By Tom Mattingly
The “Robert R. Neyland Era” at Tennessee, one that began in 1926 and continued through 1952, with two interruptions for military service, almost didn’t happen, based on events occurring shortly after he took the job.
It was in the spring that year, as Dr. Andy Kozar, a former Vol fullback (1950-52), wrote in “Football as a War Game: The Annotated Journals of General R.R. Neyland,” when only six players showed up for practice. The rest opted for baseball or track. Former football coach M.B. Banks was coaching the baseball team and A.W. Hobt the track squad.
When Neyland ordered his players to practice, Banks and Hobt went to the Athletics Council to protest. Here was an early line drawn in the sand.
“You hired me to coach football,” he said, “and if we are going to have a football team, we must have the best spring practice we have ever had. If I can’t have every single one of them as long as I want them, I can’t operate.”
Then Neyland played his strongest card.
“Let somebody else take the job. I won’t have it. I’ll leave it with you.”
Dean Nathan Washington Dougherty told Neyland to forge on. Neyland said later that the 1926 spring practice was the “catalyst” for the success of that season and the seasons that followed.
Dougherty, head of the University of Tennessee Athletics Council, had hired Neyland, then an Army captain, earlier that year as head football coach, with a very specific set of marching orders.
“Do something about the series with Vanderbilt. Do something about our terrible standing in the series.”
When Neyland took over the Vol program, Vanderbilt led the series, 17 wins against two losses. There had been two ties. The current tally is 78-32-5.
Tennessee had won in 1914 and 1916, but had also endured a number of crushing defeats. Fans had to have wondered if Tennessee would ever defeat Vanderbilt on a regular basis.
In Neyland’s first season, the Vols dispatched eight of nine opponents, six by shutout.
The Vols’ only loss came at Vanderbilt by 20-3 on Nov. 13. The loss rankled Neyland, allowing Tennessee fans to see the competitive fires of their rookie coach.
“I remember walking into the Vanderbilt clubhouse after the game to congratulate Coach Dan McGugin and his men,” Neyland said. “I thought to myself I would much prefer engaging him in hand-to-hand combat.”
What happened after that is a major factor in Tennessee football history.
Tennessee teams, whether coached by Neyland or by Bill Britton and John Barnhill when Neyland was in the Canal Zone (1935) or in World War II (1941-45), lost to the Commodores only four times between 1926 and 1952. Those losses came in 1926, 1935, 1937, and 1948. The Vols won 19 times, with a scoreless tie in 1932.
A 46-0 win in the 1952 game in Nashville evened the series record at 21-21-3. The message was clear that Neyland “did something” about Tennessee’s “terrible standing in the series.”
It’s been nearly 70 years since Neyland last patrolled the sidelines and nearly 60 years after his death, but his influence still remains.
Neyland “made” the Tennessee program, to the point his players revered him, his coaching opponents respected him, and his name and legacy are still with us today. His record was 173-31-12.
There is “Neyland Stadium,” “Neyland Drive,” a main thoroughfare south of the stadium, and the “Robert R. Neyland Academic Scholarship Fund,” an academic scholarship fund for non-athletes.
After Neyland died on March 28, 1962, U.T. president Dr. Andy Holt announced that a nationwide campaign would be launched to raise a minimum of $100,000 to establish the fund.
At the UT-Alabama game on Oct. 20, 100 or so sorority members collected more than $15,000 from fans at the game.
The first two recipients were Melissa Ann Baker of Maryville (now Ann Baker Furrow of Knoxville) and Robert English Allen of Columbia.
The statue of Gen. Neyland on the west side of Neyland Stadium seems a fitting tribute. He’s the man who built the program, who established the Tennessee winning tradition.
Col. Tom Elam, the “shade tree lawyer” from Union City, put the Neyland influence on the University of Tennessee into clear perspective.
“It’s too bad the critics couldn’t have seen the University of Tennessee in 1927,” Col. Elam said.
“If Bob Neyland had not come and caused the spotlight to turn on the university, there would be a whole lot of difference. I’m sure we would have had a good school, but somebody has to let people know you’re there.”