As the powers-that-be talk about a new and improved Neyland Stadium for the 2010 season and beyond, fans seeking perspective might want to think back to an earlier day, when a much-smaller Shields-Watkins Field first opened for Tennessee football games.
That was Saturday, Sept. 24, 1921, nearly 90 years ago, when Tennessee played its first game in the new arena, sometimes referred to in the early days as Shields-Watkins Stadium or The Shields-Watkins Field. Emory & Henry helped christen the new arena.
The new field was located on 15th Street (as it was known then, since then as Stadium Drive and now Phillip Fulmer Way) a block or so south of the team's previous home on Wait Field. That venue was too small and was replete with "rocks and hard places," said Roy "Pap" Striegel, captain of the 1922 team and the man who convinced Banks to outfit the team in orange jerseys that season.
The stadium's name came from its benefactors, Knoxville banker and Grainger County native Col. William S. Shields and his wife, Alice Watkins Shields.
The field had its beginnings in 1912 when University Realty was formed. The company held an option on seven acres of land until the university could complete the purchase and develop a "physical education-athletic field."
As of 1917, financing had not been completed and contributions were solicited from the community. Checks averaging $10 were received, and UT students pledged $2000 in cash and 2000 days labor.
In 1919, Col. Shields, a new member of the school's board of trustees, donated $22,453, a figure matched by the University, for the seven-acre tract of land. The field area included a large ravine that Dean Nathan Washington Dougherty ordered filled with dirt during the construction of Ayres Hall.
Tennessee authors Barry Parker and Robin Hood ("Neyland: Life of a Stadium") called the area "a forlorn sight: an unmarked, upgraded expanse of mounds and gullies that turns into a quagmire in the rain."
According to a University of Tennessee history ("To Foster Knowledge, A History of the University of Tennessee, 1794-1970") penned by James Riley Montgomery, Stanley John Folmsbee, and Lee Seifert Greene, Col. Shields contributed more than $40,000 for the field, equivalent to a nearly $500,000 ($475,563.79) contribution today.
That figure included two other parcels Col. Shields bought on the west side of the field at Dougherty's "suggestion."
There was a "Campus Day," sometimes called a "Field Day," held March 16, 1921, to prepare the field.
"I remember that Dr. H.A. Morgan, the university president, called a student holiday so that the student body and faculty could pitch in and help complete the field," Striegel said.
"There was everybody out there working, and right beside us was Dean James D. Hoskins, who later became the university president."
It was quite an effort to get the field ready.
"Students in the home economics department prepared lunch," Montgomery and colleagues wrote. "Students ('practically unanimously') volunteered to work eight hours. Sophomore surveying classes laid out the track, the diamond, and other features.
"Ditch digging became a competition, with a prize awarded 'in the 100-yard ditch-digging contest.' "
The whole process ended up taking two days, allowing a baseball game to be played March 19 against Cincinnati University. Shields threw the first pitch that day to president Morgan, who promptly whiffed. The Vol baseballers lost, 7-6.
Later, a crown of additional dirt and a "strong stand of Bermuda grass" were added to the field.
The capacity of the new stadium was 3,200, all on the west side, but considerably fewer showed up for the opener, as a crowd estimated at 1,200 watched under a persistent drizzle, the Vols finally winning 27-0.
A 21-point third quarter proved decisive as Coach M.B. Banks cleared the bench. Rufe Clayton scored the first TD in the new stadium on an 11-yard run. A reporter named H.I. Leyshon had the game story byline.
The Vols finished 6-2-1 and, in four home games, did not give up a point. Even in those days, defense ruled.
Carson-Newman earned the first opponent points on the new field, but that was in the second game of the 1922 season. The Vols won a total of eight in a row on the new home field in 1921 and 1922, before Vanderbilt took a 14-6 victory on Nov. 4, 1922.
The stadium has grown steadily from these humble beginnings, with a capacity of more than 100,000, but these early days helped establish the program and what it has become over the years.
"If you build it, they'll come," was the famed line from the movie "Field of Dreams."
Over the years, as the stadium has been expanded, fans have come from every nook and cranny of Tennessee, and from as far and wide as the expanse known as "Big Orange Country" will allow.
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). His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian." Send comments to email@example.com.