‘He could take his and beat yours or take yours and beat his’

By Tom Mattingly

As Tennessee fans, we sit in a stadium each fall named in his honor and memory.

We drive on a four-lane road near that stadium named after him.

A great many students have benefited from a scholarship fund he established for non-athletes.

That man’s name was Robert Reese Neyland. He was the University of Tennessee’s legendary head coach and a 1956 inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame.

He was born Feb. 17, 1892, in Greenville, Texas. He died March 28, 1962, at the Oeschner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans at age 70.

Here is the perspective behind those facts.

“Gen. Neyland the man is gone, but no eulogy and no monuments are needed to mark his passing,” said Bowden Wyatt, Tennessee’s 1938 captain and head coach. “His great contributions to our youth, to the university, and to his state will endure. I have lost my coach, my friend, and my benefactor. The precepts of honesty and integrity that he instilled in the hearts and minds of countless young men who came under his exacting tutelage will live on and on.”

Before he transformed the Tennessee football program, Neyland was a superb student–athlete at West Point. He won 35 games (20 consecutively) as a baseball pitcher, played starting end on the Cadets’ 1914 national championship football team, and won the academy’s heavyweight boxing championship in his final three years.

In 1925, Neyland was serving as a UT assistant football coach and an ROTC instructor, before being named head coach. His marching orders were to beat Vanderbilt, given that the Commodores had dominated the series until Neyland arrived. “Even the score with Vanderbilt,” Dean Nathan Dougherty said, “Do something about the terrible series standings.”

He developed one of the most efficient single-wing offenses in the country, complemented by unyielding defenses. Of the 216 games he coached, the Vols shut out their opponents 112 times. From 1938 to 1940, his teams recorded 17 consecutive regular season shutouts.

During World War II, Neyland left his coaching duties and returned to active military service, eventually earning a promotion to brigadier general.

Although health issues forced Neyland to step down from coaching after the 1952 season, he served as U.T. athletic director for the ensuing decade and helped design the stadium. The stadium was named “Neyland Stadium” at the 1962 Alabama game on Oct. 20, 1962. In 2010, U.T. officials dedicated a statue on the stadium’s west side.

Neyland didn’t live to see the improvements to the stadium that bears his name, a new press box and west side upper deck that also opened in 1962, but had been kept up to speed on the progress of construction by trusted aide Gus Manning.

Wallace Wade, who coached against Neyland at Alabama and Duke, said, “He could take his and beat yours or take yours and beat his.”

“It is evident from all accounts that Neyland had a towering, dominating, and even intimidating presence,” one Tennessee football historian has written. “Taciturn in demeanor and seeking excellence on all fronts, Neyland had an impact on collegiate football that was felt across the south and the nation.

“Today, he is revered by those who played for him, respected by those who coached against him, and, more than 60 years after his death, honored as his name and legacy have lived on. In a 1969 poll, a panel of 100 experts named Neyland the No. 2 coach of all time, second only to Knute Rockne. This accolade came 17 years after Neyland had hung up his whistle and seven years after his death.”

Lindsey Nelson knew all about the Neyland mystique. This passage came from his 1985 autobiography, “Hello Everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson.”

“And let me say that influence exerted on me by General Neyland has never left. At present, I live in a condominium in Knoxville, Tennessee, after spending twenty-seven years of living in New York. In the far distance is a mountain range. My townhouse is high on a bluff, and at sunset the view is spectacular. One looks out on the sprawling campus of the University of Tennessee, bathed in the setting sun and so enriched and so expanded in the fifty-odd years since that young army captain arrived to the ROTC department and, incidentally, to the athletic department. Workers on their way home after their day’s duty drive along a broad boulevard. They call that Neyland Drive.

“Lifting one’s gaze only slightly, the last towering thing one sees on the horizon is a rising silhouette of a magnificent football stadium with a capacity of more that ninety thousand. They named it Neyland Stadium.”

Neyland and wife, Peg, are buried at Knoxville’s National Cemetery, just off Broadway near Emory Place in North Knoxville.

Nelson had a perceptive touch in his biography, summing up Neyland’s life in 44 well-chosen words. “I think of all his achievement, of the many lives he touched for the better, the man who valued loyalty seemingly above almost all other virtues.

“I think of all of that, and I always smile. And sometimes, when no one’s looking, I salute.”