Mattingly: Boling left big mark on UT, athletics

Legends are often found in interesting places. There's a true Tennessee legend living on the quiet side of Holston Hills, on a street called Westover Terrace in the heart of East Knoxville suburbia.

Edward J. Boling, the 17th president of the University of Tennessee (1970-86), might not think of himself that way, but he is one.

Once the university historians begin assembling the bits and pieces of his life, he will be there, right on page 1. When the critical decisions of his era were made, he stands with Andy Holt, Joe Johnson, and a great many others.

Ed Boling, who recently turned 87, always wanted to be surrounded by people who were smarter and better than he was. He was decisive, to-the-point, honest, and all those other adjectives used to describe great leaders.

"It's hard to misunderstand Dr. Boling," Dr. Holt once said.

Dr. Boling's tenure as president was the culmination of a distinguished UT career that started in 1961. When you see the area to the west of 15th Street, Stadium Drive, or Phillip Fulmer Way, all the way to a railroad yard once called "West Knoxville," his influence manifests itself.

Historically, it's called the Yale Avenue Urban Renewal Project.

The project, considered controversial, was part of a deal the university struck with the Knoxville Housing Authority that involved the relocation of 400 families and demolition of 300 buildings.

The expanded campus stands today, nearly 50 years later, as powerful tribute to the visionaries of that day, who dreamed great dreams and lived to see those dreams become reality. Dr. Boling led the way. When someone gave him the ball, he took it and ran with it. It was always, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

Knoxville News Sentinel sports editor Tom Siler reported that in 1965-66, "Dr. Ed Boling . . . seized upon unique features of Urban Renewal legislation (features later repealed by Congress) to develop fraternity row, the outdoor track facility, lighted playgrounds for students, and an aquatic center."

Dr. Boling became a great supporter of athletic programs across the campuses. He was a regular at football practice at Hudson, later Haslam Field. He led the way for the development of an ultra-successful women's athletics program.

"When we were in Alumni Memorial Gym in 1974," Pat Summitt said, "I asked Dr. Boling to come watch us. It was the Tennessee Tech game, and there were about 100 people there. He started coming all the time. In 1988, after the 1987 national championship, he and Carolyn started a private fund for championship rings.

"He was instrumental in supporting women's athletics and allowing us to do what we've done over the years."

The view from the president's office in Andy Holt Tower faces westward, affording a view of the expanded campus in all its glory. Dr. Boling wanted it that way and had to have been proud of being able to see his handiwork.

He became president in a tumultuous time on campus. For the first time, faculty, staff, students, and administrators were seriously debating the presidential selection process.

"His backers observed that the institution needed, first and foremost, a person who could work effectively with governors, state officials, and legislators," university historians James Riley Montgomery, Stanley J. Folmsbee, and Lee Seifert Greene wrote in 1984.

Prophetically, they also wrote that there was "no desire to substitute an unknown for a proven Tennessean."

The Board of Trustees named Dr. Boling president Dec. 16, 1969, some groups terming his selection a "downright insult." In the main, Dr. Boling's candidacy enjoyed strong support, and the life and mission of the university went on.

As president-elect, Dr. Boling "started a series of meetings with faculty and students to try to establish better communications in the difficult position he found himself."

The presidential selection process has been much more open since then, and the university has been the better for it.

In the spring of 1970, the University of Tennessee Singers went to Memphis to perform at functions featuring Dr. Holt's unique brand of homespun humor.

The travel party stayed several nights in a bomb shelter owned by Hoyt Wooten, then the owner of WREC Radio, instead of a hotel. There were 30-40 people on the trip, and Dr. Boling had as good a time as anybody, harking to his collegiate days in the 1940s, separated by a time in World War II. He was one tough ping-pong player.

He is the "Boling" in "Thompson-Boling Arena."

It says something about the character of lead donor B. Ray Thompson that he would not commit to the naming of the arena until Ed Boling's name was added.

It also says something special about the influence of a man named Ed Boling on his university.

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 2009, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He may be reached at His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian."

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Comments » 6

BillVol writes:

The most overrated figure in the history of the University of Tennessee. Like Doug Dickey, anybody could have done what he did.

DadwasaVol writes:

The Vietnam War protests and the Jimmy Baxter debacle are not mentioned in this article. Hmmm...

Volunatic writes:

"The presidential selection process has been much more open since then, and the university has been the better for it."

Overall, NO it hasn't.
Yes, Joe Johnson was a great UT President, and Eli Fly did a good job as an interim President, but the other Presidents selected since Ed Boling's time have all been disastrous failures.
Lamar Alexander-- never moved to Knoxville, never knew the UT Administrative staff or faculty at all. Donations plummeted during his time as UT President.
Wade Gilley-- used the UT plane as his "ride" to go on dates with his Alabama mistress. Wasn't at UT long enough to justify the cost of the search committee.
John Shumaker-- acted as if UT's budget was unlimited, and spent it freely on himself, including a $5000 grill at the President's house, a $200,000 "home makeover" for the President's house to make an extra bedroom for his son that didn't even live there, and bought the most expensive CRIMSON carpet he could find for his offices at Andy Holt tower.
John Petersen-- ran off a competent and respected Chancellor, started a bunch of unnecessary projects that essentially gutted the largest of the UT Ag stations, soured UT's relationship with the state legislature, failed to prepare for necessary budget cuts when the economy turned sour, and couldn't control his outspoken wife who thought it was her responsibility to drive off donors (she also had an "administrative assistant" on the UT payroll, something no other UT President's wife ever needed).

"[Boling's] backers observed that the institution needed, first and foremost, a person who could work effectively with governors, state officials, and legislators."

That is STILL what UT needs. Jan Simek should be encouraged to take the job full-time, and failing that, another Administrator should be promoted from within the University. These "national search committees" have been terrible for UT.

NoChildLeftaDime writes:

I was there for that UT Tenn Tech game. I usually played on that court but it was locked up when I went in. I went to an upstairs court and played pick-up 3 on 3 for an hour or two. As I was walking out I looked in and saw something I did not even know existed. The Lady Vols. I would say if there were a hundred spectators in there that would be stretching it. They had old wooden bleachers pulled out from the wall, so I sat my sweaty butt down and watched the most exciting basketball game I had ever seen in my life, and one of the most exciting I have seen since. The ladies had a 45 second clock at this time. The men's game did not. It was a triple overtime thriller, and I was just dumb-founded with the intensity on the floor and the fearlessness and toughness of what I had previously believed to be the gentler sex. Thanks Tom for bringing back that fond memory.

mattingly writes:

Check out the April 14 entry at

There was only enough space to cover Dr. Boling. The Jimmie Baxter election and the Vietnam War protests may the subject of a different story, probably in a different forum.

Good comments all.

Wayfarer writes:

I, too, was in the stands for that b-ball game. My adopted grandfather was a local businessman who was on board with the Lady Vols and the things a new coach was trying to do. He dragged me to the game because no 13 year old boy wanted to go to a "girl's basketball" game and I've been a fan ever since. I met Dr. Boling many times over the years at different event both on campus and off. He is a likable man who has a great love for UT and this area. He did a respectable job as President and after watching the revolving door over the last few years I sincerely hope UT finds a new president who can be half the person Dr. Boling is.

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