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Bohls: Texas' Akers intense, driven gentleman of a coach who faced challenging obstacles

Hookem
Former Texas football coach Fred Akers poses for a portrait with his T-ring in September 2015, just before he was inducted into UT's men's hall of honor. The coach who replaced the legendary Darrell Royal died Monday. He was 82.
  • Given how he got the job and the legend he replaced, Akers never really had a fair chance.
  • His wife, Diane, said the national title game losses ate at Akers "because he was a perfectionist."
  • Akers was a man who treated people with class and dignity although he didn't always get it in return

Fred Akers couldn’t win.

Oh, he won a lot. A whole lot, to be honest.

But the former Texas football coach who died Monday after a nine-year battle with dementia couldn’t win as big or as much as he might have, had not so many obstacles been put in his path.

Ultimately, Akers was fired in 1986 after a terrific 10-year run that included two strong flirtations with a national championship and some of the best defenses in school history because the deck was stacked against this intense, driven man and a personal favorite of mine.

Akers was so “star-crossed,” as one former school administrator put it, that the successor to Darrell Royal just couldn’t overcome all the roadblocks he faced in what was otherwise a hugely successful career.

But given the circumstances in which he took the job in December 1976 over another preferred candidate and the undeniable, towering legend he was expected to follow and the dirty Southwest Conference era in which he coached, Akers never really had a chance. Not a fair one.

Texas football coach Mack Brown, center, shares a laugh with former Longhorns coach Fred Akers during an August 2007 football practice at Denius Fields.

So even though this 82-year-old man never totally got his due, to those who knew him best, Akers was a classy, family-first gentleman who treated people with dignity and always had that twinkle in his eye. Not to mention a firm handshake and a strong, sure gait, the stride of a very confident man who needed to be somewhere and get something done. No doubt he was tightly wound, but he exuded success.

“He walked with authority,” his wife, Diane, told me Monday night.

He talked with it, too.

That may sound a bit hokey, but it was true of this steely blue-eyed, cocksure man who attacked life with a passion and hated messy desks and scuffed-up shoes and losing. Most, of all, losing. 

Two losses at Texas, however, were more painful than the others when his Longhorns fell in the Cotton Bowl to Notre Dame in the 1977 season and to Georgia in the 1983 season thanks to a fumbled punt catch, both of which brought rude endings to 11-0 seasons and cost Akers national championships and job security.

His record of 108-75-3 won’t be enough to get him in the College Football Hall of Fame with the necessary winning percentage of 60%, but he deserves a place there and undoubtedly would have reached that standard had he waited for a better job and not taken the one at lowly Purdue on the rebound.

Akers had been such a great athlete almost from the morning he was born in March 1937 in remote Blytheville, Ark., one of nine children. He was a four-sport star. And he had a real confidence about him, a walk, a look that belied the fact he grew up poor and had to mow lawns and pick cotton to sometimes put clothes on his back.

He made something of himself and reached great heights. He was the original self-made man, a driven sort who was so good in sports that he was recruited to play basketball for Kentucky but decided to play football for his home-state Razorbacks.

Akers was a star for Frank Broyles' football teams, not the biggest maybe, but a versatile halfback and punter and kicker who once booted a 28-yard field goal to beat TCU. There were lots of field goals in his life, too many, it seemed at times, for a coach who relied on special teams and defense to get the job done and was panned for a balky offense.

Still, Akers was a man who treated people with class and dignity although he didn’t always get it in return.

“Augie Garrido once told me there is no antidote for arrogance, and Fred was perceived as arrogant even though he really wasn’t,” longtime Texas school official Bill Little said Tuesday. “He was misunderstood. I’m not sure about the definition of star-crossed, but Fred was. He was on the carousel and kept reaching for the brass ring, but someone would pull it away from him.”

Akers did chafe under the reality that Darrell Royal supporters blamed him for taking the job that they thought rightfully belonged to Mike Campbell, Royal’s defensive guru and hand-picked successor.

Akers and I had our share of run-ins, but he never held grudges and, in fact, we had some highly competitive tennis matches with my partner Larry Carlson against Akers and assistant coach Mike Parker. Akers so loved tennis that he once played with John McEnroe, who was in town for a tournament.

But football was his life, his passion. Once, I wrote with some hyperbole that the four most important things in Akers’ life were first down, second down, third down and fourth down, which was usually when he’d kick a field goal. Too often for fans’ tastes.

There were highs, like a 16-11 record against top 10 teams and a 5-4-1 mark against Oklahoma, but too many lows like a 2-8 bowl record and a Freedom Bowl rout.

Ultimately, Akers didn’t win big enough, and he was taken down by fans’ unrest, a stodgy offense and a conference that raised cheating to an art form.

One of Akers’ final requests was for his ashes to be spread around the various stadiums where he coached and played.

At Edinburg High, where he became the youngest head coach in the state at age 24. At Lubbock High, from where Royal plucked Akers to join his staff upon the endorsement of Campbell, the man Royal wanted to succeed him.

Some of his ashes will also be scattered at Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, where he launched his collegiate head coaching career and won the WAC with a team that had eight freshman starters, as well as at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium, where his career ended. And at Razorback Stadium, where he had an outstanding playing career.

And of course, at Royal-Memorial Stadium, where he spent 19 years of his life, gave every bit of himself and became one of the best football coaches in school history.

Akers always had that strong jaw set even to the day he was fired and ran into local writers in the parking garage at the KTBC television station. Before they got into their car to drive away, the ever-cheerful Diane turned to the reporters and graciously said, “Hey, nobody died.”

On Monday, someone did, and Texas should mourn the loss of a truly wonderful man.