Remembering General Neyland 50 Years Later

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - by John Shearer
March 28, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of former Tennessee football coach Gen. Robert Neyland, whose West Point-developed style of disciplined football produced an impressive 173-31-12 record.

At about 11:30 a.m. EST on that day in 1962, the Volunteer State legend succumbed in a New Orleans hospital to a liver and kidney ailment that had forced him to retire from coaching after the 1952 season.

A condition that some believe may have been initially caused by malaria or some other disorder he contracted during an international assignment with the U.S. Army had forced him to spend several weeks at the well-known and pioneering Ochsner Foundation Hospital in Louisiana.

His death resulted in a collective feeling of sadness throughout the state, especially at the University of Tennessee, where the flag at landmark Ayres Hall on the Hill was flown at half-staff.

The body of the 70-year-old former coach was flown to the Knoxville airport the next day, news reports said, with the coach’s wife, Peggy, and his two sons, Bob and Lewis, aboard the Navy plane.

The family then received numerous friends that night at the Rose funeral home’s North Broadway chapel in Knoxville.

At the coach’s request, the funeral was kept simple. Only about 400 could fit into the funeral home chapel the next day, with Gov. Buford Ellington, UT President Andy Holt and current coach Bowden Wyatt among the mourners. Officiating was the Rev. David Babin of St. John’s Cathedral, the downtown Knoxville Episcopal church that the coach attended.

Additional people paying respects also greeted the burial procession a short distance away at the small National Cemetery in North Knoxville.

Many Chattanoogans were among those mourning from afar. In a story announcing his death, sports writer George Short of the Chattanooga Times quoted or referenced several Chattanoogans who had known Gen. Neyland.

Among them was then-Lovemans department store executive Dick Moore, who had been on the UT athletic council and served as a school trustee.

“To me, Gen. Neyland was Mr. Tennessee Football. I personally am deeply saddened,” he said.

Former Neyland players Pryor Bacon, Carl Hubbuch and Doe Silberman from Chattanooga also recalled him fondly in the paper.

Some had also continued to keep up with him closely.

“I was supposed to fly the general on a fishing trip to Mexico this summer,” Mr. Bacon said. “We often flew and fished together.”

Former Baylor School football coach “Humpy” Heywood, who worked with Gen. Neyland’s two sons when they attended Baylor as boarding students, recalled that the Tennessee coach had asked him to scout opponents in 1948, when most of Baylor’s football season was canceled due to a polio outbreak.

“He was the most forceful individual I’ve ever known,” recalled Coach Heywood, who had a successful stint as well at Baylor. “Nothing about him included compromise – and he was normally right.”

While plenty of the articles in the Chattanooga and Knoxville newspapers following his death talked about all his great teams from his first year in 1926 until his last in 1952, one story interestingly talked about the coach’s life after he retired from coaching but stayed on as athletic director.

Red Bailes of the Knoxville News Sentinel remembered that Gen. Neyland rarely missed a Tennessee practice even after he had retired, although he was careful not to get in the way of Coach Bowden Wyatt or be quoted for the record on behalf of the team.

Mr. Bailes remembered that Gen. Neyland would take a stack of newspapers to the Hudson practice fields to read during lulls. He would also regularly play a joke on trainer and former Chattanoogan Mickey O’Brien, who was a close friend.

Coach Neyland also had a private cooler of Coca-Cola drinks he would regularly share with others in the practice field bleachers on a hot day, Mr. Bailes recalled, and he would use a stopwatch to time various punts or passes, even in retirement.

Although Gen. Neyland spent part of his retirement time in Sarasota, Fla., he still managed to draw attention wherever he was, even though he was considered low key and cared little for public speaking, writing newspaper columns, etc.

Out of curiosity, I tried to pinpoint some of the old places where the general set foot during his time in Knoxville as well as when he lived in Chattanooga briefly in the early 1930s while assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers.

According to UT campus historian Betsey Creekmore, the Tennessee team when Gen. Neyland first arrived in 1925 as an assistant coach and Army ROTC instructor did all its practicing on Shields-Watkins Field, which had opened in 1921.

The building where Gen. Neyland taught military classes in the 1920s was Reese Hall, which was later torn down for an addition to the Hesler biology building on the Hill. Ms. Creekmore said his coaching office at that time was in the old gymnasium, which was torn down to make way for what is now known as the Alumni Memorial Building.

When Gen. Neyland and his wife first came to Knoxville, they lived briefly in a now-razed house at 617 19th St., where the Fort Sanders medical complex near the Strip is today.

However, for several years beginning in the 1920s, they lived at 2111 Terrace Ave., just below the current UT varsity tennis courts. Gen. Neyland’s fellow assistants Paul Parker and Bill Britton – who had been classmates at West Point -- also lived on the west side of him in separate houses.

The Neyland and Parker houses are still standing, with the Neyland home sitting inconspicuously now as the UT environmental health and safety facility.

According to some old Knoxville city directories, Gen. Neyland and his wife in the early 1930s lived at 704 17th St. and later Apartment 14 of 400 17th St., both in the Fort Sanders area of town.

A short time before serving in the Panama Canal Zone and having Coach Britton fill in for him as head coach for the 1935 season, Gen. Neyland spent plenty of time in Chattanooga with the Corps of Engineers. He had an office in the Volunteer Building, and lived in an unknown residence on West Brow Road on Lookout Mountain and later at 305 E. Brow Road, according to old Chattanooga city directories.

After returning from Panama, the family lived during the late 1930s and early 1940s in a home at an unknown address on Sherwood Drive a few miles west of the UT campus, not far from what is now Lakeshore Park.

After being gone overseas during World War II, he returned as head coach and the family lived in Apartment A at 1443 Kenesaw Ave. in the upscale Sequoyah Hills area of West Knoxville. A short time earlier, noted actress Patricia Neal had lived in the same apartment complex as a teenager.

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s – when Gen. Neyland capped off his career with a 1951 regular season national championship -- the family lived in Apartment 4 of the Reed Apartments at what is now 3039 Kingston Pike – less than a mile west of the UT campus.

Gen. Neyland must not have cared for spacious living, because beginning in the mid-1950s, he and his wife moved a little closer to campus to another apartment facility at 2633 Kingston Pike. It was across from the north end of a street that now has a familiar name – Neyland Drive.

His name had already been attached to a street and a few months after his death it would be attached to another facility – Neyland Stadium.

And in the 50 years that have passed since his death, his name has continued to be associated with discipline, hard work, organization, success and character.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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