Robert R. Neyland left a lasting imprint on the Tennessee football program
Tennessee football fans were saddened in early spring of 1962, when Brig. Gen. Robert R. Neyland died March 28 at the Oeschner Clinic in New Orleans at age 70. It was a significant moment in the history of the university and its athletics program.
Neyland had assumed head coaching duties at Tennessee in 1926 and had taken the Vols to the heights in three eras, 1926-34, 1936-40, 1946-52, compiling an overall record of 173-31-12.
Acting athletic director Bowden Wyatt, captain of the 11-0 1938 team, often termed Neyland's favorite, and head coach 1955-62, praised his mentor's influence.
"Gen. Robert Reese Neyland now becomes a legend," he said. "Gen. Neyland the man is gone, but no eulogy and no monuments are needed to mark his passing. 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."
Taciturn in demeanor and seeking excellence on all fronts, Neyland's impact was felt across the South, all across the nation. His "game maxims" are still front and center with today's coaches.
Neyland "made" the Tennessee football program, to the point he is revered by those who played for him, respected by those who coached against him, and, more than 45 years after his death, honored as his legacy lives on.
With a very simple directive to his team in early September 1926, Neyland laid the foundation for the Vols' program: "Men, we will practice two and one-half hours each day. That's all. Each practice will be organized. We will know what we want to accomplish each day, and we will work full speed. Any questions? Let's go."
After the 1952 season, Neyland had stepped down as head coach for health reasons, taking a leave of absence, then retiring permanently. He retained his duties as athletic director, a position he held in each of his three tenures in Knoxville.
The Neyland success story almost didn't happen, according to Andy Kozar's study of Neyland's journals. It was in early 1926, when only six players showed up for spring practice, the rest opting for baseball or track. Former football coach M.B. Banks coached the baseball team and A.W. Hobt the track squad. When Capt. Neyland ordered his players to football practice, Banks and Hobt went to the Athletics Council to protest. Here was an early line drawn in the sand.
Neyland was forthright in his remarks in response.
"You hired me to coach football," Neyland 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, a more than capable bridge player, played his strongest card.
"Let somebody else take the job. I won't have it. I'll leave it with you."
By Neyland's standards, that was a dissertation.
Dean Nathan W. Dougherty later told Neyland to go ahead with spring practice. Neyland said the 1926 spring practice was the "catalyst" for the success of that season and, seemingly, for the success to follow.
Would Neyland have been successful if he coached today? It's one of those great, insoluble questions that have no ready answer. But Jim Haslam, captain of the 1952 team, has his opinion: "He understood football and knew what it took to win."
"You can't put a label on who this man was," biographer Bob Gilbert said. "No one descriptive phrase does him justice."
Wallace Wade, Bob Neyland's coaching rival at Alabama and Duke, testified to Neyland's coaching acumen after the Blue Devils took a 13-0 loss to Tennessee in 1940. "He could take his and beat yours or take yours and beat his," Wade said. For the record, Bum Phillips said the same thing about Bear Bryant, but Wade said it about Neyland first.
"It's something one coach wouldn't say about a rival," Haywood Harris said. "It shows Gen. Neyland's stature as a head coach."
Dean Dougherty later called Neyland's hiring the "best decision I ever made."
It says something about Neyland's influence that every home game Saturday, UT players leave the Neyland-Thompson Football Complex on campus and walk to an arena named Neyland Stadium located near a boulevard named Neyland Drive.
Herman Hickman, who played on Neyland-coached teams in the late 1920s and early 1930s, said it best, however, in remarks before a gathering of Texans.
"The state of Tennessee gave you Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. You gave us Bob Neyland. Now the score is even."
Vol fans in the know would agree.
Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), to be published in second edition in 2008, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His News Sentinel blog at knoxnews.com is called "The Vol Historian."