Allegations Still Surround Legendary UT Coach
Fri., Oct. 4, 1996
Darrell Royal became head football coach at the University of Texas in 1957, but no black athlete played for UT until 1970. The UT Board of Regents voted on November 9, 1963 to allow integration of all sports at the University, yet another seven years passed before Royal sent Julius Whittier into a game and into history as UT's first black football letterman.
Royal, who is retired but still receives a salary as a special assistant to UT's president, can't claim that the atmosphere on campus back in 1963 was completely against allowing black players on the team. The student senate had already shown the popular coach its support for integration in 1961 when it voted 22-2 to integrate UT's teams. And after the regents' vote, a Daily Texan reporter wrote that, "the new ruling gave Athletic Director and Coach Darrell Royal authority to decide when and if a Negro may participate in the athletic program."
So the job of integration was left solely up to Royal, confirms Bill Little, UT's director of sports information for men's intercollegiate athletics. However, Little adds, Royal was "not encouraged to do it, nor was he given any support."
Whittier, who is now a criminal defense lawyer in Dallas, agrees with Little's description of UT as hostile to integration in the 1960s. "The cards were stacked against anybody who wanted to integrate," Whittier says. "There's a context you have to consider before you can decide what level of responsibility a person has... [Royal] wanted the change, but you have to understand the web of people and circumstances in which he lived at the time."
However, even Whittier, who is quick to say that Royal was not a racist, admits that the coach "could have had the courage to stand up in the main mall and yell, `Look, you assholes, you've got to do this... [Royal] had the record to do it." Whittier adds, "but I'm not going to say someone should have had the courage to do it.
Others, however, did have the courage to jeopardize their popularity with powerful alumni and UT administrators to fight for what was right. The University of Houston integrated in 1964 with Warren McVea. Baylor integrated in 1965 with John Westbrook. Jerry LeVias smashed the SWC color barrier when he starred for SMU from 1965-1969. Those schools had black football players before UT because their coaches successfully lobbied alumni and players to prepare the way. In a book by Richard Pennington, Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football, SMU coach Hayden Fry is praised for his brave push to make room for black players. Pennington quotes Fry: "I've been coaching for 34 years and the most important thing I've done is to give the first scholarship to a black athlete in the Southwest Conference."
Breaking the Ice relates how, during his first year at UH, Warren McVea came to his coach, Bill Yeoman, and said he was thinking about transferring to another school because so many alumni and others were giving him trouble. Yeoman said he assured him, "I'd sink with him if that was what was going to happen." McVea stayed four years. Had Royal shown as much courage and determination as Yeoman or Fry, it's possible that he might have integrated the UT team immediately following the regents vote in 1963.
By winning the 1963 national championship, Royal gained an enormous amount of prestige that he could have translated into bargaining power against anyone putting pressure on him to delay integration. He gained even more leverage in 1964 when the University of Oklahoma, his alma mater, recruited him to come home and become head coach. UT solidified Royal's position in 1964 when it granted him tenureship, so he would not have risked his family's financial security by going too fast on integration. Royal could also have used his position to pry open the doors of opportunity at UT by saying, "Either let me recruit the best qualified players regardless of race, or I'm going to OU." An African-American finally played at UT only after Royal won another national championship in 1969 with an all-white team.
Remember, receiving a scholarship to play football at UT also meant winning an opportunity for an excellent education without paying tuition. Starting in 1964, Royal had the go-ahead to offer scholarships to blacks. How many did he give over the next nine seasons? Zero in 1964, 1965, 1966, and 1967. (He almost signed Mike Williams in 1967 but the deal fell through.) One in 1968, Leon O'Neal, who left after one year, and never played in a single game. One in 1969. One in 1970. Three in 1971. And in 1972 Royal did not sign a single black to a scholarship. E.A. Curry had walked on in 1967 but left after the 1968 season without ever getting a scholarship or playing in a varsity game. Nine years after the regents had approved integration, Royal had given just six football scholarships to blacks.
