Football

Ringing endorsement: After 60 years, the T-Ring still holds special allure for Texas athletes

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Story highlights
  • Darrell Royal: “I bought them personally so nobody would bitch about it.”
  • Despite some design changes over the years, the ring's look remains the same.
  • Royal to Mack Brown: “You've been dipped and vaccinated, so you are now a Texan. So please wear the T-Ring.”

Posted August 18th, 2017

On the first Thursday of every month, a collection of some of the most well-known figures in University of Texas athletics history meets for lunch at Rosie’s Tamale House just off Texas 71 near Spicewood. A timeless BYOB haunt, it was one of Darrell Royal’s favorites.

T. Jones, 86, looked around the room this summer and noticed everyone wearing the same unmistakable piece of jewelry. As one of Royal’s assistants, Jones fostered something that has come to symbolize one of the most-prized honors in Longhorns history — the T-Ring.

“I remember so well the day Darrell walked in,” Jones said. “What can I do for you today? He said, ‘Well, what’s better is what can I do for you, too?’ Royal reached in his pocket, pulled out a 10-karat gold ring and said, ‘Well, I’ve got something for you, and I want you to wear it and know what it means.’

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“He didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Jones said, “but it was a big deal to him.”

This summer at Rosie’s, Jones wondered if the T-Ring meant the same thing to those eating lunch as it did to him. “I’m sure it did,” he said.

Sixty years after Royal arrived in Austin, Texas’ T-Ring still holds magical allure. As jewelry, it’s rather understated, a gold band with a colored gem stone and a raised, white “T.” In fact, Royal wanted a low-key look so it would purposely evoke a question from those who saw it. What is that? Or, more importantly, how did you get it?

“They’ll tell you right quick what it’s for because there’s not many of them around,” Jones said.

To earn a T-Ring, a UT athlete must letter for two years in his or her given sport. And he or she also must graduate. That’s why Cory Redding was all smiles in May after finishing up his degree. The defensive tackle started at UT in 1999, logged 13 seasons in the NFL and then came back to finish up his bachelor’s degree at age 36.

“I’m an official Texas Ex,” Redding said, “and I did it to earn that T-Ring.”

A spokeswoman for Houston-based Uptown Diamond, which makes the T-Rings, confirmed that Redding’s hardware is on the way.

Edith Royal wears the T-Ring that belonged to her late husband, Darrell Royal, who in 1967 created the ring that is given to all UT athletes who have lettered for two years and have graduated. This is the 60th year of the ring. (Tom McCarthy Jr. for American-Statesman)

It’s a simple concept, really, said Edith Royal, Darrell’s widow. He got the idea from his idol, Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, who wore a block O ring. “Darrell decided that we should have one at Texas,” Edith said. The Sooner Club still gives out O-Rings to athletes who letter and graduate to this day.

Edith Royal, 91, wears what is believed to be the first T-Ring ever created. This summer she loaned it to the American-Statesman to be photographed. Given the ring’s historical and personal significance to its owner, rubber was burned getting it back.

When Royal died in 2012, Edith went ahead with a planned auction to sell a 2005 national championship ring that then-coach Mack Brown had presented to Darrell. The winning bid was $105,000, plus a $15,000 buyer’s fee. Eleven other rings were auctioned off. But Edith kept Darrell’s T-Ring.

Inside the gold band, there’s an Artcarved logo as the original ring manufacturer along with an inscription — Darrell K Royal.

“Well, I started giving ’T’ rings to the lettermen who graduated,” Royal told author John Wheat for a book titled “Coach Royal” published in 2005. “I bought them personally so nobody would bitch about it. Later it became an athletic department expense, but when I started that program, I bought those rings myself.

“And I still see those rings,” he added. “When I travel around the state of Texas, I see them from guys on the first squads that I coached.”

Said Jones, “That’s the first thing Darrell looked for when he was with you. He wanted to see if you had your T-ring on.”

How much did it cost? “I never did ask. I didn’t want to know, I guess,” Jones said.

Venerable institutions cherish their traditions. They’re guarded, never to be marginalized or impugned. And, of course, they stand the test of time. Ask any UT athlete, and they’ll likely tell you this is far and away one of the Longhorns’ best.

“I graduated in ’62 and I’ll bet you any amount of money that the ’61 team was the first team to get ’em. I’m almost positive,” said Dave Kristynik, a lineman from Royal’s first recruiting class and a 2015 inductee into the UT Men’s Hall of Honor.

