Darrell Royal: The Red River Rivalry's Transcendent Figure

Barking CarnivalAnalyst IOctober 14, 2009

DALLAS - OCTOBER 11:  A general view of the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns during the Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl on October 11, 2008 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This weekend means so much to so many people on both sides that sometimes you can lose track of the history of just how the Texas-OU game became such a vital part of College Football.

There is one individual who encompasses all the emotions, all the passion, and yes, all the hate this game engenders.

There is also one game in his history of the series that, for me, put all of this on display more than any other—and it was a game that ended in a tie.

I am, of course, talking of Darrell Royal.

Royal is the only man who truly understands both ends of this bitter rivalry. His boyhood home was Hollis, Okla., just five miles from the Texas border. Raised during the Dust Bowl Era, Royal was a high school star at Hollis who dreamed of playing at OU. However, after graduating High School in 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force instead.

In 1946, when Royal was leaving the Air Force, he had a buddy, 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, where he was an All-American and led OU to an unbeaten season and a Sugar Bowl win over LSU in 1948.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

While At OU, Darrell Royal went 2-2 against Texas.

There are many reasons as to why Royal is the unique figure in this raging battle. Having played for one side, and then coaching for other is an obvious one.

He is the winningest coach in series history (12-7-1). In fact, he is the only coach to win at least 10 games in the series. Bud Wilkinson was 9-8, while Barry Switzer went 9-5-2 for the Sooners.

The numbers hardly reflect the visceral feelings generated, or how Royal was such a lightning rod for both sides. One game during Royal’s tenure is a virtual autopsy of the rivalry, both on and off the field. It was his last game in Dallas.


There is no other way to describe the week leading up to the game and the contest itself. This time, it wasn’t about national rankings. This time, it was two teams led by coaches who were spitting venom at each other in public.

The perception in 1976 was that Texas was faltering while OU was dominating the national scene. Actually since the 1971 season, Texas was 44-13 which is a 77 percent winning rate.

But five of the losses had been to the Sooners, and OU was coming off back-to-back national championships.

Royal hadn’t beaten Oklahoma since Chuck Fairbanks got his version of the Wishbone rolling in 1971. Fairbanks had been replaced by Barry Switzer in 1973 and he revved up the ‘bone until it ran like a Lamborghini in cleats.

But it is what was happening off the field that week that held the nation’s attention.


Royal had been convinced for over four years that OU was spying on its opponents. He specifically believed that they knew beforehand that Texas was going to the quick kick in the 1972 contest. Royal had installed the quick kick into the playbook for the first time in four years the week leading up to the game.

With OU holding on to a slim 3-0 lead late in the third quarter, Texas was pinned inside its own 10-yard line. There was only one sub for the play—center Greg Dahlberg—and when he went in, OU players immediately began to yell “quick kick, quick kick.”

Texas didn’t change out of the play, and it was blocked. Lucious Selmon fell on it in the end zone and OU went on to win 27-0.

Royal was convinced that someone had entered Memorial Stadium disguised as a construction worker during stadium renovations and had spied on their practices.

The charges all came to a head the week of the 1976 game. Royal had found out the name of the alleged spy. He was Lonnie Williams, who had ties to OU coaches Switzer and Larry Lacewell.

Royal went public with his accusations and even went so far as to offer to pay $10,000 to the favorite charities of Switzer and Lacewell if they took and passed lie detector tests. They of course denied all allegations.

When accused of spying, Barry Switzer replied by saying Royal was hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Switzer added that, “Some coaches would rather listen to guitar pickers than work hard,” taking a shot at Royal’s love of country music.

Royal gave an interview to Robert Heard of AP; among other things, he said he hoped Switzer and Lacewell would sue him for slander, so he could get them into court.

Thinking the interview was over, Royal added, “Why, those sorry bastards, I don’t trust ‘em on anything.”

When that quote hit print, the stakes were raised even higher.

I was a sports reporter in Austin in 1976 and spent the day of the game on the floor of the Cotton Bowl. It is easily the most bizarre, brutal and vicious athletic event I have ever witnessed.

Anyone who has been in the Cotton Bowl for a Texas-OU contest knows that the intensity level is special, for the fans as well as the players.

This one was different.

This one was personal.

This one was “Eat Shit and Die.”

The pre-game warm up was tense. Hell, even the Texas fans showed up early to boo the opponent. The atmosphere was ugly.

When Royal came out for pre-game, students and fans of his alma mater serenaded him with chants of “Sorry Bastards, Sorry Bastards.”

