: Coach, trace your boyhood in Hollis, Oklahoma, and tell us something about your upbringing and your experiences on up through high school.
DR: This is a poor boy's story. I was born in 1924. My mother died when I was four months old, so I never had a mother. My dad moved into my grandparents' [house] for a while, until I was about five years old, and then he built a little house there in Hollis, Oklahoma, my hometown. Before I started grade school, my dad had built a new house.
Ever since I can remember, from the earliest time, I was just consumed with athletics. I had a brother, Glenn, who was four years older than me. Glenn and I would use Clabber Girl baking powder cans as our footballs. This was when I was a little bitty kid. I remember catching that can. Sometimes it'd hit on your finger or hit on the side. [laughs] But that was my first recollection of trying to do anything with football.
During the Dust Bowl days, the road right next to us wasn't paved, and it had just silt—it was like powder. And I remember drawing lines, and I had a stake, a piece of wood in the ground that I'd jump from. And I'd run and jump, and then I'd move the stake and make like a broad jump. I used to go down to the highway, which was only a block from us, and a car would be coming fairly soon, and I'd pick out a sign, and I'd try to get to that sign before the car did. I'd get a jump, and I'd try to gauge that so it was a good, tight race.
I'd do all kinds of things to compete by myself, just learning to do it a little faster and a little better. Then, I remember, one Christmas we got a rubber football. And that's when I first started trying to kick and throw a regular football, although it was rubber. And that rubber football was the best present I ever remember receiving as a little kid. Then I went on to grade school. Every recess we had some type of athletic contest, usually football—little kids' football, like we used to play in the yard. I remember playing on Saturdays with one of my buddies, Don Fox; we'd play in his yard, and we'd have maybe four or five guys that would play on Saturdays, and we'd put a radio outside and plug it in on the porch when the University of Oklahoma was playing. Of course, the band would play "Boomer Sooner" at different times, and I always felt like I was playing for the University of Oklahoma when I was running out there in the yard, playing in overalls. So it was always a big, big part of my life, as far back as I can remember. I was able to play junior high and, of course, high school football, and went on from there.
JW: Did you live in Hollis all this time?
DR: I lived in Hollis most of that time. I was only gone one summer. That was, as I said, back in the Dust Bowl days, and we lived by the highway. I remember watching those cars come by there, loaded down with furniture and those old canvas water bags that hung on the side of the car, headed west. They were all headed toward California. It wasn't long until we were in that line. I know my dad had an old Whippet, and he made a trailer. [Whippets, named for the racing dog, were a popular brand of car made by Willys-Overland in the 1920s and '30s.] Then we took what furniture we had in that old trailer, and got in that Whippet, and went to Porterville, California.
JW: Where is Porterville?
DR: Porterville is in the San Joaquin Valley. It's fairly close to Fresno. I got there, and I talked to the high-school football coach during the summer. I was small. I was even small when I was in college, but I was always small. And I talked to the high school coach, and I learned that they had teams by weight. You had to be a certain size to play with the big guys. That was the team that people cared about. They had those other teams just so little kids could play. I quizzed him about it: Could I try out for the larger team? He said, "No, if you don't weigh enough, you can't compete. You have to play on another team."
So I talked to my dad. I didn't like that idea, so I hitchhiked back to Hollis, Oklahoma, lived with my grandmother, worked my way through high school, and played high school football at Hollis, Oklahoma.
JW: Were you also probably working in California?
DR: Well, we did the normal things that you do when you go out there and look for jobs. We picked fruit. I remember painting figs with olive oil. They'd give you a jar of olive oil around your neck, and you'd climb up the ladder with a paintbrush and dip it in there and touch the ends of those figs—cause 'em to ripen faster, get 'em to the market quicker. And just any kind of work like that that we could find. I worked construction. I found a job in construction pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with cement, and I would pour it into the forms. We did just any kind of work we could find. But I didn't stay there, except that one summer. I hitchhiked on back home.
JW: Did you experience any of the kind of discrimination that a lot of the so-called Okies experienced in California?