“The only man greater to me than him was my father,” Kristynik said. “I sometimes cussed him, but he taught me not to quit and there’s been many times in my life when I should have quit. It was quite an honor to get one, especially those first years.

Kristynik said he’d never sell it. “As good of a writer you are,” he added, “you probably can’t do justice to what people think of that ring.”

Former University of Texas football player John Henderson, who was 98 in 2011, posed for a photo during a program at the Texas exes Longhorn Village Chapter. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

Academics plus athletics

Royal could’ve bent the T-Ring rules for players he didn’t recruit. Bobby Lackey led Texas to its first Southwest Conference title under Royal in 1959. But after the season finished, he left school for pro football. One of the most important players Royal ever coached doesn’t own a T-Ring.

“I think it’s a damn good idea,” said Lackey, who lives in Spring with his wife Judy. “I talked to Coach about it. I wouldn’t take one because it was strictly for those who graduate. I dropped out of school because we weren’t making much money at the university. I was married. We have an anniversary on August 14, and that’ll be 60 years that we’ve been married. So we’ve done something right.”

For players of that era, not graduating was almost unthinkable. Longtime UT sports information director Bill Little said 45 of the 48 members of the 1963 team graduated. “I don’t know how we research that,” Little said, “but that’s what always was said.”

Royal operated in an era where there were no scholarship limits. Schools could have hundreds of scholarship players if the coaches wanted. Today, the NCAA maximum is 85. “Coach Royal was the first person to really come to the conclusion that its didn’t do him any good to recruit the best athletes if he couldn’t keep ‘em in school,” said Bob Moses Jr., a member of the 1961 team.

Recruits usually met with Royal and Lan Hewlett, a high school science teacher who became the “brain coach,” spawning an entire industry of academic counselors. His son, Don, wants to begin an organized push to get Hewlett enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame.

“I’m sure coach Royal deferred and talked to Dad,” Don Hewlett said. “I may be wrong, but I don’t think anybody got their T-Ring who didn’t graduate.”

The T-Ring was so important to Royal, an oversized model sits atop his and Edith’s headstone at the Texas State Cemetery.

A large-scale T-Ring stands between the headstones of Darrell K Royal and Edith Thomason Royal at the Texas State Cemetery. Royal, the legendary Texas football coach, created the ring in 1957 to be given to all UT athletes who have lettered for two years and have graduated. (Tamir Kalifa/American-Statesman)

Design changes over time

The actual design of the T-Ring has been tweaked over the years but has never strayed too far afield.

Royal commissioned the first rings with a topaz (or yellow) stone and starburst display finish. After Royal stepped down in 1976, coach Fred Akers had an orange “T” painted onto a white stone, although not many are thought to be in circulation now.

“That’s a pretty, and I mean pretty, T-Ring,” said Akers, who now wears a Royal-styled ring. “It was helpful, very helpful in recruiting. I have one, and in a recruiting area, the coaches have it to show recruits and mothers and dads.”

When David McWilliams took over in 1987, the rings went back to Royal’s design. McWilliams did have some made with a Florentine finish, giving the sides a rippled look.

“I ordered one for myself,” McWilliams said. “But when I looked at it, I just didn’t like it. Back then they were fairly cheap because gold didn’t cost so much.”

Former University of Texas football head coach, Fred Akers, poses with his T-Ring for a portrait during a visit to Opie’s BBQ in Spicewood. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)

John Mackovic may not have given it much thought. “I don’t know if he really embraced any tradition at Texas, T-Ring included,” said two-time All-American lineman Dan Neil, who played for Mackovic. “It was kind of there and you knew about it, but it wasn’t something that was hammered home like it should’ve been.”

Neil has a T-Ring, but he’s also got two Super Bowl rings from his days with the Denver Broncos. “Why you go to Texas for four years and not graduate is beyond me,” he said.

Mack Brown not only embraced the T-Ring tradition but made sure rings adhered to Royal’s specifications.

“He asked me to wear the T-Ring,” Brown said. “I said, ‘Coach, I didn’t graduate from Texas.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t, either. You’ve been dipped and vaccinated, so you are now a Texan. So please wear the T-Ring.’ I wore it every day I was the coach at Texas.

“The last three years, I have not worn it because I am not the Texas coach,” Brown added. “I take the T-Ring very serious.”

Charlie Strong pushed academics during his tenure and helped basketball player T.J. Ford get back on track to finish in May. Ford’s advice to those who didn’t finish? “Just stay connected with the university,” he said.

Ford’s T-Ring will look similar to what Royal had in mind all along. Today, according to UT’s contract with Uptown Diamond, “The design of the ‘T’ ring is already established by University and will not be modified.”

