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  • On a shelf in Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte's display cupboard is a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniel's that belonged to Darrell Royal. Around Austin, it is a Holy Grail of sorts for the University of Texas.
By Ross Dellenger
September 05, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas — DeLoss Dodds spent more than three decades as the athletic director at the University of Texas, so he knows the hurdles that come with one of the nation’s most high-profile athletic positions. There are dozens of big-money boosters to glad-hand, an ardent fan base to appease and a reputation to uphold. However, Dodds’s very first piece of advice to new AD Chris Del Conte back in 2017 involved none of the above. It was about an office desk and a bottle of brown liquor. “I told Del Conte, ‘Don’t screw with the desk and don’t drink the bourbon,’” Dodds laughs.

There is an untold story deep in the heart of Texas. As they might say here, you don’t much have to root around to find it. The two central items to this story hide in plain sight inside Del Conte’s expansive office, itself buried within the belly of this program’s giant football stadium, down a winding, burnt orange hallway. The Mahogany desk looks normal enough parked in front of Del Conte, its only exceptional quality an abnormally long wingspan. The unfinished bottle of Jack Daniel’s is the real oddity, situated on a shelf in a floor-to-ceiling wooden display cupboard, below a trophy recognizing Texas’s NCAA tennis championship and beside a jeweled ring celebrating the school’s swimming title. The desk and the bottle are cherished items, just like other more widely known traditions here: the live steer Bevo, “The Eyes of Texas,” the “Hook ’Em Horns” hand sign. The desk and the bottle also possess a sort-of divine quality. How so?

They both belonged to Darrell Royal. “It’s unbelievable,” says Del Conte. “It’s so cool. They are part of the history of the University of Texas. Every day, it’s a reminder of who sat and worked here.” This is an only-in-Texas type of tale: a 50-year-old bottle of Tennessee whiskey and a 60-year-old Texas-sized desk, both passed down from one athletic director to the next, belonging originally to the godfather of Texas athletics. “That desk is sacred,” says Dodds, retired and living in nearby Marble Falls, “and that’s a sacred bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Jack Daniel’s oughta come in here and do an ad about it. They’d sell more Jack in Texas than ever.”

On a shelf in Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte's display cupboard is a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniel's that belonged to Darrell Royal. Around these parts, it is a holy grail of sorts for the University of Texas.

Ross Dellenger/Sports Illustrated

On a hot September day, Del Conte raps his knuckles against the desk to elicit a warm wooden thwack, refreshing in a world of plastic and steel. “Solid wood,” exclaims John Bianco, an associate athletic director at UT. “Don’t make ’em like they used to.” No one is quite sure when exactly the desk was made, but Bill Little, the sports information director here for nearly 50 years, recalls Royal using the desk as far back as the early 1960s, in the midst of his 20-year run as football coach and at the beginning of his 19-year stint as athletic director. The desk is uniquely large, a giant wooden rectangle with a top that extends out from a four-legged base. The top is removable, says Dodds, and he knows this because he’s seen it moved. The desk started in the AD’s old suite in Gregory Gymnasium, was moved in the early 1970s to Bellmont Hall, on the stadium’s west side, and then relocated again to their current spot on the stadium’s north side. “There are a lot of great things about that job,” says Dodds, “but the only thing I miss is that desk.”

It has spanned six different athletic directors. It was around for Royal’s glory years and Mack Brown’s dominance, and it saw the roller coaster tenure of John Mackovic and the lean years of Charlie Strong. Oh man, if that desk could talk. “We’re hoping it doesn’t,” laughs Dodds. The desk is almost old enough—almost— to have seen the last time the LSU football team visited this place. That was in 1954, the last time these two college football bluebloods met in a regular season game (they’ve played in Cotton Bowls in 1963 and 2003). In fact, one of the primary reasons the two teams scheduled this meeting— the top-10 clash on Saturday night in Austin—is because of Strong, the fired coach now at South Florida. “When Charlie got the job, it became that much easier,” says Verge Ausberry, overseeing football scheduling at LSU. “Some people don’t want to play an SEC–type team. Charlie didn’t care about who he played as a coach.”