DR: Sure. And it affected me. If I think about it, I can still get kind of peeved. "Okie" was really a bad term. I appeared at halftime of the nationally televised Texas-Oklahoma game a few years ago. Bo Schembechler was doing color for the game, and Texas was ahead. Oklahoma started to get a little bit of a rally, and I said, "Hey, we better watch out. These Okies are getting stirred up." Well, I got a hot letter from a doctor from California, downgrading me and saying what an ungrateful Oklahoman I was and what a turncoat I was to turn on my Oklahoma upbringing and refer to Oklahomans as Okies. Well, he's still out there, and I guess he's still scarred by it.
But back then it was extremely derogatory, and it hurt to be called an Okie. But I overcame that a long, long time ago. The first big thing to happen to Oklahoma was the stage play Oklahoma! And then, of course, we had some success at the University of Oklahoma while I was there. We won our last twenty-one ball games. Then they won ten after that. So, that was a pride thing, and Okies became just a term. I lost that stigma back when I was a little kid.
But I wrote this guy back and I said, "Apparently you've never heard Merle Haggard's song 'I'm Proud to Be an Okie from Muskogee.'" And I said, "Everybody in Oklahoma that I've seen sing it is really proud of it, and I'm proud to be an Okie from Hollis, Oklahoma," and signed my name and sent it back to him. [laughs] I used the word "Okie" right back again. They say, "You're from Oklahoma." I say, "Yeah, I'm an Okie." But now people have forgotten The Grapes of Wrath and forgotten the Okie deal. That's a long answer to a very short question.
JW: But you ran into it yourself.
DR: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I'm sure it's not unlike a Jewish person or a black person with those tags that they get. I can somehow relate to that and know how deeply they're cut by those tags.
JW: And this case was probably a class discrimination. You were workers, and you were from somewhere else.
DR: Oh, that's it, that's it. I've always had an Oklahoma drawl, southwest Oklahoma, and it used to be a lot worse than it is now. And they could spot you just right off, you know. I was a sophomore in college, I guess, before I found out I had a "finger" instead of a "fanger." I'm not proud of this, but I tried to change the way I talked. That one short summer out there I didn't want to talk like I was from Oklahoma, but I certainly got over that quickly, too. I'm from Oklahoma, I am from southwest Oklahoma, I'm proud of it.
JW: Got to be what you are, right?
DR: You got it.
JW: So back in Hollis, then, you finished high school there?
DR: Every day of my schooling, every single day, was in Oklahoma. Through high school it was in Hollis, Oklahoma, and then I went to the University of Oklahoma.
JW: Of course you were already destined to go to the University of Oklahoma, I suppose, from this identification with it at the football games?
DR: All I needed was an offer. [laughs]
JW: Did you have a scholarship?
DR: Oh yeah. I went right into World War II after high school, and I played on a service football team. Plus, I'd done well in high school, and I'd had a scholarship offer straight out of high school. But then having played on a service football team, I got a lot more offers.
JW: What was recruiting like when you were in high school, when the colleges came around?
DR: Well, see, there was no NCAA, there really were no rules. There wasn't much to follow. I visited a number of schools when I got out of the service. But it wasn't the high-pressure recruiting, even close, then that it is now, and there were very few rules or guidelines. So people did pretty well what they wanted to back then. But we're talking about 1946. That was a long time ago.
JW: They just sent their scouts out and found out who was good?
DR: Yeah, they didn't recruit hard. I was heavily recruited, and people were involved in it. But I think I had a coach—and he was an assistant coach—come to my hometown one time and spend about thirty minutes with me, and that was it. Of course, I didn't have any trouble making my mind up. I knew where I wanted to go to school.
JW: What was the University of Oklahoma like? Were you strong academically there?
DR: No, I never have been strong academically. I have been an average, and sometimes less-than-average, student. It seems like most of my academics was doing just enough so that someday I could go coach.
JW: You knew that you wanted to be a coach all along?
DR: Oh yeah, ever since I was in grade school and junior high. I knew that someday I wanted to be a coach. I'm not proud of this fact. I think I could've been a good student, but I wasn't. I wasn't academically motivated. I think probably the best single course I had in college, the one that I know helped me the most, was a class in business communications, which included letter writing. I still follow those policies today when I write letters. And when I read letters, it just flashes out to me when the writer of that letter doesn't adhere to those concepts.