Darrell K Royal’s T-Ring photographed on Monday July 10, 2017. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

A T-Ring for all 

When the Longhorns joined the Big 12 for the 1996-97 school year, a movement began within the department. All UT athletes should have the opportunity to wear a T-Ring, not just football players.

Athletic director DeLoss Dodds tasked Moses, who became a major donor, and McWilliams with a difficult assignment: Get Royal’s blessing. So the two went and met Royal at Barton Creek Country Club, where the coach ate breakfast every morning and read the newspaper.

“I don’t know how it got presented to him in the beginning,” Moses said. Royal was not against the concept, but Moses said he wanted the football ring to remain unique.

“What we agreed to was that the stone would be a little different color,” Moses said. “He said, ‘OK, you’ve got my word.’”

Said Dodds, “I watched the pride they wore that ring with, and it’s something absolutely everybody had to be a part of.”

Starting with the 1997-98 academic year, both men’s and women’s athletes from all sports were allowed to receive T-Rings, provided they lettered for two years and graduated. Football athletes still receive rings with a topaz stone, but all other rings have an orange stone with the raised white “T” emblem.

“It’s a huge deal. That ring means a lot,” said Stacy Stephens, one of the best women’s basketball players in UT history. She said whenever you see someone else wearing a T-Ring, you know that’s a “kindred spirit.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re 92 or 22, you just know that y’all have that connection and it’s something that you can’t really define, but you have that brotherhood or sisterhood. It’s huge,” Stephens said.

The T-Ring program is managed by the T-Association, the group for all former UT letterwinners. It’s now common for schools to give players a ring after exhausting their eligibility, but some don’t have such stringent rules. Alabama’s A Club has a ring, but a university spokesman said there’s no graduation component tied with it.

“It’s incumbent upon whoever’s in my chair to be able to highlight and celebrate what that stands for,” said Ricky Brown, the assistant athletics director for the T-Association.

For years there was no organized method of giving players their rings. Some came via mail, others would land in their respective coach’s offices. The T-Association is planning a new event, the T-Ring Toast, as a way of formalizing delivery. “It’s incumbent upon whoever’s in my chair to be able to highlight and celebrate what that stands for,” Ricky Brown said.

Ricky Brown gave first-year Texas coach Tom Herman his T-Ring. “Mine’s only about a month old, too,” Herman said. “I was a bit … (I) had mixed emotions, because I know how important that ring is.”

While Herman didn’t play football at Texas, he did earn a master’s degree in education from the university in December 2000. His ring sits on a coffee table inside the coach’s office, still inside its burnt orange Uptown Diamond jewelry box.

“When Ricky suggested it, it was kind of a ‘Wayne’s World’ moment. I’m not worthy,” Herman said. “He said the coaches have always had one, and it’s good for recruiting. I am an alum. I don’t know how much I’ll wear it, but it is a good talking point on my table for recruits.”

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Expanding the T-Ring circle

It should be noted there are some with T-Rings who did not play sports at Texas. And this is where things can get sticky.

“Coach Royal gave me my T-Ring. That was huge,” said Dodds, widely credited with transforming UT athletics into the financial behemoth it is today. “They’ve given a few away to people who were very, very close to the program, but not many.”

Dodds said some of those with T-Rings include Frank Denius, Mike Myers, Tex Moncrief and the late Joe Jamail. Anybody who knows UT history would recognize those donors’ names and understand their contributions to the growth of UT athletics.

Asked if he had a T-Ring, golfer Ben Crenshaw said, “I do. I’m really not supposed to because I didn’t graduate. Mack Brown helped me get one. I got it about five years ago.” Crenshaw said his is kept in a trophy case. Does he ever wear it? “I have not,” he said.

Brown wasn’t giving out rings haphazardly. “I never made a decision about the T-Ring without coach Royal’s opinion,” said Brown, who was known to seek Royal’s counsel on a variety of topics.

McWilliams wears two rings — his personal T-Ring and a national championship ring he earned as co-captain of the 1963 squad.

“I put it this way,” McWilliams said. “The one on my right, the team got. The one on my left, I got. That’s exactly the way I feel. I had to earn it. Nobody could give it to me.”

Current athletic director Mike Perrin also wears one that he earned as a three-year letterman under Royal from 1966-68. Perrin has spoken numerous times about encouraging all UT athletes who are short final credit hours to come back and finish.

“If you don’t have that degree plan behind you to seal the deal with that T-Ring, what was it all for?,” Redding said.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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