A Brief Account | Darrell Royal and Willie Nelson

“The majority of people pull for the underdog. Heck, even your friends don’t like you to be too successful. We’ve lost enough over the years for me to maintain my friendships.”

Darrell K. Royal, Coach (1924-2012)

One of my first nonprofit development jobs was at my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. I worked in the dean’s office in the College of Fine Arts (ca. 1988 to 1992). It was a new position, not far in rank above a “senior secretary.” Even though lowly, I jumped at the chance. Someone was needed to work with donors, organize advisory council meetings, keep track of endowments, and support the work of the main university development office, which was headed by the late Shirley Bird Perry.

I had just received a master’s degree in American 19th century landscape painting, and I wanted to work in development in my chosen field. At the time, however, Austin had few development jobs in the arts, and if and when they became available, they paid miserably. I considered this a “lucky break” despite the low pay. At least at UT Austin the benefits were solid and the connections to alumni across the state and beyond were stellar.

One day, Shirley Bird Perry called and said quite plainly, “will you please go over to see Darrell Royal and find out what he wants.” My office was located closer to Coach Royal’s on our huge campus than to her office (which was near the university president). I was delighted to comply. I made an appointment and I hiked over to see him.

By way of background, Darrell K. Royal was a former Texas head coach for The University of Texas at Austin. As a 2012 article by Jack McBee for the Alcalde notes, Coach Royal won 11 conference championships and three national championships during his 20-year tenure. Chip Brown in OrangeBloods remarks, “Royal loved music and loved hanging around musicians, including Willie Nelson. Most everyone knew Willie enjoyed having a good time and might use some substances to help him have a good time. The brass at UT didn’t think it was great for Royal to be photographed with Willie. But Royal didn’t care. He just loved the music. And DKR loved having musicians like Willie, Johnny Rodriguez and Larry Gatlin come over to his house and strum the guitar. Royal was one of a kind.”

I was ushered into Coach Royal’s office for a private discussion. He told me quietly that he wanted to honor someone very special, the musician Willie Nelson. At the time, the university was promoting the Endowed Presidential Scholarship program, and the Coach thought a scholarship for students in the Longhorn Band would be perfect.

One of the nicest parts of my job as a development professional is talking with donors and learning why they make charitable gifts. I am an historian by training and for me, development is not only about securing donations for worthy causes, but about those making the donations: their personal histories, why they give, and whom they want to honor or remember. This particular conversation with Darrell Royal about Willie Nelson was deeply meaningful. It revealed his heartfelt admiration, and in all my years working in the field of development and meeting with donors, this conversation was a standout.

And keep in mind, it was not an easy thing financially to contribute an endowed “presidential scholarship” at that time, ca. 1991. The “purchasing power” of $25,000 in 1991 would be approximately $52,000 today (2022). Darrell Royal’s admiration for Willie Nelson was clearly deep and heartfelt.

Douglas Brinkley wrote in a book review for The Washington Post in 2015, “Willie Nelson chronicles the long saga of his noncomformist life in music.” In the review he remarks,

Nashville beckoned next. Because of his Western roots, offbeat ways and discomfort with traditional studio producers, Nelson never took to the Music City. Too many hustlers and corporate suits for a truthsayer of his mellow disposition. Escaping the Grand Ole Opry culture, he sought refuge in the Texas Hill Country, where ornery individualism was a badge of honor. “You gonna be loved anywhere you live, Willie,” Darrell Royal, coach of the University of Texas football team, told him, “but you’ll be more loved in Austin than anywhere. Whether you know it or not, Austin is your city.”

What Darrell Royal said is true, of course. Austin is Willie Nelson‘s city. It is my pleasure to publish this article on Willie’s birthday, April 29.

I was surprised to search online to find not much information is available about the Willie Nelson Endowed Presidential Scholarship for the Longhorn Band today. Perhaps this is due to what Chip Brown notes in his article on OrangeBloods about the “brass” at UT which I reference above. Regardless, the history of The University of Texas at Austin is incomplete without the story of this particular scholarship and the relationship between Darrell K. Royal and Willie Nelson.

This video provides additional context. It is courtesy of Austin City Limits and I wanted to share it with you.

On another note, once the scholarship had been made, The University of Texas held its Endowed Presidential Scholarship banquet to publicly acknowledge all the scholarships created that year. I was assigned to welcome Willie Nelson and wife that night, and escort them to their table. That was a treat! Here’s hoping the scholarship and its history will become better known and publicized, as it has such a special meaning.

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