Fifty years ago today, Gen. Robert R. Neyland became a legend.
He already was nationally known on a number of fronts: Tennessee football coach, U.S. Army military leader, NCAA football rules committee chair and Vols director of athletics. But when he died March 28, 1962, in a New Orleans hospital at age 70, Neyland’s legacy reached another level, especially for the University of Tennessee family.
In February of that year, as he was observing his final birthday, Neyland learned that the UT Trustees had voted to rename the football stadium in his honor. He was said to be very pleased by the gesture.
“He was in the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans, a specialist facility,” remembered Gus Manning, former Neyland aide and longtime Tennessee athletics department administrator. “I went down with (head coach) Bowden Wyatt to see him. The entire family was there.”
Two days after he died of liver cancer, Neyland was buried in the Knoxville National Cemetery just west of the intersection of North Broadway and North Central streets.
Today, the Neyland name remains synonymous with Tennessee football, championships and overall excellence from the winningest coach in school history. Neyland not only graces the iconic 100,000-seat stadium he helped design, but the Neyland scholarship is one of UT’s most prestigious academic honors.
“He was brilliant,” Manning said of his mentor. “He was an innovator. He probably was the smartest guy I’ve been associated with in my lifetime at Tennessee.”
But just in case Tennessee fans don’t know enough about the man who means so much in Big Orange Country, the following are 50 facts on this 50th anniversary of Gen. Neyland’s death.
“I tried to get myself an ROTC job where I could do a little football coaching and experiment and see whether or not there was any sense to what I had dreamed up. That’s actually how I got interested in it, and just like anything else you get your teeth into, you don’t seem to be able to let go.”
-- Gen. Neyland on his start to coaching
50 Facts on the 50th Anniversary
1. Neyland’s wife, Ada Fitch “Peg” Neyland, told this story on the correct pronunciation of the family name. She stood on one leg, patted her knee and said it’s “KNEE-land, like my knee.”
2. Neyland finished his Tennessee coaching career with 173 wins, 31 losses and 12 ties, for an .829 winning percentage.
3. When he retired from coaching after the 1952 season, Neyland ranked first on the all-time winning percentage list of any man in modern major college football history with at least 20 years in the business.
4. Neyland preached readiness, maintaining that, “Almost all close games are lost by the losers, not won by the winners.”
5. Of his 216 games coached, the Vols shut out their opponents 109 times.
6. From 1938 to 1940, his teams recorded an amazing 17 consecutive regular season shutouts.
7. In the 1939 regular season, Tennessee outscored its opposition 212-0. The Vols are the last major college football program to shut out every regular season opponent.
8. Neyland coached the Vols to six undefeated seasons, nine undefeated regular seasons, seven conference championships and four national championships.
9. He reeled off undefeated streaks of 33, 28, 23, 19 and 14 games.
10. Neyland coached 21 Vols to first-team All-America honors. Eleven of those players went on to the College Football Hall of Fame.
11. At one time, more than 175 former Neyland players were active head coaches in the United States and Canada.
12. Neyland’s starting assistant coaching salary at UT in his first year of 1925 was $750. Factor inflation and that translates to approximately $9,757 in 2012.
13. Neyland was born Feb. 17, 1892, in Greenville, Texas, northeast of Dallas.
14. After high school, Neyland passes his teaching certification test and became a substitute teacher at age 17 earning $75 per month.
15. He then attended Burleson College and Texas A&M University before gaining an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Neyland’s father, a lawyer, begged his son to go to law school instead but the younger Neyland had no interest in that career path.
16. Neyland was a superb student-athlete. He won 35 games (20 consecutive) pitching for Army, was a starting end on the Cadets’ 1914 national championship football team and was the academy’s heavyweight boxing champion his final three years.
17. Neyland was Army’s first baseman in 1913 when the team’s ace pitcher pulled a muscle that ended his career. Former Vols football captain Sammy Strang (known as Strang Nicklin during his college days) coached the Cadet nine and called a meeting to proclaim Neyland the team’s new starting pitcher. Strang told Neyland to give his first baseman’s mitt to his teammate – future four-star general Omar Bradley.
18. In his first outing, Neyland struck out 12 in beating NYU, 2-1. Later in front of a crowd of 15,000, Neyland was the pitching and hitting star in Army’s 2-1 win over Navy. His outstanding performance excused Neyland from “hell-week” activities normally assigned to West Point plebes.
19. During a 1915 game against Syracuse, Army trailed by one and had a runner at third with one out. Strang decided to replace Bradley, a .385 hitter, with Neyland, who promptly grounded to third and the runner was thrown out at home. Neyland then was picked off first for the final out. Afterward, Bradley confronted Neyland and said, “Well I think I could have done as good as that.” Neyland replied, “Well Brad, it wasn’t my idea in the first place.”
20. Neyland graduated from the Academy in 1916.
21. He was recruited to play professional baseball by the New York Giants, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics, but instead went to World War I as soon as he graduated and served in France.
22. Neyland later served on the U.S.-Mexican border in pursuit of Pancho Villa, and in India and China during World War II.
23. By the age of 27, Neyland was one of the youngest regimental commanders in the U.S. Army.
24. But when the New York Times reported that fact, Neyland almost immediately was demoted to captain. Brig. Gen. Douglas McArthur faced a similar situation but accepted the superintendency at West Point to avoid being demoted to major. When Neyland protested his demotion, Neyland’s successor rewarded him with a below satisfactory rating and had him shipped off to MIT for one year of postgraduate studies in civil engineering. Which led to the future of Neyland Stadium and its design.