Then there was the pre-game coin toss. President Gerald Ford was on hand, and he was escorted out to the middle of the field by the two coaches. One OU fan yelled, “Who are the two assholes with Barry?”

Neither coach would acknowledge the existence of the other.

Even President Ford knew that the boos cascading down from the Cotton Bowl were not for him.

The talent level at Texas was improving going into 1976. Royal recruited well that year getting Johnny “Lam” Jones, an Olympic gold medalist in the summer of ‘76.

The class included other top talent such as LB Lance Taylor, defensive linemen Steve McMichael and Henry Williams, along with DB’s Johnnie Johnson and Derrick Hatchett. Alfred Jackson was a deep threat at WR.

Earl Campbell was going into his junior season, as was Johnny “Ham” Jones. Royal relished the idea of Campbell at fullback with “Lam” and “Ham” supplying speed at the halfback positions and Jackson putting pressure on the opposing defenses from the wideout. The one glaring hole in the offense was at QB.

The season did not start out well. Texas would eventually settle on a walk-on, Mike Cordaro at quarterback. Earl Campbell pulled a hamstring in the opening game against Boston College and it would haunt him the entire season. Injuries racked the team.

Johnny “Lam” Jones was expected to stretch the field with his Olympic speed, but he would miss the 1976 OU game.

Both Johnnie Johnson and Lam Jones would miss the contest with injuries. Alfred Jackson would crack a couple of ribs early in the second quarter and be out for the rest of the day.

OU came into the game unbeaten, but had its share of problems as well. OU would have to use a true freshman, Thomas Lott, at QB. But he could count on three swift running backs in the Sooner Wishbone in Horace Ivory, Elvis Peacock, and Kenny King.

Royal had his team cut to a razor’s edge, especially on defense. They were as focused a unit as I have ever seen.

Once the game began, every play was a train wreck. You didn’t hear much trash talk, mainly because it was drowned out by the violent hits. No one stood around, because it was the best way to get de-cleated.

Texas had horrible field position all during the first quarter, and Campbell, slowed by the hamstring, did minimal damage.

Texas did have the best punter in the country, and Russell Erxleben pushed OU into -27 yards of field position from his first punt to his third kick in that quarter. Erxleben averaged 48.5 yards on nine punts that day.

The Texas defense was brilliant. Led by DL Brad Shearer, and linebackers Lionel Johnson and Bill Hamilton, the Horns shut down the freshman Lott and the OU Wishbone.

How good was the Texas defense that day? OU’s wishbone produced 95 yards rushing on 50 carries for the afternoon. A 37-yard Erxleben field goal were the only points of the first half.

The second half was more of the same. The OU coaches had noticed that Campbell liked to get a rolling start on the snap count (he was a fullback in the Wishbone). They alerted the Big 8 officiating crew and he was called for illegal procedure five times in the game.

In the third quarter, Ham Jones turned the corner with a pitchout and moved down the sidelines. OU linebacker Daryl Hunt clotheslined him.

It was so vicious that not only was he flagged for the play, he was kicked out of the game. That led to another Erxleben field goal and a 6-0 Texas advantage.

The score remained 6-0 Texas over halfway through the fourth quarter. OU had not been shut out since 1968 when Notre Dame did the trick. Texas had the ball on the Horn 36-yard line and one more first down would probably seal the win.

Earl Campbell ended the day with 91 yards on 27 bruising carries. OU had 95 yards rushing as a team.

Royal actually wished he had put the quick kick back in the game plan. Instead, he called a deep handoff to halfback Ivey Suber. If he didn’t make the first, well, Erxleben would punt OU deep into Sooner territory.

Five years later, Suber was a photographer at the TV station I was working. It took a while to work around to the subject of the 1976 contest.

Ivey said that he spotted a gap on the right to shoot through to get the first, and as he planted his inside foot, he started to shift the ball from his left to his right, and it was stripped out.

OU got the ball back on the Texas 37-yard line with five minutes to go. The Sooners moved those 37 yards in 10 agonizing plays.

It was like having bleacher seats at the siege of the Alamo; you knew how it was gonna turn out, but you couldn’t avert your eyes.

Horace Ivory finally scored to tie the game 6-6. Despite playing brilliant defensively (OU ended the day with 133 total yards on offense) the Horns were an extra point away from a devastating defeat.

In comes Uwe Von Schamann, the OU placekicker who hit 140 consecutive extra points. But OU also had a walk-on deep snapper. He had been streaky earlier in the day, almost bouncing a couple of snaps to the punter.

Right before the snap, Lionell Johnson leaned in and said, “I bet you snap this over his head.”

