Over the weekend, I watched a couple of movies (My All-American and The Story of Darrell Royal) about University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal and was struck that all of his national championship teams were all-white.
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.