Looking Back at the Old Southwest Conference and the Late Robert Heard
By Mark S. McDonald
Call me a slow study. I just discovered Robert Lee Heard died. And the news got me to thinking back about half a generation to …
Robert Heard … Now there was a continental character. Lawyer, author, media critic, sports writer, political pundit and Austin rabble rouser.
In about 1975, so the story goes, Texas Longhorns legendary football coach Darrell Royal watches a fellow unknown to him creating a moderate ruckus at an Austin press conference. DKR turns to a friend with a question.
“Who’s that guy?”
“Coach, that’s Robert Heard. He got wounded in the Tower shooting?
DKR cocks his head.
“He still mad about that?”
Then there was “Inside Texas.” After writing nearly a dozen books on sports and politics, Robert cranked out a weekly hard-copy newsletter covering Longhorns sports. Heard would laboriously mail by USPS every Monday, the type-written pages staped and stamped arriving at my home in DeSoto on Wednesdays.
Primitive by today’s standards of desktop publishing, “Inside Texas” was always good for a chuckle and an I-didn’t-know-that, a bottle that washed up, not on my island, but in my mail box. It would be read, front to back, by dark that very day.
When son Turk was playing center at Texas, Robert used to call me once or twice a week, bugging me for tidbits on the most obscure stuff … Who’s moving up the depth chart to the #4 left tackle? … How did the players respond to the extra running imposed by David McWilliams? … At the soft-serve ice cream machine in Jester, which is more popular with the players, vanilla or chocolate?
Don’t know what made Heard think I had a red hot-line phone into the Longhorn coaches offices, but he thought I did. Ironically, for all the times he called me, for all the games and practices I attended during that five-year span (1988-92), Robert Heard and I never actually met. Not once.
Still, for 4 ½ years, the phone kept ringing.
I don’t remember Robert ever being unfair to a UT athlete, male or female, in any sport, so long as the kid did his best and stayed off the police blotter. Woe be unto the athlete who ducked the books or brought embarrassment to the 40 Acres. Robert had choice phrases for an athlete who committed to Texas, then changed his mind to go elsewhere.
Heard wrote with a crisp, fearless, machine-gun style that made me glad never to have faced one of his cross-examinations. His most toxic ink and delicious comments, were saved for old SWC rivals.
Heard thought low-attendance TCU and Rice should be booted from the SWC as unworthy. Texas Tech was dismissed as a stepchild who just showed up at dinner time. Probation-bound A&M, Heard thought, should have been locked away in the Alcatraz of NCAA probation. There, to the chuckles of Orangebloods, the Aggies would share a cell with the reviled Oklahoma Sooners, the most oft-penalized football program in NCAA history.
Then there was Grant Teaff.
Heard viewed Grant Teaff as more than an empty suit, but a coach who said one thing and did quite another. Never mind that the respected Teaff is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and in 1993 became executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. Perhaps Robert’s angst lie in the fact that Teaff always taught his players never to fear Texas but to respect the program.
Just prior to Teaff’s arrival, there was open talk in Waco of Baylor dropping D-1 football. But under Teaff, Baylor twice won the SWC and was 10-11 vs. the Longhorns. In the 15 years before Teaff and the 15 post-Teaff, Baylor went 1-29 vs. Texas.
In his newsletters, Heard called Teaff “The Parson” in sideways references to Baylor victories inspired by fire and brimstone speeches from the locker room pulpit. Ironically, Robert’s father was himself a Baptist preacher.
Robert, speaking what he believed to be truth to power, absolutely could not abide DeLoss Dodds. Hated the guy.
Freely forecasting UT athletics on the brink of doom, Heard wrote that under Dodds’ leadership, Longhorns’ fortunes were going to straight to hell, without supper. Lo these many years later, on Dodds’ watch, the Longhorns won 14 national titles in four sports and the simple but distinctive set of cow horns is one of the leading brands in all of sports, college or pro.
So, did DeLoss Dodds get the last laugh. Probably not. Doubt the thick-skinned fellow is wound that way. But Heard’s passing conjures a remembered line:
“Best way to overcome your enemies is to outlive them.”
Once the Dallas Morning News beat man on the old Southwest Conference, and the father to a son who played in the defunct league, McDonald covered those games and its characters from a unique perspective. Today, he edits this site while researching his next book: “They Gave Us Baseball: Now Look What We’ve Done,” to be released in 2015. He has never been shot.
Heard dies at age 84
By Jim Vertuno, Associated Press
(dated April 23, 2014)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Robert Heard, who reported on Texas state government, politics and sports for The Associated Press, including the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings and a groundbreaking series on race and integration of Longhorns football, has died. He was 84.
Heard died April 15 in Austin from complications after surgery to repair a broken hip, said widow Betsy Heard.
Heard was one of the people shot by Charles Whitman on Aug. 1, 1966, while covering rampage for the AP. Whitman killed 17 and wounded 32 more in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Although Heard often gave interviews on major anniversaries of the shootings, “He lived his whole life hoping to get that out of the first paragraph of his obituary,” Betsy Heard said Wednesday.
“He didn’t want to be known for that,” son Tom Heard said.
“That’s the kind of guy he was. He didn’t want to be famous for something that wasn’t an accomplishment.”
Heard, who also earned a law degree, wrote several books on sports and politics and founded a newsletter about University of Texas athletics.
Heard had gone to the campus to cover the tower shootings after the massacre started. Heard was trying to follow a group of police officers through a clearing when he was hit.
“Just before I reached the curb, I was shot down. I’d forgotten my Marine training; I hadn’t zigzagged,” Heard told Texas Monthly in 2006.
Born in Big Spring, Texas, in 1930, the son of a Baptist preacher served in Korea from 1951-52. After his military service, he earned a law degree from Baylor University and practiced in Houston for two years. He then worked as a journalist in Waco and Long Beach, Calif., before joining the AP in Los Angeles in 1964.
After his AP career, Heard was press secretary for Democrat Joe Christie’s U.S. Senate campaign. He later was the Capitol correspondent for the San Antonio Express News and wrote for Texas Lawyer. He also founded Inside Texas, a newsletter on University of Texas sports.
Heard wrote several books, including “Dance With Who Brung Us: Quips & Quotes from Darrell Royal,” a collections of comments by the former Texas football coach, and “Miracle of the Killer Bees: 12 Senators Who Changed Texas Politics,” about a group of state senators who left the Capitol and went into hiding to stop a vote on a bill in 1979.
A memorial is planned for a June family reunion in Uvalde County, Texas.