25. Neyland arrived in Knoxville when the UT football site, Shields-Watkins Field, seated only 3,200. By the time of his death in 1962, the stadium seated more than 51,000 and Neyland had developed architectural plans for its eventual growth to more than 100,000. Those dreams became reality in 1996.
26. The name Neyland Stadium was dedicated in Gen. Neyland’s honor on Oct. 20, 1962.
27. An assistant coach back at Army in the 1920s, Neyland was recommended for the Tennessee assistant’s job – and ROTC post – by Bucknell University head coach Charley Moran, who had played at Tennessee and coached Neyland at Texas A&M.
28. The new assistant Neyland made his presence felt that first UT season of 1925 when he filled in one game for head coach M.B. Banks, who was sick. Neyland led the Vols to a 12-7 home win over Georgia. Newspapers proclaimed it the biggest upset of the year in the South. Banks left that December for the head coaching job at Knoxville Central High School, and Neyland was promoted to Tennessee head coach.
29. Neyland came to UT as a U.S. Army captain. On Sept. 20, 1926, six days before his first game as a college head coach, Neyland was promoted to the grade of Major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
30. Before Neyland, 10 head football coaches had been hired and fired at Tennessee between 1900 and 1925, their principal failing being the inability to field teams that could beat Vanderbilt.
31. UT Dean Nathan W. Dougherty made the final decision to promote Neyland, telling his new coach to “even the score with Vanderbilt.” He did just that and more.
32. The Commodores led 17-2-2 in the series against Tennessee when Neyland took charge. Vandy won 20-3 in Nashville that first year against Neyland, but the Vols are 71-9-3 against their state rival since 1927.
33. In Neyland’s first four seasons as Tennessee head coach, UT was 34-1-3. Over his first seven seasons, the Vols were 61-2-5.
34. Neyland was a voracious reader while learning the game of football. Among his favorite authors (and their books) were Pop Warner (A Course in Football for Players and Coaches), John Heisman and Grantland Rice (Principles of Football; and Understanding Football), Walter Camp (The Spalding Guide) and Knute Rockne (Coaching; and Coaching, the Way of the Winner).
35. Neyland was the first coach in the South to use press box-to-sideline phones. He was the first anywhere to use game films for evaluation, lightweight tear-away jerseys, low-top shoes and lightweight hip pads to enhance speed. He also came up with a canvas tarp to protect the field.
36. Neyland developed 38 “team maxims” from different sources over the years that he referenced from time to time. The seven Game Maxims still used by Tennessee teams today were his favorites.
37. Twice Neyland’s UT coaching career was interrupted by military service. He served in 1935 at the Panama Canal Zone, and then during the Second World War from 1941-45.
38. He was recalled to active duty in advance of World War II in May 1941, to Norfolk, Va. While stationed there, Neyland was promoted first to lieutenant colonel and then, in July 1942, to full colonel. Later commands during the war years took him to Dallas; Kunming, China; and Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Neyland received his final promotion to brigadier general on Nov. 10, 1944, when he was transferred to India.
39. His highest salary as head coach was believed to be $20,000, or approximately $204,182 in 2012 dollars.
40. Hall of fame broadcaster Lindsey Nelson and Knoxville ad executive Edwin Huster Sr., helped form UT’s first radio network. Nelson thought it should be called the Volunteer Network and approached Neyland with his idea. Neyland had the ultimate veto power and said, “Let’s call it the Vol Network.” Nelson immediately replied, “Yes, sir. Let’s call it the Vol Network.”
41. Neyland offered his opinions throughout the athletics department. Those comments reportedly included advice for groundskeeper John “Dean” Hoskins about the shape of the football playing surface. One such critique came during a year in which the Vols were struggling to score. Hoskins listened to Neyland and then replied, “The field is in much better shape than your team,” and went on about his business.
42. Even after his active coaching days were through, Neyland always carried a stopwatch to make sure passers and punters were getting rid of the ball within prescribed time limits.
43. At the Neyland Testimonial Dinner, held Aug. 18, 1953, to celebrate the end of his coaching career, Neyland concluded his speech with the words of his former chief, Gen. MacArthur, saying they applied to every campus where football is played: “There on the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which on other days will yield the fruits of victory.”
44. President Eisenhower also was a classmate and teammate of Neyland’s at West Point.
45. Neyland remembered seeing Eisenhower daily but did not have a close friendship with him. When Eisenhower was campaigning for president in Knoxville, he reportedly told the crowd he had a “friend of long standing” in Gen. Neyland. The crowd applauded this statement for five straight minutes despite Neyland not being in attendance.
46. Neyland’s grandfather, Robert Reese Neyland, was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army who was killed in 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh in West Tennessee.
47. Neyland served as chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee from the mid-1950s until his death.
48. Neyland was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956.
49. The Neyland Statue was dedicated Nov. 12, 2010. The 9-foot-tall, nearly 1,500-pound bronze memorial sits between gates 15A and 17 on the west side of Neyland Stadium.
50. Hall of famer Bear Bryant never defeated a Neyland-coached team, and was said to have muttered at Neyland’s retirement banquet, “Thank God the old guy finally quit.”
(Ed. Note – These Neyland facts and figures were available thanks mainly to the historical research of the following individuals: Bob Gilbert and his book, Neyland: The Gridiron General; Andy Kozar and his book, Football as a War Game – The Annotated Journals of General R.R. Neyland; Haywood Harris and Gus Manning and their classic book, Six Seasons Remembered – The National Championship Years of Tennessee Football; and Tom Mattingly, Knoxville News Sentinel historian, for his efforts in compiling Neyland tidbits through the years that remain in the Tennessee football vernacular.)