A for-sure ‘Vol for Life’

By Tom Mattingly

Gus Manning, a respected and legendary figure in the University of Tennessee Athletic Department and across the expanse of the campus and state, and wherever Vol fans gather, died Feb. 12 in Knoxville. Across Vol Nation, soft tears of remembrance arrived before many in the fan base knew they were coming. He was 99, born July 8, 1923.

A 1950 Tennessee graduate following his service in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, Manning was a for-sure “Vol for Life. “During his career, Gus was a fixture on campus commandeering his trademark Cushman 4003 through Neyland Stadium and other points of call.

He began his University of Tennessee career as a practice field guard in 1946 and was hired by Gen. Robert R. Neyland as sports information director in 1951. Over the years, “few people knew Neyland more intimately— his moods, his whims, his peculiarities,” as Knoxville journalist Russ Bebb has written.

When Gus was named administrative assistant in 1960, Neyland told him to do a nationwide search for his successor as sports information director.

Gus’s response was vintage: “I think Haywood’s in his office.” Gus and Haywood thus became a dynamic duo, sharing the message of University of Tennessee athletics in a variety of forums.

They were a significant part of that time frame when Tennessee was reaching for the stars and, once again, becoming a major player in college athletics. It was hard to think about Gus without thinking of Haywood, and equally hard to think of Haywood without thinking about Gus.

At one point early in his career, Gus was close to being a one-man athletic department, overseeing the ticket, concessions, and business operations and having a hand in nearly everything else that went on.

A December 29, 1961, memorandum from Neyland listed 31 specific job duties for Gus. Even then, it concluded with, “Accept and carry out any extra duties assigned by Athletic Director and Assistant Athletic Director, as they see fit.”

More often than not, Tennessee Sports Information staff members reported that whenever they told people they were from the University of Tennessee, the response was to the point: “Isn’t that where Gus Manning and Haywood Harris work?”

He was well known across the collegiate sporting scene, in the SEC and nationwide. It was hard to imagine a major SEC competition taking place without Gus and Haywood in attendance, contributing to the ambience of the event.

Gus retired in 2000, having served as sports information director, administrative assistant, and senior associate athletic director. After retiring, he served in a part-time capacity as consultant to the athletics department.

There’s a classic picture of Gus celebrating a catch by Larry Seivers that gave the Vols a 29-28 win in the 1974 Clemson game. He did that with a cigar in his mouth and keeping a tight grip on his briefcase with his left hand. That briefcase contained players’ weekend meal money.

He and Harris co-authored two books, “Six Seasons Remembered: The National Championship Years of Tennessee Football” (University of Tennessee Press, 2004) and “Once a Vol, Always a Vol: The Proud Men of the Volunteer Nation” (SportsPublishingLLC.com, 2006). Listening to them conduct interviews with the players from across the years was a life-changing experience.

Gus and Haywood were always a much-in-demand duo to speak to civic clubs and at other venues where Vol fans gathered. Rarely did Gus conclude any remarks, especially during football season, without one of his trademark lines: “Tickets are available.”

In 1989, the College Athletics Business Managers Association named Gus the national business manager of the year. He also served as the president of the SEC sports information directors and later as president of the SEC business managers.

He joined the selection committee of the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 1985 and was twice honored by that organization—earning special recognition in 1998 and receiving the Pat Summitt Ignite Greatness Award in 2018. He also received a service award from the UT Letterman’s T-Club in 2015.

On June 22, 2015, U.T. officials named Gate 16 at Neyland Stadium “The Gus Manning Gate” thanks to a gift in his honor by Peyton and Ashley Manning.

For more than 60 years, he was associated with radio station WIVK hosting the “Vol Reports” for both football and basketball. He and Harris co-hosted the “Locker Room,’ the nation’s longest-running locally produced radio sports program each Saturday morning during football season.

Manning and Harris also hosted “Let’s Talk Sports” and “Football Finals” on Knoxville television station WTVK, Channel 26, in the days locally produced sports programs were broadcast live, with all the pitfalls inherent. With live television, what you saw was what you got, with no retakes or other stoppages when things went south.

He had an irrepressible sense of humor that often manifested itself unexpectedly, literally from out of the blue. We were sitting at Al Rotella’s funeral when two heavyset men in identical dark pinstripe suits walked in and ambled down the aisle to greet the family. Al was from Paterson, N.J., leading Gus to ask a pertinent question: “Are those gentlemen from the Mafia?” There were quiet snickers from the immediate area.

He regularly appeared on “Tennessee 101” on UTSports.com, part of an online video presentation discussing Tennessee traditions.

Manning was inducted into the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the TSSAA Football Officials Hall of Fame, the Knoxville Football Officials Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. In 2019, he was inducted into the U.T. Athletic Department Hall of Fame.

He was a member of St. John XXIII Catholic Center on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, and the Elks Lodge 160.

Gus was the quintessential Tennessee Vol loyalist, once attending 608 consecutive football games, stretching from 1951 to 2003. At one time, he had a string of 71 years attending home games dating to the 1946 season opener against Georgia Tech. His was an amazing life. You couldn’t imagine Gus wanting to do anything else in his 99 years and 219 days.

He is survived by son and daughter-in-law, Sammy Joe Manning and Meg Cifers Manning; and grandchildren, Chad (Clare) Manning, Nashville; Joe Manning, and Elizabeth Manning (fiancé Alex Snyder), Knoxville; great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rose (Rosie) Manning, Nashville; brother-in-law, A. J. Bussell, Oak Ridge; and special niece, Kathy Manning, along with several other nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his wife of 45 years, Margaret Bussell Manning, in 1996.

A funeral mass will be conducted today (Monday, Feb. 20), at 10 a.m. ET at The Cathedral of The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (711 S. Northshore Drive, Knoxville, TN 37919). The family will receive friends after the mass in the Cathedral Hall. The family plans a private burial.