When the University of Tennessee Vols reach the end of their traditional Vol Walk before today's homecoming game, they will be greeted for the first time by the man who put the program on the map - Brig. Gen. Robert Neyland.
On Friday, the University of Tennessee unveiled a statue of Neyland, who became the Vols' head coach in 1926 - a position he held for 21 seasons with two interruptions for military service - and made the Vols the winningest team in the nation during his run.
Helping to unveil the statue, which was installed but remained covered since Wednesday evening, was Neyland's son Robert Neyland Jr.
"The Neyland family is experiencing a lot of emotion at this time, including pride and joy. But most of all the strongest emotion is gratitude," Neyland Jr. said.
He said the statue, which is double life-sized, stands 9 feet tall and weighs about 1,500 pounds, reminded him of when he and his brother, Lewis, misbehaved as children.
"When we did, we incurred Dad's discipline. Now as I look at that statue I think that when we did ... to us he was every bit as big," he said.
Gen. Neyland, who was known for his discipline on and off the field, had nine undefeated teams in 21 seasons, took the Vols to seven bowl games, won seven Southern Conference titles and one national championship and turned out more football proteges than any other coach. His record was 173 wins, 31 losses and 12 ties.
When he retired in 1952, he became UT's athletic director, the position he still held at the time of his death in 1962.
Neyland's statue, which resides at the stadium that bears his name between gates 15A and 17, was constructed by artist Blair Buswell and depicts Neyland in a kneeling position. Its concrete base features his famous seven game maxims engraved into the sides. It cost $385,000.
UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said the detail Buswell put into the statue produced the right representation of Neyland. Of the $125 million spent on stadium renovations to date, he added, the statue was the cherry on the top of the project.
"To me this was one of the most important pieces, to recognize the man whose name is on the stadium, and to have it done in such a professional and beautiful way is inspiring to all of us," Hamilton said.
Surrounding the statue as it was unveiled were students, Vols fans and some of Neyland's former players, including many from the 1951 championship team.
"I'm a little scared standing in front of him. I'm afraid he might jump out of it," said Jim Haslam, who played for Neyland, with a chuckle. "I tell you if Gen. Neyland were still here today, I'd still be nervous. It's a wonderful replica of the man who is Tennesee football."
Hank Lauricella, who played for Neyland for four seasons and was a Heisman Trophy runner-up, said the statue is a good resemblance of his former coach.
"It does the job. You know it's not him, but it's close enough that all you have to do is look at it and you say, 'That's him,' " he said. "It's thrilling to know that it's not going to be pictures anymore; it's going to be something for generations and generations. It's there for good now."
While the day centered on Neyland's accomplishments on the football field, Army Master Sgt. Mike Dougherty, UT's senior military instructor, was thinking about the general's service to his country.
A 1916 graduate of West Point, Neyland served in France during World War I. Following the war, he served as an aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
After nine seasons coaching the Vols, Neyland was dispatched by the Army to the Panama Canal Zone in 1935.
A year later he retired from the Army and returned to Knoxville to coach the football team.
In 1941, with the U.S. involved in World War II, Neyland was called back into service. He spent the war years in Norfolk, Va., Dallas, China and India, rising to the rank of brigadier general. He returned to the Vols in 1946.
"He's one of us. He started off as an ROTC instructor, so anything dealing with Gen. Neyland is important to us because it's part our history, part of our lineage," Dougherty said.
Dougherty said he believes part of Neyland's success on the football field came from his military background. Having a statue of Neyland on campus, he said, personalizes the man for whom the stadium was named.
"I think the civilians, who don't have that military background, now they get an idea of who the individual is and what this is all about," he said. "If anything it'll drive them to learn a little bit more about what he was."
Lydia X. McCoy may be reached at 865-342-6250.