UT's Little defends Royal's foot-dragging as an act of compassion on behalf of prospective black players who might be set up for failure at lily-white UT. "Darrell's concern was that he wanted someone who wouldn't fail academically and who would fit into an environment that, let's face it, was very vanilla," he says.
But clearly, getting blacks on the teams was not a priority for Royal, or at least that's what he told a reporter for Harper's magazine in November of 1970. The Harper's reporter asked Royal: "Is it important to you that you have Negro players on the team?" Royal replied, "No." He told the story, "A bunch of Negro boys came to me a while ago and said I could solve all possible difficulties by hiring a black coach. Now that would be fine for them but I've got to look at the other side. I'd have a lot of white boys on the team coming to me saying they couldn't play for a black coach. The family atmosphere of the team would be destroyed... Once the club harmony and spirit begin to deteriorate, I don't care what kind of talent you have, you won't win." (Royal finally hired a black coach in 1971. UT still has not had a black head coach in any sport.)
Royal's supporters claim there were two reasons he could not find any blacks to play on his team between 1963 and 1970: 1) High academic standards at UT and 2) blacks did not want to play for UT. As for the first excuse, Rice has higher admission standards than UT and it managed to find academically fit black athletes to play football before UT. LeVias excelled academically at SMU; he made the Dean's List and won academic all-American honors each of his last three years. When he graduated in 1969, he received the prestigious "M" award given to 10 top seniors every year. Besides, UT had academically qualified black members on its track team as early as 1964.
As for the second excuse, a lot of blacks did not want to play at UT because Royal and UT had a reputation in the black community for being racist. While blacks at UT could not even get on the field in the 1960s, in other parts of the nation black athletes excelled on the gridiron. Three blacks won the Heisman Trophy at other schools before a single black ever played a down for UT: Ernie Davis of Syracuse in 1961, Mike Garrett of USC in 1965, and O.J. Simpson of USC in 1968.
UT's reputation as a racist institution still haunts the football team, says Jeff Ward, a former UT football player who hosts a sports show on KVET-AM. However, "That reputation is undeserved," adds Ward, who was one of only four whites among 21 UT recruits in 1983. He blames nasty recruiting tactics by other schools for spreading the idea that UT treats blacks unfairly.
As to whether Royal perpetuated that reputation by not acting faster to promote integration, Ward is not sure. However, allegations that Royal was a racist is what ultimately helped him decide to quit coaching, according to Little. "That's one of the real reasons he quit," Little says. "It became difficult to recruit because his image was that he was a racist... He could never overcome that. It was terribly painful for him."
Royal's views and actions were likely shaped by his environment, and they can be telling. In the book Meat on the Hoof, Gary Shaw, a white player who played for Royal from 1964 to 1968, describes how one day in practice, after he had made a particularly hard hit, and as he was getting up off the ground, Royal came over and said, "Shaw, if you keep playing like that, we might have to start treating you like a white man around here." Jokes like that could indicate something about why Royal took so long to put black athletes on his team.
Not many students on the UT campus today know that Royal could have integrated as early as 1964, but when they find out some are concerned that renaming the stadium for him may be inappropriate. Tim Johnson, a computer science sophomore and a member of the African American Culture Committee, says "seven years is way too long [to integrate the football team]." Johnson is prepared to give Royal the benefit of the doubt, though. "Maybe there were outside forces keeping him from integrating, but he should explain himself more fully." Shawn Rameshwar, a sociology junior at UT, says that naming the stadium after Royal "is a sad commentary on the regents, Royal and the University. This is a no-brainer. This needs to be publicly discussed."
Pinning the entire blame on Royal for not integrating UT's football team earlier would be unfair. Although the regents voted for integration in 1963, perhaps they continued to pressure Royal privately to go slowly. However, Pennington's book concludes that Royal waited too long. When UT's regents decided unilaterally to add Royal's name to Memorial Stadium, they proclaimed him a hero on the same level as those Americans who died in all the wars of the 20th century. Perhaps he deserves such an honor; after all, he did win all those football games. What a glorious story it would have been, though, if blacks had played on his team starting in 1964.n
With additional reporting by Chronicle Politics Editor Audrey Duff.