Mattingly: Neyland, Knoxville silenced critic

Sometimes sportswriters, even in the 1920s, come up with an idea that hits home years later.

The year was 1926. It was a Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 6. The baseball pennant races were in full swing.

That morning's Knoxville Journal contained this note on page 9, a "relatively obscure item," as Russ Bebb called it years later. It foreshadowed the excitement we see on campus today.

"…Coach Bob Neyland will gather his Vols at Shields-Watkins Field at 8 o'clock and start the Orange and White aspirants on the rocky road to glory."

There were 25 prospective Vols present that day.

No one knew what the years ahead might hold, but one thing is clear. Neyland established a simple plan for gridiron success.

"Men, we will practice two and one-half hours each day," Neyland said. "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."

Neyland became the 11th coach in school history and brought stability to the position.

Since the 1891 season opener against Sewanee in the rain at Chattanooga, the Vols had had student coaches from 1891-93 and 1896-97, and 10 head coaches from 1899-1925.

The Vols would have only 10 coaches over the next 83 years.

The "rocky road to glory" would be part of a grand and glorious time frame, establishing a tradition that is still evolving.

Neyland Stadium, which seated 6,800 in 1926, with stands on the east and west sides, now has a capacity of 100,011, double-decked on all sides.

It's difficult to see 100,000-plus at Neyland Stadium, one of the harvests of Bob Neyland's success at Tennessee, on any given football Saturday in the fall, without mentioning the impact of John Gunther 1940s book "Inside America."

The city of Knoxville took a major beating near the end of Gunther's analysis of the state of Tennessee.

"Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England," he wrote. "It's main street is called Gay Street; this seemed to me to be a misnomer. Knoxville, an extremely puritanical town, serves no alcohol stronger than 3.6 per cent beer, and its more dignified taprooms close at 9:30 p.m. Sunday movies are forbidden, and there is no Sunday baseball.

"Perhaps, as a result, it is one of the least orderly cities in the South - Knoxville leads every other town in Tennessee in homicides, automobile thefts, and larceny."

Not only that, he called it an "intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness."

It was an opinion he never recanted before his death in 1970.

That hurt.

Things have changed for the better. Somehow, some way, Knoxville emerged from Gunther's criticism, to the point of hosting a World's Fair in 1982 and being hailed as a great place to live.

Fans come to Knoxville from every direction to see the Vols play. Everybody gets into town, gets parked, and is able to get home after the game, even by the standards of the most unreasonable fan. There are a multitude of places to stay and places to eat, drink and sleep. The city is a good host.

Furthermore, in all the United States of America, there were only four stadiums, all on college campuses, where average attendance during the 2008 football season exceeded 100,000 fans.

They are Michigan Stadium (108,571) in Ann Arbor, Ohio Stadium (104,476) in Columbus, Penn State's Beaver Stadium (108,254) in State College, Penn., and Neyland Stadium (101,448).

Where else can you consistently find more than 100,000 people at one venue for an American sporting event?

That's something important to consider, particularly when many NFL franchises, located in much larger and presumably more sophisticated urban areas, average 20,000-30,000 fewer fans through the gates than any of these collegiate venues.

Since Neyland Stadium's north end upper deck opened for the 1996 season, there have been crowds in excess of 100,000 fans streaming through the gates game after game, with precious few exceptions.

More than 28 million fans have done so since the late 1940s, back in Gunther's day.

For the city of Knoxville and the Tennessee football program, it has indeed been a "rocky road to glory." There have been good days and bad days, ups and downs, for the Vol program and for the city itself.

The unknown 1926 sportswriter who coined the term is still unknown.

Neyland probably had no idea what kind of impact the Vols would have on the local community over the years, but there are monuments to his influence on the campus and the neighboring area.

There are no monuments to John Gunther, the idea of "out of sight, out of mind" being the apparent attitude of city leaders and residents.

That's probably the way it should be.

Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). Send comments to tjmshm@comcast.net. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian."

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Comments » 4

ajbake writes:

"Where else can you consistently find more than 100,000 people at one venue for an American sporting event?"

...the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

gwdun#212337 writes:

When I was at school at UTK in the early 70s I loved UT but thought that Knoxville, particulary the downtown, was awful. I was there with my wife in late July for the Quilt show. I was absolutely amazed at the turn around in the downtown. I especially liked the way that the downtown had been made appealing for students and accessible via trolleys from the campus and nice walkways from the Ft. Sanders area. Great job by UT and city planners!

doubledown writes:

in response to ajbake:

"Where else can you consistently find more than 100,000 people at one venue for an American sporting event?"

...the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Bristol 500 with over 100,000 and the Daytona 500 with 180,000

mattingly writes:

in response to ptpongst#364694:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

There are those on the KNS board who "pick a fight" with FDR, and he's been gone longer than John Gunther. There's really no fight with Gunther, just an explanation of the way Knoxville responded to his criticism. There are others on KNS boards who "pick a fight" with Charles Darwin. It's all fair comment. What part of being a historian do folks not understand? By the way, one man's "junk" is another man's treasure.

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