LITTLE ROCK — At some point following indoctrination and introductions, a newcomer to the office gets the low-down on the “Hook ‘em Horns” greeting.
They never ask for an explanation, but their look says huh? Occasionally, they respond with the “Horns” turned down or pinkie-down, thumb-up for “hang loose” or interpret the original as “rock on” and answer in kind.
It is a personal thank-you to Texas coach Darrell Royal for being genuine and inclusive with an Arkansas-born and bred sportswriter — a tribute that came to be long before the recent death of the 88-year-old Royal.
We first met at Cherokee Village in the 1960s when Cooper Communities held a golf tournament for big-name college football coaches and media members, mostly from Texas and Arkansas. Paul “Bear” Bryant, Frank Broyles, Johnny Vaught, Chuck Fairbanks, Johnny Majors, Hayden Fry, they were all there.
Close friends and fierce rivals, Broyles and Royal played as many holes as possible, speeding from one green to the nearest open tee box. Winners of three national championships between them in the 1960s, nobody said no.
During the two-day tournament, Broyles and Royal were often in the same foursome, each paired with a media member. Normally, Broyles’ cart partner was from out of state; more than once, Royal was stuck with a central Arkansas resident with a short backswing.
Early in the first round, Broyles’ made a well-rehearsed swing and launched one to the accompaniment of “Woo pig sooie” from dozens of people. The ball found the rough and Royal followed with a less picturesque swing, but a better result.
“I feel like a red-headed stepchild,” he told the man riding shotgun.
Later, when some coaches were going back out for more, he said he needed a partner. The stakes were about equal to one week’s pay, a choking point for sure for someone putting for quarters at War Memorial Park the previous week. Royal picked up on the cash-flow shortage and offered to cover all bets. The authenticity and aura of the man was such that the mere thought of disappointing him prevented participation.
Cooper showed off other developments, moving the tournament to Bella Vista and Hot Springs Village.
At Bella Vista, on what was then No. 9, from the right side of the fairway, we watched Broyles play from under a tree. Hunched-over stance, awkward swing, nothing.
“He whiffed it,” Royal said.
On the green, Broyles holed out his fifth shot. “Six,” he said with an unmistakable Georgia influence. “I whiffed one.”
“You did?” Royal said, his feigned surprise a private joke with his riding companion.
In the 1970s, the competition moved South, where it cost me $6 to confirm that then-Vanderbilt coach Steve Sloan could, indeed, play to his low handicap and where Royal extended an invite to his townhouse to hear a “picker.”
“Bring your bride,” his catch-all for wives, he said.
That evening, a few dozen folks sat on the floor of a large open room and listened to a smallish, short-haired, clean-shaven, T-shirt wearing guy, with a beat-up guitar and a distinctive voice. Most requested was a mini-tune that began, “Jesus was a Baylor Bear.”
At one point, a Texas sportswriter tried to pin down the singer on the number of songs he had penned. When the man pressed for an answer, Royal delivered the correct tally and a reprimand.
Around midnight, we excused ourselves. Royal stopped us, singer in tow, to inform that the man doing the picking had changed record labels and that we would be hearing a lot more from him.
“I want you to meet Willie Nelson,” he said.
A few months later, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” was No. 1. The year was 1975.
For the introduction and previous kindness, “Hook ‘em Horns.”
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.