Spring practice started when?
By Tom Mattingly
In the spring of 1936, Maj. Robert R. Neyland had returned to Knoxville looking to pick up where he had left off in his first tenure as head coach of the University of Tennessee football team (1926-34).
He had missed the 1935 season because of a short-lived stint in the Canal Zone that he and his family hated. He “suffered through” 6-2-2 and 6-3-1 seasons in 1936 and 1937 and was chomping at the bit to get ready for 1938.
The three losses in 1937, to Alabama, Auburn, and Vanderbilt, rankled Neyland, as did the four losses and a tie against Alabama from 1933-37.
The Vols had ended the 1937 season with a 32-0 win over Ole Miss on Dec. 4 at Crump Stadium in Memphis.
“Spring” started 36 days later on Jan. 9, according to Russ Bebb’s history of the Vol football program. History is unclear how many days per week the Vols worked out, but the practices lasted until April.
One thing was certain.
This was Tennessee football.
For Maj. Neyland, the future was now.
Neyland obviously saw something special in this bunch, although he wouldn’t say so publicly, true to his character.
He did tell the Knoxville Rotary Club, “Inasmuch as the opposition appears to be even more improved, our record might not be as good as last year’s.” That was a complete dissertation for the normally subdued and publicity-shy Vol mentor.
That was also obviously “coach-speak.” Neyland did it better than anyone.
Vol fans, who seem to instinctively know when a special season is in the offing, were as anxious for the season to begin as Neyland.
“There’s a growing feeling around town that the U.T. Vols are going places this fall,” wrote Knoxville Journal sports columnist Tom Anderson. “It is, of course, far too early to be scrambling out on the limb, and it would be unfair to players and coaches to make extravagant predictions. Nevertheless, there is this persistent hunch, intuition, presentment, or whatever you want to call it, that Bob Neyland’s outfit is headed for the upper regions.”
Not coincidentally, there was another addition to the stadium’s east side, 44 rows and 12,030 seats, an addition that included student housing underneath. Capacity was now 31,090.
The seniors were battle-tested from the 1936 and 1937 campaigns, notably Edwin “Cheek” Duncan, Joe Little, Babe Wood, George Hunter, Ralph Eldred, John “Skeeter” Bailey, Bob Woodruff, and the team captain from Kingston and future head coach, Bowden Wyatt.
The junior class included Leonard Coffman, Sam Bartholomew, Joe Wallen, Boyd Clay, Al Thomas, Jim Rike, and a smallish tailback from West Virginia named George Cafego.
The sophomores were a precocious bunch, a collection of talent Knoxville News-Sentinel sports editor Tom Siler called “high-octane.”
That group also included some soon-to-be big names, to wit, Bob “Breezer” Andridge, Bob Foxx, Buist Warren, Jimmy Coleman, Ed Molinski, Maxie Steiner, Hodges “Burr” West, Ed Cifers, Abe Shires, Bill Luttrell, Norb Ackermann, and Bob Suffridge, a Knoxville native who would become the school’s first and only three-time All-America selection.
There were six All-American selections from that team—Wyatt, Cafego, Suffridge, Molinski, Shires, and Foxx. In addition to Neyland, four of them—Wyatt, Cafego, Suffridge, and Molinski—made the College Football Hall of Fame. Wyatt was selected to the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach,
The drills continued in earnest on through April and a number of injuries. The results were evident.
The Vols finished 11-0, unranked until appearing in the AP poll at No. 8 on Oct. 22 after a 13-0 win over Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Vols moved up steadily until they were ranked No. 2 before their Orange Bowl date with Oklahoma.
The Vols scored 293 points and gave up 16. A 7-0 win over Auburn was the closest game. There were eight shutouts. The season was capped by a 17-0 win over the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, a contest said to be one of the roughest in bowl history.
The Vols were outright SEC champs, the first of three titles won between 1938 and 1940, and garnered five rating service national titles.
One thing is for certain. Neyland wouldn’t have countenanced the practice limitations in effect today. Practices in those days were, however, exceptionally well-planned and well-organized, as Neyland demanded the full attention of his squad. The results proved it.
As Alabama and Duke coach Wallace Wade once said, “He could take his and beat yours, or take yours and beat his.”
For the upcoming season and beyond, the pieces started falling into place for Neyland and the Vols on Jan. 9, 1938.