In college football, bad blood is nothing new

The ugliest coaching feud in college football took another outrageous turn, and this time nobody could deny that things had gotten out of hand. An angry $10,000 lie detector challenge? A “sorry bastards” insult on the news wires, followed by vitriol so acidic it made the sitting president of the United States uncomfortable?

Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban still have nothing on Darrell Royal and Barry Switzer.

We tend to be prisoners of the moment, especially when each moment spawns a few thousand tweets, and that can make it easy to believe reruns are unprecedented. When coaches with the championship stature of Fisher and Saban trade pointed barbs and outright accusations, as they did this week, it makes some wonder how a fun little sport ever could have come to this.

Well, the truth is, it’s more genteel than it used to be. Coaches like Steve Spurrier and Woody Hayes would scoff at Texas A&M’s and Alabama’s current idea of bad blood, and Jackie Sherrill probably would give it a good chuckle.

As for Royal?

If he were around today, he might warn Fisher and Saban to chill out and make amends before they drive themselves into retirement.

That’s essentially what happened to the revered Texas coach 46 years ago, when Royal and Switzer clashed like no college football legends have since, this week included.

In 1976, Royal’s Longhorns had lost to the Sooners five years in a row, and he’d had about enough of it. He was convinced that Switzer was using a spy — oil businessman Lonnie Williams — to sneak intel from UT’s practices. Royal even dared Switzer and Williams to take a polygraph test, and promised to donate $10,000 to charity if they did.

After Switzer blew off the idea, the Associated Press ran a story in which newsman Robert Heard reported that Royal said, “Why those sorry bastards, I don’t trust ’em on anything.”

Years later, Switzer would admit in his autobiography that the spying “did happen” in 1972, and that “Darrell was right to accuse us of that.” But the day the Longhorns and Sooners met at the Cotton Bowl in 1976, nobody was conceding anything.

When President Gerald Ford stood between Royal and Switzer for the pregame coin toss, neither side of the stadium was in much of a mood to show respect. From the burnt-orange side, shouts of “Sorry bastards!” echoed Royal’s words in the AP story. From the crimson-and-cream side, there was a man who — according to Switzer’s book — stood up and yelled, “Who are those two (expletives) with Switzer?”

The Red River Rivalry game that day ended in a 6-6 tie, but it drained just about all that was left of Royal, who told reporters after the game he felt like throwing up. In the Dallas Times Herald, Blackie Sherrod wrote that “Royal looked like he had driven a gravel truck without a windshield across Death Valley.”

Royal retired at the end of that season, at age 52. Fisher is 56. Saban is 70. They’re making a whole lot more money than Royal ever did, but can their stomachs handle this kind of public animosity any better than Royal’s did?

Maybe some coaches just enjoy the hate more than others do. Spurrier made a career out of needling his Southeastern Conference adversaries, first at Florida (“You can’t spell Citrus without UT,” he memorably said of Tennessee’s penchant for playing in a less-than-top-tier bowl game) and then at South Carolina.

Hayes and Bo Schembechler pushed each other throughout a stretch of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry so intense it was dubbed “The Ten Year War,” which was highlighted by Hayes allegedly saying he attempted a 2-point conversion during a blowout victory “because (he) couldn’t go for three.”