I have been a writer most of my life. I love to tell stories.
But for the first time, I have been battling a case of writer’s block.
Tuesday there was a public memorial at the Frank Erwin Center at noon for Longhorn Legend Darrell Royal. The swirl of emotions engendered by his passing, ranging from melancholy to reverie and celebration, will continue unabated for quite sometime.
I consider myself among the lucky ones. I not only got to watch Coach Royal in his prime, I was able to do so from a front row seat as a reporter-broadcaster. I also consider myself fortunate as a writer/editor for Barking Carnival because it can serve as an outlet for my (sometimes) self-indulgent stream of consciousness. This time it is about the man who ushered in the modern era of Texas football, and who did so without succumbing to any kind of cult of personality that has overwhelmed other programs.
During this off-week I had planned to post several retrospectives. These were not delving into particular seasons, games or plays. Instead they were to be a blend of historical information and personal anecdotes that I had hoped would paint a picture of a complex, fully human and fascinating individual who created a Culture of Excellence that extends throughout the program even today. The idea was to take a look at how Royal changed the landscape at Texas by bringing the mindset of a Chief Executive Officer to the football team, leading the University through the transformation into an elite, “modern” program.
The first few sections came relatively smoothly.
Then – nothing.
A friend passed along a link Wednesday to a podcast interview with Julius Whittier, the first African-American scholarship football player to letter at UT. It is an enthralling and emotional interview, and it helps to create a much clearer picture of Darrell Royal as a man dealing with changing times.
Changing the Landscape
Like many other educational systems throughout the South and Southwest, the University of Texas has a checkered past when it comes to integration. In 1956, Dr. Logan Wilson opened all academic programs at the University of Texas to black students, making it the first university system in the South to integrate.
However, The Texas Board of Regents continually voted to keep athletics segregated citing “deference to the climate of opinion operative at the time.” Finally on November 9, 1963, the board voted unanimously to approve the desegregation of all student activities at Texas, “including varsity athletics.”
University dorms were not desegregated until 1964. It wasn’t until 1965 that the University Interscholastic League removed the word “white” as a membership requirement for participating schools.
This was the climate that Royal entered in 1957.
The stereotype that paints Darrell Royal as a racist coach of a racist program is absurd. The idea that Royal could have been pro-active in bringing about a more rapid change is valid – and one Royal acknowledged.
Prior to coming to Texas, Royal had coached African-American players at Edmonton in the Canadian Football League. He coached and recruited blacks to the University of Washington.
Royal had faced class discrimination during the “Dust Bowl” era when he and his family moved from Oklahoma to California. In the book, “Darrell Royal, Conversations with a Texas Football Legend,” Royal recalled the label “Okie” being used. “Sure it affected me,” Royal told author John Wheat. “I can still get kind of peeved. I can somehow relate to that and know how deeply people can be by those tags.”
Empathize, yes. Be at the forefront of change in the SWC, no.
Former Texas history professor Joe Frantz wrote the book “Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football” In it he described additional influences that helped to delay integration in football.
“Powerful forces on the Athletic Council and the Board of Regents impressed upon Royal that there was no need to hurry integration, but no less significant was the huge number of UT alumni, most of whom wanted to keep the school like it was in the old days.
“I think Royal was running with the conservative, status-quo set. Those are the people who deliver football players and underwrite what you’re trying to do,” said Frantz. “Royal would have lost a lot of support. I saw a letter from a longtime Dallas supporter saying, ‘The minute you get a black down there, I’m through with you forever.’ No telling how many hundred he got like that.”
Historically, powerful institutions are not at the vanguard of social change. It scares the hell out of them.
Royal was feeling that pressure, but he was one of the most powerful political figures in the state, and perhaps he could have used some of that political capital after the 1963 National Championship to speed up the process.
Several years ago Royal told the Daily Texan, “If I’ve had a fault, it’s been this – that I didn’t go ahead and be the first to and say, ‘This is right, and blacks should be given equal opportunity. Now I’m going to pioneer it,’…I feel a little guilty about that.”
Royal also felt that he lost some of that built up good will during the 1965-67 stretch where Texas was losing 4 games a season. The pressure was building and influential boosters were restless. Jerry Levias became the Southwest Conference’s first black varsity player in 1966 at SMU. Royal had the evidence he felt he needed to prove to UT officials that the time was now for integration of the football team. A year later Royal thought he might just have the recruit that could break the color barrier at Texas.
