Mattingly: Neyland left lasting imprint on UT football

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 tjmshm@comcast.net. His News Sentinel blog at knoxnews.com is called "The Vol Historian."

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Comments » 19

sohie1133 writes:

Bum Phillips said it about Don Shula not Bear Bryant

mattingly writes:

A lot of these stories have been around so long it's hard to tell what's true and what's merely legend. How about this one? Phillips told Bryant that there were no footballs on the practice field and asked him who was going to get them. Bryant said he didn't know, but it sure as heck wasn't going to be him. Bum said he learned the difference between a head coach and an assistant that day. I hadn't heard the Shula story, but it will go into the compendium of football quotes I have for moments like this one. Thanks.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Gen. Neyland invoked the winning spirit in Vol sports when he first arrived on the campus. It was he that ruled the South in college football with an iron hand> He was the victim of bad luck due to world conditions; First of all in the mid thirties he was as an army reservest called back into the army and assigned to the Panama Canal to solve problems for Uncle Sam. In the two years in Panama, he solved the problem and returned to the Vol campus. However, from 1926 to the time he was called to serve, he had at one time led the Vols to only one loss in 66 games. Upon retuning to the Vol Helm, the program had gone down considerably. The program began to improve quickly. Within two years the 38-Vol team won the national championship> The 39- was the last college team to go undefeated, untied and unscored upon...His 40-team was undefeated and some tabbed that team as the national champ. Then came World War 11, and Neyland again was called into service and served five years. He again returned to Tennessee and this time with the rank of General. Practically starting over from scrath again, the general saw the road back to the top was going to be tough. However with the few good players, he pulled major upsets over Georgia Tech and Alabama's Rose bowl champs who were ranked the nation's top team in 1946. But he had lost high school contacts and within two years the Vols were again among college football's top teams. Again winning the National Championship in 1951, although many thought the 50- team was nation's top team also. Also, while in the army, he coached an army all-star team to three out of four wins over pro football team for army relief funds....HIS ONLY LOSS WAS TO THE WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO BEARS BY 14-7..THE MONSTERS OF THE MIDWAY..CONSIDERED AS ONE OF THE PRO FOOTBALL GREATEST TEAMS...Yes Neyland's iron hand is still felt throughout Volunteer Country.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

IN ADDITION GEN. NEYLAND CAME UP WITH IDEA OF THE HIP PAD FOR FOOTBALL PLAYERS...PRO TEAMS COPIED HIS UMBRELLA PASS DEFENSE...IN 1950, SO. CAL., TELEGRAPHED HIM THAT THEY WANTED HIM TO BE THEIR COACH AND TOLD HIM " WRITE YOUR CHECK. " IT TURNED OUT THAT HE COULD NOT LEAVE THE VOLS. AT ABOUT THE SAME TIME, TENNESSEE OFFERED HIM A LIFETIME CONTRACT, AND HE TOOK IT.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

IN ALL OF THE VOLUNTEER SPORTS PROGRAMS, REMEMBER THE SPIRIT OF GEN. NEYLAND IS THERE WITH YOU...HE OFTEN SAID " QUITTERS NEVER WIN-AND WINNERS NEVER QUIT. " HE OFTEN THOUGHT THAT MENTAL AND PHYSICAL TOUGHNESS WERE A MUST. " NEVER UNDERESTIMATE AN OPPONENT."

Ralph_Crampton writes:

MORE ABOUT GEN. NEYLAND; ARE YOU AWARE THAT NEYLAND WAS THE HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING CHAMPION OF WEST POINT FOR FOUR STRAIGHT YEARS, THAT AS A BASEBALL PITCHER HE BEAT NAVY FOUR OUT OF FOUR GAMES...THAT HE WAS AN ALL-AMERICAN END WITH THE ARMY FOOTBALL TEAM!

Ralph_Crampton writes:

MORE ABOUT GEN. NEYLAND...NEYLAND WAS THE ONLY COACH " BEAR BRYANT " COULD NEVER BEAT IN A SERIES OF GAMES. KENTUCKY COULD NEVER BEAT GEN. NEYLAND. DURING HIS LONG CAREER AT THE VOLS' HELM, ONCE HIS TENNESSEE TEAM TOOK THE LEAD IN A FOOTBALL GAME THEY WERE BEATEN ONLY ONE TIME. THAT NEYLAND, GEN. DOUGLAS MacARTHUR AND PRESIDENT ESIENHOWER WERE ALL PERSONAL FRIENDS. The general at one time served on the staff of MacARTHUR.

orangebloodgmc writes:

Nafslov, when you look in the mirror, there must be an angry bitter person looking at you. What's going on?

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Actually guys...Coach Vince Lombardi did not originate some quotes that he was given credit for. Lombardi is quoted as saying " defeat is worse than death." Not so. Gen. Neyland first made that remark. The words " hisin and yourn ",were first made by the late colorful Clemson football coach Frank Howard in relation to playing fellow coach, " Bear " Bryant when he was at Alabama.

mattingly writes:

“I remember walking into the Vanderbilt clubhouse after the game to congratulate Coach Dan McGugin and his men,” Neyland said after the 1926 Vanderbilt game. “I thought to myself I would much prefer engaging him in hand-to-hand combat. I was that sick over it.”

You have to be careful with these type quotes. There are those who believe that some of the things Neyland is supposed to have said, he didn't. It's the same way with Yogi Berra. It's still all part of the folklore of sport. This one came from the Atlanta Journal.

BillVol writes:

Wonder who did coin the saying "his'n...your'n"? Was reading a book about Paul Bryant in which Jake Gaither said it about Bryant. Gaither had a classic of his own, though: "Agile, mobile, hostile"

bkgunter writes:

I think that Bum Phillips may have been referring to Don Shula----not Bear Bryant. "He can take his'n and beat yor'n, or yor'n and beat his'n."

mattingly writes:

In a 1969 poll, seven years after his death and 17 years after he hung up his whistle, Neyland was named the No. 2 coach of all-time, behind Knute Rockne, and ahead of Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, Bud Wilkinson, Bear Bryant, Fielding Yost, Earl Blaik, Bob Zuppke, and Frank Leahy. That's a pretty significant group and attests to Neyland's stature as a coach.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Knute Rockne himself said at one time Bob Neyland was the best coach in the country..better than me, or any other coach. (Quoted a year before the great Notre Dame was killed in a Kansas plane crash.

TommyJack writes:

tjmshm: Are you a descendent of Gen. Neyland?

mattingly writes:

No. I just take history seriously.

TommyJack writes:

Good. Me too. Unfortunately, many on here think the world was formed in about '95.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Gen. Neyland never sought publicity for himself. He avoided public speeches..refused interviews from writers for the most part. He would never speak on the radio. He always thought his players deserved all the publicity. He was last of the great coaches to carefully hide his team's strenth from future opponents> When LIFE magazine approached him for an interview when one of his teams went undefeated, untied and unscored upon..he refused to be interviewed, but directed the Life reporter, instead to his Volunteer players. He once said " I have never played for Tennessee..never made a tackle, block, or ran for a touchdown."

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Tennessee teams under Neyland were smart, quick and in the greatest physical condition. He imbued his players with confidence, selfless spirit, with a winner's attitude. He sold his players on the psycological aspect of the game, his theory was that at a certain point in the game the Vols' opponent would mentally accept the fact they could not win the game because of the constant physical and mental pressure put on them by the Vols. The general was a one-in-lifetime coach. He will be remembered in the Volunteer state, always.

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