By Tom Mattingly
In 1926, as former Vol fullback Dr. Andy Kozar has written, Capt. Robert R. Neyland had to “lock his jaw” with Dean Nathan Washington Dougherty and take on the baseball and track coaches to get enough players to hold spring practice.
“You hired me to coach football,” he told members of the athletics board, “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.
“Let somebody else take the job. I won’t have it. I’ll leave it with you.”
Dougherty later told Neyland to go ahead with spring drills. Neyland said later that the 1926 spring practice was the “catalyst” for the success of that season and for the seasons to follow.
Fast forward to 1955. New head coach Bowden Wyatt lost his best running back on the second day of spring drills, when he and star running back Tom Tracy, a 1954 All-SEC selection who rushed for a team-leading 794 yards, parted ways.
As practice progressed, Tracy had suffered leg cramps and couldn’t immediately get to his feet. Wyatt moved the team further down the field, and drills continued.
“Tracy was offended by this lack of official compassion,” wrote Marvin West. “That evening, he threatened to leave. Wyatt dispatched two assistants to help him pack.”
The impact was two-fold.
“Losing Tracy was a sizeable setback. Establishing authority enhanced Wyatt’s influence.” Many players of that era have indicated they would “run through a wall” for Wyatt,
Entering the 1964 season, Steve DeLong was a 1963 All-American selection at middle guard and seemed more than willing to help out rookie head coach Doug Dickey. Dickey, however, didn’t seem receptive to Steve’s offer of assistance.
“He called me into his office for a meeting,” Steve said. “Coach Dickey said he wasn’t sure he could use me on the 1964 team. He said I might make it as an offensive tackle.”
The idea of an All-American middle guard lining up as an offensive tackle seemed equivalent to running Secretariat in the back yard, but Steve and Dickey reached enough of an agreement to make it through the season. DeLong was the anchor of a defense that allowed 121 points over a 10-game schedule.
In his autobiography (“You Can Go Home Again,” written with Ben Byrd), John Majors recalled a memory about “snuff cups” early in his tenure at Tennessee.
“The first time I met with the Tennessee players after the announcement had been made I was to be their new head coach, some of them showed up carrying snuff cups,” Majors remembered.
“Now I know a number of fine people who go around with a big chew of tobacco in their mouths, but I don’t think our athletes should show up at a squad meeting dipping snuff. That rule went into effect right away.”
Finally, everybody remembers “National Signing Day,” when everybody’s a hero, when everybody seems to be capable of stardom. The sky’s the limit. The recruits are the toast of the town. Better days are just around the corner. Fans begin mentally chalking up the wins.
Then reality sets in. Current Vol Network analyst Tim Priest and Joe Thompson were recruited as quarterbacks. It was early in fall drills in 1967, when the Vol freshmen were getting acclimated and coaches were looking to see who could play where. They were watching teammates Bobby Scott and Jim Maxwell throw the ball.
It didn’t take long before Priest looked at Thompson and said, “We’d better find another position.” They did, Priest at defensive back and Thompson at wide receiver. Priest’s judgment was on the mark. Scott and Maxwell were a combined 26-3 as starters, with an SEC title and two bowl wins in three tries.
When a player is thinking about leaving, you can see it in the eyes and the body language. Then comes the phone call to a favored reporter and the ensuing press release, stating that a player has “left the squad.” Now the operative phrase is “entering the transfer portal.”
After that, the talk shows and media reports kick into gear, and nearly every time, the coach is the heavy, either for poor recruiting judgment or “mistreating” or “misleading” a seemingly popular player.
With the benefit of hindsight and diligent research by numerous Vol football historians, the program’s history takes a number of twists and turns, reflecting life as we know it.