The Recruit That Got Away
Royal believed that there was a player in his own backyard who had the athletic ability and the personality to set the table for future blacks to play at Texas. In 1967, Royal offered a scholarship to Don Baylor, a standout at an Austin high school. Baylor had already been through the integration wars, having helped to integrate Austin’s junior high and high schools. A terrific athlete, Baylor was a three-sport star at Austin High. Baylor was a good student, he was also a senior class officer, and expressed an interest in going to college. There was one problem. Baylor wanted to play baseball as well as football. Royal was afraid of trying to integrate both sports at the same time and wanted Baylor to concentrate on football.
The dilemma was solved when the Baltimore Orioles drafted Baylor and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Baylor spent 19 years in the Major Leagues with 7 different teams, and in 1979, he led the American League with 139 RBIs and 120 runs and was an AL All-Star. He won the AL’s MVP award and led the Angels to their first AL Western Division title ever. He then went on to manage in the majors for 9 seasons with Chicago and Colorado.
I guess his choice turned out okay for him.
Julius Whittier – Groundbreaker
The next year Royal found another candidate, Julius Whittier, an all-city player out of San Antonio. Royal believed Whittier had the will and the preparation to remain for four years. Whittier had been a star at an integrated high school in San Antonio. His father, Oncy, was a doctor. His mother, Loraine, was a schoolteacher and community activist who had led protests against a local grocery chain that prohibited black women from becoming cashiers.
The point man on Whittier’s recruitment was Mike Campbell, and Julius said he made an indelible impression. “If you know Mike Campbell, you know that he was not a man of any finesse, except when it came to designing defenses. He said what he meant and meant what he said,” Whittier said. “He convinced me that I would get a fair shot.”
Whittier said a meeting with Coach Royal sealed the deal. Whittier asked Royal if he would be given a chance to be a starter. “He said, ‘Yup.’ He was a straight-shooter,” said Whittier, who became a starter his junior year.
“That was the candor that seemed to belie the stories we’d heard about UT being the racist hellhole,” Whittier added. “I soon found out that there were probably a lot of racists on campus, but there were far more people who gave a damn about you as an individual as opposed to the color of your skin.”
Whittier said he never was exposed to any outright racist outbursts from teammates, (Royal simply would not have allowed it.). He did say that he was ostracized from the normal kind of off-the-field gatherings that players were involved in, but when he was a sophomore, it began to change. Billy Dale the halfback who scored the winning touchdown against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl the year before, was asked by Royal to be Whittier’s roommate.
“I lost all my friends,” said Dale, who lives in Austin. “I chose to live with Julius because I believed it would add that much more dimension to me as a person.”
Whittier has said time and time again that he never felt the pressure of being the first black football player at Texas.
“I had none of that. I picked a school. I went there. I started as a freshman on the freshman team. I think I deserved it. I got the grades that I deserved, based on the effort that I gave. I had access to the powers that be. I had chances to talk to the president of the United States. I never thought or felt I was doing this by myself.”
Julius Whittier eventually ended up with three degrees from Texas. His undergraduate degree was in Philosophy. He later graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and then earned his law degree from Texas. After serving as a prosecutor in Dallas County, Whittier moved over to become a defense attorney.
The further his UT playing career receded into the past, the more Julius Whittier appreciated his head coach.
“He made a difference in black athletes having access to play football at a top-notch University. There were alumni and regents – I don’t know who they were, but I do know for a fact that there were alumni and regents who did not want black kids on this campus.
Coach Royal bucked that. That’s one of the things I admired about him, he was a man who had his own independent image about what was right and wrong.”
Julius went on in the KUT interview to express his deep affection for Coach Royal.
“I had a great time at UT. I got disciplined at the right times because I was into stuff. Being under Coach Royal’s eyeball I needed to watch what the hell I was doing… Coach Royal will be missed. He was a mountain of a man. He had a big view of the world, and I was glad to be a part of his program. I love him.”
These last few quotes are taken directly from the KUT podcast. There is no way to understand the emotional tie Julius Whittier feels to Darrell Royal and the University of Texas by just reading these words on a screen.
If you have not listened to the podcast, please, do so now. You owe it to yourself.