By Tasha Mahurin
The history of the University of Tennessee football program is steeped in tradition and rich with legend. Sports casters utter names such as Neyland, Majors and Fulmer with a sense of reverence. Yet, in the annals of Vol history, one finds a name not often mentioned, or at least not mentioned often enough- John Henry Barnhill.
Barnhill coached the University of Tennessee Volunteers from 1941-1945 for a total of four seasons. Although Barnhill’s tenure as head coach was relatively short compared to others, to date, he boasts the highest winning percentage of any head (not interim head) coach in the program’s history- .846.
Barnhill had a history with the program long before he found himself at the helm of the already revered Volunteers. He transferred to the University of Tennessee from Memphis State University in 1924 to play for General (then Major) Robert Neyland. He played middle guard on defense, as well as offensive guard. A star player for the 1926 (8-0) and 1927 (8-0-1) Vols, he was named to the All-Southern Team. Upon graduation from the University in 1928, Barnhill went on to coach Bristol’s high school team.
After a successful start to a high school coaching career, Neyland brought Barnhill back to Knoxville in 1931 to serve as the Vols freshman coach. By 1934, Barnhill had been promoted to offensive line coach and coached the line through 1940. He was tapped to lead the Vols when Neyland was recalled into military duty during the Second World War.
And so it was, while Neyland fought for Lady Liberty in the China-Burma-India Theater, the Vols, under the leadership of John Barnhill, fought for Neyland on the football field. Or maybe they fought for both of them. It is difficult now in 2013 to fully grasp the wave of patriotism that swept our country during the early 40s, but it is reasonable to assume that it was also present on the football field. However, no matter the motivation, one thing is certain, during those four seasons, the Vols went 32-5-2.
The Vols, in fact, boast records of 8-2 in 1941, 9-1 in 1942, 7-1-1 in 1944, and 8-1 in 1945. The University did not field a team in 1943 due to the war and the lack of necessary manpower, but, despite a year off, Barnhill managed to lead the 1942 and 1944 teams to the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl.
After Neyland’s return from the war, Barnhill accepted the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas where he made a permanent and lasting mark on Arkansas football both as athletic director and head coach of the Razorbacks. It was Barnhill who would later hire legendary Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, who led the Razorbacks to seven Southwest Conference titles and two Cotton Bowl victories. Broyles retains the record for most wins of any coach at the University of Arkansas. Johnny Majors actually served under Broyles as an assistant coach.
“He was a hot item,” Broyles reportedly said of Barnhill’s initial hire at Arkansas in 1946, “with one of the best records in college football—sought after by five schools.”
In 1966, the University of Tennessee held “John Barnhill Day.”
“I am grateful for those who have thought of me. I am lucky that all of my college athletic days have been spent in Tennessee and Arkansas – it has been great being a Volunteer and a Razorback,” Barnhill said on the day named in his honor.
At the end of the 2012 season, another chapter in Big Orange history began when Butch Jones was hired as the University of Tennessee’s 24th head football coach. True to form, the dialogue surrounding his hire quickly shifted to the rich tradition and esteemed heritage of the Tennessee football program. While the legacy of Tennessee football is a key tenet of our local culture, it would be remiss not to note that the University of Tennessee’s athletic heritage extends far beyond Knoxville, or even the SEC. Through the likes of coaches and players, such as John Barnhill, it has left an indelible and profound mark on the sport of college football.
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By Tasha Mahurin