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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,282

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This is the grave of Robert Neyland.

Born in 1892 in Greeneville, Texas, Neyland was a football star with military ambitions. He moved around a bit as a college player, climbing the latter. He went to a junior college for a year, then transferred to Texas A&M, and then he got Sam Rayburn to recommend him to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. While at Army, he starred in football, boxing, and baseball. In fact, he was so good at baseball that the New York Giants tried to sign him, but he decided he would rather coach football. That’s an interesting choice in the sense that there wasn’t really professional football at this time, so he had to stop playing after he graduated. But that was his choice and he made it. He was also obligated to Army service of course and since he graduated in 1916, he was going to have some work to do. With the U.S. joining World War I in 1917, he was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in France. He was very popular with the elites. After the war, he did a graduate degree in engineering at MIT and then returned to West Point as Douglas MacArthur‘s aide-de-camp.

Neyland had other jobs than MacArthur’s personal lackey though. He had some football to coach. Remember that this is the era where high ranking officers took sports very seriously and very personally. It was their boys against those other bastards. James Jones’ great novel From Here to Eternity uses this as its central plot point, with its main character refusing to box any longer after killing a guy in the ring and infuriating his officers due to that. MacArthur was definitely that kind of guy. So he was an Army assistant from 1919 to 1924, developing his core defensive principles that would make his brand of football famous.

In 1925, Neyland left Army to become an assistant at Tennessee while also being a professor of Military Science, everyone’s favorite major. The next year, he became head coach. He would spend the rest of his career in Knoxville, becoming the all-time legend of football there, which is saying a lot for that football crazy fanbase. I know that’s a high bar too when Peyton Manning is your most famous quarterback, but the overall impact on Tennessee football is a lot greater for Neyland. Neyland was a defensive master, one whose standard operating procedure was to demand that the other team not score. The man won 173 games in his career at Tennessee and 112 of them were shutouts. So yeah. Of course, a lot of that was the era of just running it into the middle of the line over and over again. Shutouts were far from uncommon. But still, that’s just ridiculous.

Neyland was still in the Reserves at this time too. So he was head coach from 1926-34, during which he had a mere five undefeated seasons. He made Tennessee football. At one point, his teams won 33 straight games. There was also a 28 game winning streak in there. Then, in 1934, the Army gave him a call and told him to report for duty in Panama. So he missed the 1935 season while serving in the Canal Zone.

Neyland came back in 1936 and took the team back over. No issues there. More domination. At another point, 17 straight shutouts!!!! In 1939, the Vols did not give up a single point all season (!!!) until the Rose Bowl, when USC scored and shut them out. He was also athletic director by this time. National champion? Well, it wasn’t as official then as now, but they were named national champions by various organizations at times. Generally put though, the Vols are considered to be the national champions for both 1938 and 1940.

In 1941, Neyland was called back up and would be in the military throughout the war. At first, he was coaching exhibition games to raise funds and awareness for the war effort, but this was World War II and he was needed for real. He was in Burma as part of getting supplies to China over the hump, using his engineering skills this way. He was under General Joe Stillwell here and did very well, winning many awards, including the Legion of Merit and the Order of the British Empire. In fact, by the time he retired again in 1946, he was a brigadier general.

In 1946, Neyland came back to the Vols, both as coach and athletic director. The game had changed some and his first teams were not very good. A lot of people thought he might be past his prime. This was the era of the T formation and Neyland stuck with the boring old single wing that defined pre-war football. But while he refused to change his offense or anything really, he was a very good coach and got the team back to the top, winning the national title in 1950 and again in 1951. That last one was the only time they were considered the undisputed national champion. He was an interesting guy in that he shunned all publicity, refused to appear in ads, write books, give speeches, or do anything to make extra money or promote himself.

Neyland decided to step away from coaching in 1952. By this time, people were passing and stuff. Can’t have that. Plenty of fans were complaining about his single-wing offense too, saying how boring the games were. He suggested they look at his record, which is true, but still, it is a game and people want to be entertained. He did stay on as athletic director and focused on expanding the school’s stadium. This is today Neyland Stadium with its 105,000 seats. He was there as it expanded to about 44,000 seats. It’s quite a scene when the Vols are good. I saw two games there when I lived there in the late 90s. The first was in Manning’s last season where they destroyed a reasonably OK Texas Tech team.

The second was in 1998, one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever seen live. This was when Tee Martin was QB (Vols fans never really were quite comfortable with the fact that the Black QB led them to the title after years of their hero Peyton falling short). They were playing Florida. This was when the Gators were at their height. Steve Spurrier not only pounded Tennessee routinely, but he was openly contemptuous of the Vols (despite having been a legendary high school QB in east Tennessee before winning the Heisman with Florida in the 60s) and made fun of them in the media (“You can’t spell Citrus without UT” was the ultimate classic, a reminder that Tennessee could never get to a top bowl because they lost to Florida every year). Well, the Gators were ranked 2nd and the Vols 6th. This time, in an amazing overtime game, Tennessee won 20-17 and the crowd went so crazy after five straight brutal losses that fans were tearing up chunks of turf as souvenirs. Just to give you a sense of how intense this rivalry was at the time, the two teams were both ranked in every single meeting between 1985 and 2007, though in those early years they didn’t play that often. Then Tennessee completely collapsed as a program and the Gators beat them 11 times in a row, no doubt causing Neyland to roll over in his grave.

Speaking of our subject today, Neyland died in 1962 while in New Orleans. He was 70 years old. He was AD to the end. He had suffered from liver and kidney problems for years and was the reason he had stepped away from coaching a decade earlier.

Robert Neyland is buried in Knoxville National Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other college football coaches, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Neyland ended his career with 173 wins. Today, that puts him 40th on the all time wins list. Dan Devine, the Missouri, Arizona State, and Notre Dame coach who has 172 wins, is in Phoenix. Long-time Auburn coach Ralph Jordan, who has 175 wins, is in Auburn, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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