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Golden: Akers was so much more than the man who replaced Royal

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Former Texas football coach Fred Akers, shown with quarterback Randy McEachern during a game, had a highly successful run for 10 years in Austin. But players remembered the coach who died on Monday as a great leader who made a huge impact on UT's football program.
  • Former Texas football coach died Monday at age 82.
  • Akers replaced legendary coach Darrell Royal in 1977.

On the weekend of last year's Texas-LSU game, mroe than 500 Texas exes and their families gathered in Marble Falls to show love to the man who helped mold them from precocious young football players into successful adults and leaders.

Fred Akers had seen better days, but he spent most of the afternoon smiling from ear to ear. While the ravages of dementia had taken away some of his faculties, the former Texas coach basked in the warmth of the room and the words spoken by players he had treated like his own kids.

“We all loved Coach Akers,” said former tight end Lawrence Sampleton. “That was such a great day. One of his granddaughters told me that she had never seen him smile so much.”

Akers, who died on Monday, was one heck of a coach. But the man behind the fancy suits made a far bigger impact on the players he led.

Texas football coach Fred Akers, right, sits with Longhorns running back Earl Campbell as the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner was interviewed on NBC's "Today" show.

Akers ran some great teams — four top-10 teams and a pair of Southwest Conference champions in his 10 years, if we’re keeping score —  but he helped create even better men.

“He was a better man than he was a coach, and that’s saying something because he was a great coach,” said former defensive tackle Tony Degrate, Texas' 1984 Lombardi Award winner. “We always had a certain swagger on our team because he instilled confidence in us, but it was with humility. He never allowed us to talk trash to our opponents.”

Akers recruited all areas and touched them all, regardless of their background. A burly white kid from Dumas named Bryan Millard had his pick of colleges in the region but ended up signing with the Longhorns.

“A friend said to go to Texas and play for Akers,” Millard recalled. “He said they have the cool helmets and play for championships.”

Texas coach Fred Akers talks to Donnie Little, who became the first Black quarterback in Longhorns history, during a game at Memorial Stadium in 1981.

While most will remember him as the man who replaced a legend in Darrell Royal at the helm of the vaunted Texas football machine, his legacy was far greater than anything that happened between the lines.

After speaking with nearly a dozen men who played for Akers, who passed away Monday at age 82 from the effects of dementia, I gained an even greater appreciation for not just the coach but the man.

Unlike Royal, Akers was tasked with winning at a place that had already won big and the pressures that came with the job were magnified when he fully understood that some people in very high places weren’t on board with him replacing Royal.

He persevered, starting in the summer of 1977 during a meeting with his most important player.

Before a single practice rep was executed, Akers sat down with running back Earl Campbell on the steps of Memorial Stadium. The Horns were switching from the Wishbone to the “I” formation and Campbell was the reason.

“He told me to lose 15 pounds,” Campbell said. “He told me to go work out with Frank Medina twice a day because I was going to get the ball 20 times a game and win the Heisman Trophy. I know I had it in me and that year. Fred brought it out of me.”

Akers’ first team held the No. 1 ranking that season and would have won the program’s fourth national title if not for a 38-10 loss to Notre Dame and star quarterback Joe Montana. Campbell totaled 1,855 yards of total offense and scored 23 touchdowns. He became the first Longhorn to win the Heisman.

What followed was a real influx of Black recruits from all over with Akers, assistants Ken Dabbs and Charlie Lee at the helm. Akers' first recruiting class included Sampleton, defensive lineman Kenneth Sims of Groesbeck and a fleet-footed quarterback named Donnie Little, who had just led Dickinson to a Class 3A state title.

Little was being heavily recruited by several schools, but he had his eyes turned toward Texas as well.

“Coach Barry Switzer was in my ear, saying, ‘Come to Oklahoma. We’ll love you right now,’ but Earl and Lam Jones were in my other ear saying we could change the culture at Texas,’” Little said. “Coach Akers was great. He went out on a limb when he recruited me. He looked me in the eye and  said, ‘We’ll go into this thing together. We won’t worry about the backlash. We will press through it.’”

As the first Black starting quarterback at Texas, Little had his highs and lows at the position and away from the field. To put it mildly, there were nights where he should have worn earplugs inside his helmet.

“Whenever I heard the boos and racial slurs, Fred would tell me that whenever change happened, there would always be some people who would be mad about it," Little said. "He would always tell me that one day things would get better, then you look up and here comes James Brown and Vince Young playing quarterback at Texas. He had that vision.”

Akers also set up a network of Black community leaders who would be there for the players who needed counseling for everything from overcoming homesickness to career advice and, sometimes, a shoulder to cry on.

Dr. Ronald Mason ran a dental practice for nearly 50 years in Austin and spent many an afternoon talking to Akers about his players and how to best help them adapt to life on campus. It all started with that first recruiting class.

“He reached out to me and some other professional members of the community and we formed a mentoring group because we wanted the kids to succeed,” Mason said. When you take a young kid from the inner city or from a rural community and bring him to Austin, if you don’t have people in place you can trust and lean on, it won’t work. Fred understood matters of being inclusive.”

He also understood discipline. Akers pulled no punches and that game face wasn’t just reserved for Saturdays.

“He was the last person you wanted to see in the hallway at Bellmont,” said quarterback Robert Brewer, the MVP of the 1982 Cotton Bowl. “He always had a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. You had better come up with a good reason you weren’t in class.”

‘Class’ was a great description of the man. Akers lived the part and looked the part.

“When you saw Coach on the field, it was the polo shirts with the long pants and the clean cap,” said linebacker Doug Shankle, who spoke with Akers' wife Diane when he heard the news Monday.

Akers won here, but championships weren’t to be. His 108-75-3 record doesn’t tell the full story. We’ll never forget the 1983 team that went unbeaten in the regular season and lost 10-9  to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl — a game known for Craig Curry’s late fumble, and no one hurt more after that loss than Akers.

His overall contributions made Akers the most underappreciated football coach in program history.

But he was so much more.