Von Schamann, with his head down, never saw the ball as it sailed almost all the way to Waxahachie.

Game over. Everyone is pissed—players, coaches, fans from both sides—everyone. It was an angry, sullen mob of over 75,000 who made their way out of the Cotton Bowl.

Following the teams back up the ramp was a weird experience. No one said a word. Royal paused long enough at the ramp to retch.

The locker room was surreal as media members tried to find anyone who could put into words what exactly they had witnessed. Royal looked like he had aged 10 years in 3 hours. It was in the weeks after the OU game that rumors of Royal’s resignation really took hold.


With Royal’s resignation after the 1976 season, the “spygate” story moved off the front pages of the sports sections. But it never did really go away.

Barry Switzer

In his autobiography, “Bootlegger’s Boy,” published in 1990, Switzer admitted to the spying. “It did happen,” Switzer wrote. “As it turned out, although I didn’t know it at first, Darrell was right to accuse us of that. It was my fault because I was the head coach, it happened.”

Later, Switzer changed his tune, saying he was trying to make Royal happy. Switzer said, yes, OU did spy on Texas, but it stopped after 1972, when he was merely the offensive coordinator.

“It just took three or four years of our people mouthing off for the word to trickle back to Texas,” said Switzer.

“Hell no, we didn’t spy…well, we spied, but I was an assistant..I just wanted to make Darrell Happy…Hell no, we didn’t spy”

In recent years Switzer added that spreading the spy story back in 1976 was simply Royal’s way” to vent his frustration over being dominated by Oklahoma.”

Switzer also predicted that his former assistant, Lacewell, “might run his mouth off.”

Larry Lacewell

Lacewell, who had a falling out with Switzer years later, readily admits his involvement in the spying. “We were young and foolish,” said Lacewell. “If I had to do it again today, I wouldn’t do it, particularly against Coach Royal. I don’t think any of us would.”

“Oklahoma-Texas is too great a rivalry to mess with.”

Lonnie Williams

Williams, an oil and gas executive, was at the heart of the scandal. A long-time friend of Lacewell and other OU coaches, he has basically kept quiet on the subject.

Back then, published reports had him spying on other teams as well, not just Texas. The Dallas Times Herald reported that Williams had snuck into Texas Stadium to watch California hold closed practices before heading up to Norman for a game in 1972. The Sooners won the contest 28-17. The Dallas Morning News had stories putting Williams in Lincoln, Neb., watching the Cornhuskers practices at one time.

Since then, Lonnie Williams has spent a good portion of his time being in the employ of one Jerry Jones.


Royal has kept his feelings about all of this pretty much to himself since he left the game. “There’s no sense picking old scabs,” Royal said, “or digging up bones.”

From his unique position as a player for one side, and then head coach for the other, Royal went 14-9-1 in the series.

In the 104-year old series, Darrell Royal spent 24 years in the arena. In that time, both sides used him like a blackboard to transfer onto any and all emotions that flow throughout the rivalry.

Both sides could lay claim to him, and both showered him with affection and/or anger, depending on the scoreboard at the time.

1976 marked the end of Royal’s career as a Head Coach. But the status of OU under Switzer, combined with Royal’s ideals about sharing information helped to define the differences at the heart of each program.

On one hand, OU was run by Switzer, full of landslide victories powered by the Wishbone, braggadocio, probations, spying, and eventually a program so out of control it would turn on him.

Royal, meanwhile, saw his power base eroded basically because OU was beating him regularly with an offense that he helped them put in.

Royal decided to help OU and coach Chuck Fairbanks put in the Wishbone offense.

Emory Bellard, the inventor of the Wishbone offense while at Texas, said Royal felt it was their duty to help out fellow coaches who wanted to implement the new offense—even arch-rival OU.

Darrell came into my office one day” said Bellard, “and we’d already just wore Oklahoma out a couple years and he said, “Chuck is in trouble, he’s gonna lose his job and they want to put in the Wishbone. Barry is gonna be calling you, help him all you can.”

Bellard went on, I shook my head, I said, “Darrell, you got to be joking?” He said, “No, I wanna help him.”

Royal later admitted to Bellard that he might not be as benevolent if he had it to do over again.

A game that ended in a 6-6 tie 33 years ago can still stir the emotions of those who witnessed it as strongly as any of the games between Texas and OU that have been played since.

It’s just another reason why so many of us will follow Scipio’s timeline to the letter leading up to kickoff.

Saturday cannot get here soon enough.


This article was written by srr50 of Barking Carnival.

Follow Barking Carnival on Twitter: @BarkingCarnival


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.