A few short months into my tenure here at Longhorn Digest, I had an idea. The year was 2010, and Texas was just getting ready to go into the Red River Shootout. Who better qualified to speak about the game, from both sides, than Darrell K Royal? He grew up in Oklahoma, played for the Sooners under coaching great Bud Wilkinson, then went to Texas and resurrected the Longhorn program with a hard-nosed approach.
I approached long-time Texas media relations head Bill Little to ask about the possibility of interviewing Texas's winningest coach, but even then, Royal was battling the Alzheimer's disease that robbed one of college football's sharpest quotes of his legendary wit.
"He has good days, and bad days," I remember Little telling me.
But then Little offered a compromise. If I e-mailed him my questions — I had five — he would take them to Coach Royal and, if Royal felt up to it, Little would ask them and record Royal's answers.
I always appreciated Little's effort on that short story, especially when the answers came back. The very first question had a very Royal-like answer … when asked for his favorite Red River memory, he slyly responded: "That's like the potato chip commercial. You can't pick just one."
A question about his connection to Wilkinson also had a great answer — Royal loved and respected Wilkinson, and hurt when his teams beat Wilkinson's, "but I darned sure didn't want to lose to him, either."
The third question asked about his feelings on Oklahoma. Here was his response, in full:
"I was born in Oklahoma, and I have a lot of roots there," Royal said. "I've lived most of my life in Texas, but that doesn't mean I can't have respect for the University and the state of Oklahoma. We may compete in sports, but as Americans, we are on the same team."
The answers to the final two questions were my favorite. The fourth question asked how the game has changed over the years.
"It really hasn't (changed)," Royal said. "Coaches, players, offenses and defenses come and go. This is a game for the tough, and it will come down to turnovers and the kicking game regardless of who's playing in it."
And his best answer, by far, came when I asked him to give advice for somebody who hadn't played in the game before: "Don't lose the game before you play it."
That last quote summed up Royal perfectly to me. The Texas coach who went 167-47-4 with three National Championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles often dished out colorful quotes as if they were option pitches. But the quotes — usually given in a football context — were often ones that could be applied to real life. Sure, there were the classic ones like when current Longhorn coach Mack Brown asked Royal how to respond to a losing season and Royal responded: "I don't know. Never had one."
But so many more doubled as life philosophies.
"A little perfume doesn't hurt you if you don't drink it."
"All the pressure I ever had was self-imposed."
"Breaks balance out. The sun don't shine on the same ol' dog's rear end every day."
"You've got to think lucky. If you fall into a mudhole, check your back pocket. You might have caught a fish."
"I try not to make the same mistakes today that I made yesterday."
"If worms carried pistols, birds wouldn't eat 'em."
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
"He's not very fast, but maybe Elizabeth Taylor can't sing."
"Three things can happen when you pass, and two of 'em are bad."
"I don't count on the boy who waits till October, when it's cool and fun, then decides he wants to play."
And of course:
"Dance with the one that brung ya."
The quotes were perfect, a mix of country charm and hyper-intelligent philosophy delivered with aw' shucks and substance. Some he undoubtedly picked up growing up in Oklahoma. The quote about luck being when preparation meets opportunity actually came from Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher. But wherever they came from, they hit on a steady stream of common themes: work hard, be thankful for what you get, be positive and yes, don't beat yourself.
"Don't lose the game before you play it."
Spoken specifically about the Red River game, it could be applied to any facet of life. Get prepared. Be confident. And do the things you have to do behind the scenes to be successful.
Many others will wax poetically about Royal, about their far more personal relationships with him, about the way he and Emory Ballard, desperate for offense, took the college football world by storm with the Wishbone. Still others will attempt to measure the full impact of his coaching career, toss him on some arbitrary chart of legendary ex-coaches and try to gauge how he stacks up.
But Royal always said that he considered the role of football coach close to that of a teacher. And more than the wins, Royal's legacy should be the number of players who left with life lessons that extended far beyond their Texas careers.
"The good news is there's 17 million people who care about Texas football," Royal once said. "The bad news is there's 17 million people who care about Texas football."
Royal touched far more people than that in his career, and for that, we should all be thankful.