Darrell K. Royal (shown in a 2007 photo) has died. (Harry Cabluck / AP)

Darrell K. Royal, a legendary Texas football coach who won three national championships and was known for a distinctive blend of creativity on the field and down-home folksiness off it, has died at the age of 88.

The University of Texas confirmed his death in Austin. Royal, who had Alzheimer’s disease, recently had fallen at an assisted-living facility. Royal’s decline was fairly recent and ESPN’s Ivan Maisel writes that “only in recent months had he lost the sharp intellect and deft people skills that elevated him to his status as a Texas icon for decades.”

Royal, who never had a losing season in 23 years as a head coach, was known for colorful observations, particularly about his love of the running game and the wishbone offense. “Three things can happen when you pass,” he said, “and two of ’em are bad.” Royal remained loyal to the running game, saying later in his career that he preferred to “dance with the one who brung ya.” He was nearly as passionate about a strong defense, saying, “You never lose a game if the opponent doesn’t score.” Danged if he wasn’t right.

Even in a pre-ESPN era and an outsized state, he cast a large shadow, as the Houston Chronicle’s Jerome Solomon blogged, and influenced generations of athletes.

Those of you who think Mack Brown put UT football on the map, may be too young to know how influential a football coach Royal was, and how he helped turn college football into a religion in these parts.

Royal, a son of Oklahoma, who played for the Sooners, is one of the reasons so many boys grow up in the Lone Star State wanting to be college football stars.

After coaching at Mississippi State and Washington, Royal was named head coach at Texas in 1956 and, in 20 seasons at the school,  had a 167-47-5 record that was the best in the nation over that time. His teams won 11 Southwest Conference titles, 10 Cotton Bowls and national championships in 1963 and 1969. He won 109 conference games and more overall games than any other coach in SWC history.

The 1969 season, in which the Longhorns went 11-0, included the “Game of the Century” in which the Longhorns ralled for a 15-14 victory over No. 2 Arkansas in the last game of the regular season. For Royal, installing the wishbone turned the Longhorns into a juggernaut. Royal, who also was the school’s athletic director from 1962-1979, began using the formation in 1968 and his teams put together a 30-game winning streak, with six straight SWC titles.

Royal was ahead of his time in some areas, a step behind in others. He hired an academic counselor for his players because “we need somebody looking after the grades. I don’t think coaches are good at that.” But his team was not racially integrated until 1969 and he admitted that he had been unconcerned with discrimination until former President Lyndon B. Johnson, a close friend, enlightened him. “I’m not a football fan,” Johnson said. “But I am a fan of people, and I am a Darrell Royal fan because he is the rarest of human beings.”

What Royal, who grew up in Hollis, Okla., and played football at the University of Oklahoma, was good at was Xs and Os. That’s where, for better and for worse, his passion lay, but Maisel said that he “stood for more than winning. Royal represented integrity, respect and a romanticized past.” 

Royal respected coaches. That is all he ever wanted to be, from his days growing up in Hollis to the day he succumbed to Alzheimer’s.

In the 1972 book, “The Coaches,” Royal told author Bill Libby, “[A]fter I’ve completed my career and the final ballots are in, I’d most like to be remembered as a guy who was fair, who was competent, and who was liked. I would much rather be a little less successful and well thought of than the other way around. I wouldn’t want to be lonely as an old man.”

Follow us: @CindyBoren | @MattBrooksWP