However, this story isn’t about football scheduling. It is about that desk and—how could we forget!—that bottle of booze. There is enough Jack Daniel’s left in the bottle for two strong pours. It is well aged. It’s from the mid-70s, when Royal sent former sports information director Jones Ramsey on a liquor run for a staff Christmas party in Belmont Hall. “O.K., here’s the story…” begins Little, now retired and living in Austin, who was at the Christmas party. He launches into a winding tale about Royal entering the party, tasting the homemade eggnog and disapproving. “You got to spike the eggnog,” he told partygoers. Little, now 77, laughs recalling the episode. “He pulled out his wallet and gave Ramsey $100. ‘Go get some damn whiskey so we can have a party,’” Little recalls Royal telling Ramsey. “Ramsey got a bottle of scotch and bourbon, and what was left, the Jack Daniel’s, wound up on the shelf of a closet in the AD’s office.”

The bottle remained in that closet, purposely upright, for more than 40 years, protected like the Holy Grail of Texas athletics. When the offices moved from Bellmont to the stadium’s north side, Dodds made sure the whiskey wasn’t trashed. “I took the bottle over personally,” he says. The ironic thing about all of this, says Little, is that Royal didn’t drink Jack Daniel’s. He drank scotch, beer and wine. “That’s probably the reason there’s a little left in that bottle,” he booms with laughter. Steve Patterson took over in 2013, and there the bottle stayed in the closet, the Holy Grail looking down at what was a disaster of a two-year tenure. Then came Mike Perrin, the transitional AD between Patterson and Del Conte. “On one of my first days, DeLoss comes over, reaches into the closet and pulls out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s,” Perrin says. “‘This was Coach Royal’s!’” You can imagine the look on Perrin’s face. Wait, how long has it been there!? “I kind of felt coach’s presence when I needed a little guidance,” Perrin says. “The aura and the spirit of Coach Royal is alive and well.”

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte smiles from behind his office desk, the same one used by Darrell Royal around 60 years ago.

Ross Dellenger/Sports Illustrated

The story might be more myth than anything. Based on the bottle’s label, experts say it may not be so ancient. Either way, Del Conte embraced the desk and the booze. Scarred from more than a half-century of wear, he had the desk refinished. It now shines with newness, an old battle ship with brand new sails. The bottle, meanwhile, has emerged from its dark hiding place. In Del Conte’s first week on the job, he got a call from Dodds. “Did you find the bottle?” he asked. Del Conte had indeed found the bottle. Dodds told him the tale, and Del Conte thought the only reasonable thing to do was place a mostly empty, 50-year-old bottle of Jack Daniel’s in a prime position in his office, front and center on that cupboard surrounded by Texas championship memorabilia. He even draped a black UT lanyard around the bottle’s neck as if it were an esteemed member of the Texas administration. In a way, it is.

The desk, unlike the bottle, has a Hollywood résumé. A replica of the desk is seen in several scenes of the 2015 sports drama My All American, a biographical film about former Texas player Freddie Steinmark, whose diagnosis of bone cancer during his junior year helped inspire the Longhorns to the 1969 national title. Actor Aaron Eckhart, playing Royal, is seated behind the duplicate desk. Hollywood set designers even visited the AD’s office to measure it for size. Texas has plenty of connections to Hollywood. John Wayne famously attended a USC-Texas football game in 1966, and movie star Matthew McConaughey, a UT graduate, is a constant figure around the Longhorns program. Over the last decade, Austin has become a destination for those in the film industry exhausted of California, a new creative mecca that hosts one of the nation’s largest film festivals each March, South by Southwest.

The epicenter of the festival is downtown Austin, just a few blocks from Darrell K Royal football stadium, the largest standing tribute to the godfather of this place. Within the stadium’s belly lie the more sacred commemorations of Darrell Royal. Down that burnt orange hallway and inside the athletic director suite are his old, refurbished desk and the Holy Grail, a partially full bottle of Tennessee whiskey. As far as anyone knows, no one has drunk from the Jack Daniel’s bottle, and no one really wants to. “I’ve seen Raider’s Of The Lost Arc,” Perrin told Dodds on the day he learned of the bottle. “They drank from that cup, you know? And they all disappeared into skeletons. I’m not touching that stuff.” Little laughs telling the story before pausing for three serious words. “It’s hallowed water.”

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