They'd fought and they'd fit and they'd scratched and they'd bit like the proverbial Kilkenny cats nearly every year since 1900, and now, just 18 seconds before half time in the 54th game of the series, the football team of the University of Texas threatened the goal line of the University of Oklahoma as menacingly as a goal line can be threatened. Behind 7-12, Texas had moved the ball against time and a passionately unwilling Sooner team to within a few inches of the line. On opposite sides of the field of the Cotton Bowl at Dallas the old Oklahoma master, Bud Wilkinson, and his sometime pupil but enemy for the day, Darrell Royal, tensed for the critical play. Up in the stands 75,581 people were experiencing heart palpitations that would have made frightening electrocardiograms.
It was a moment of moments in a Dallas football weekend that stood the town on its ear and shook it by the heels. Events marched toward it in fine dramatic order, with a Southern Methodist-Missouri game as an appetite-sharpening curtain raiser Friday night before the smash finale on Saturday. As expected, Friday's prelude focused on SMU's quarterback, Don Meredith; it was a one-man show and a good one.
While Meredith was honing his aim in practice at Dallas last week, Darrell Royal was grooming his undefeated, unscored-on Longhorns for the annual go-for-broke effort against Oklahoma in an atmosphere of exuberance and expectation on the campus at Austin, 200 miles south.
A slender, not very tall man of 35, with a cleft chin, bold blue eyes and ruddy cheeks, Royal trotted into the dressing room after the Thursday workout, whipped through a shower, changed his clothes and slipped into the rear seat of a crowded car that would hustle him to the Texas-Baylor freshman game that night at Waco, 90 miles away. He was a man in a hurry—was, is and always has been—and he fidgeted impatiently with his wristwatch on the long ride.
High up in the Baylor stands, Royal squirmed and concentrated on his blue-chip freshmen, and when a boy named Pat Culpepper scampered like a jack rabbit for a nice gain, he recalled that Pat had led his high school team in pregame prayer.
"He always prayed for the Lord to help them be good winners," Royal said with satisfaction. "That boy didn't even think about losing."
Obviously Royal doesn't want to think about losing, either; something in the way he said it gave the remark a depth of feeling that he apparently seldom displays in conversation. His dislike of emotional display is evidently deeply rooted in the struggles of his boyhood. Royal talks about those struggles without anger or self-pity, and the intent here certainly is not to paint a syrupy, Horatio Alger figure. But Royal did migrate with his family from the small town of Hollis, in the bleak southwest corner of Oklahoma, to California in the dust bowl days. He heard the sneering word "Okie" and did odd jobs and finally got fed up and hitchhiked back to live with his grandmother in Hollis. Among other things, he was able to play varsity high school football. They wanted to put him on the peewee team, he says, in California.
In a delicious twist of fate, Royal became a tremendous quarterback for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, just after World War II when the fabulous Wilkinson era was just beginning. A journeyman assistant after his playing days, Royal was tapped for his first head coaching job by Edmonton of the Canadian Football League and then had so-so sessions in two years as head coach at Mississippi State and one at Washington.
Texans fondly tell the story of how it rained in Austin for the first time in months on the day Royal signed his contract. And, in fact, the terrible Texas drought did end at the time when fate's best twist delivered Royal to the greatest rivals of Bud Wilkinson's Sooners. Parched Texas soil soaked up rain, and not long afterward Longhorn football fans, who had had a terrible drought of their own in the mid-1950s, began wetting parched lips with victory toasts.
In 1957, Royal's first Texas team won six games, lost four and tied one—surprisingly good in view of the previous year's miserable 1-9 record. Continued improvement last season brought seven victories, including a dazzling 15-14 decision over Royal's once beloved but now hostile Oklahoma. Royal began the 1959 campaign as a man of achievement; with warm, widespread backing, a contract reportedly calling for $17,500 a year and a team blessed with more speed than a year ago, he continued to achieve with a vengeance. Nebraska fell 20-0, Maryland 26-0 and California 33-0, and there was Texas rated No. 4 in the nation.