It’s Football History Time in Tennessee!
This week, local historian extraordinaire Jack Neely and our editor, J.J. Stambaugh, take a look at the humble origins of Volunteer football and how it evolved into the Big Orange Machine we know today.
The University of Tennessee has fielded a football team since 1891, when it played a single game against the University of the South at Sewanee and lost 24-0.
Since then, the Vols have evolved into a national powerhouse and come to be celebrated, it seems, by nearly all the people of East Tennessee, even those who have never set foot on the UT campus. It’s arguably the most revered institution of any kind in the region, so much so that bright orange gear is a universal fashion statement from Johnson City to Chattanooga.
The statistics convey something of the Vols’ tumultuous 130-year history. Their record stands today at an impressive 853 wins, 404 losses, and 53 ties. It also includes six national championships, 13 Southeastern Conference championships, two Southern Conference championships and one Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.
But the statistics, as always, only tell part of the story.
As hard as it may be to imagine, there was a time when your average UT student would have looked at you funny if you showed up for class at Ayers Hall wearing the color orange, and none of them would have known what you meant if you spoke the word “football.”
That antediluvian age of yore is as good a time as any to begin this discussion…
J.J. Stambaugh: When did people in Knoxville first hear about football? Was it fairly similar to the version of football we know today?
Jack Neely: The American reading public all heard about “football” at about the same time, and it has to do with a guy who had an interesting connection to East Tennessee.
In 1857, a British statesman named Thomas Hughes released a novel called Tom Brown’s School Days, which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It was kind of like a British Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and was a partly nostalgic story about a newcomer at the Rugby prep school in England. One whole chapter is about what he called “football.” It employs a whole lot of the terms and concepts of modern football like kickoff, goalpost, scrimmage, offsides, and punt. But what he described was, of course, more like rugby than American football.
Hughes was also a Member of Parliament who himself became part of East Tennessee history several years later when he founded Rugby, Tenn., as a sort of utopian refuge for the unlanded gentry who felt they weren’t living the life they deserved at home. His American attorney was Oliver Perry Temple, who lived in Knoxville and was an influential University of Tennessee trustee, among other things.
Hughes spent a few days here in 1880, and was treated like royalty—mainly, I gather, because most of Knoxville’s big shots had grown up on his book and wanted to meet the author. He was the guest of honor at a fancy luncheon at the Cowan mansion on Cumberland Avenue—of which only the “gardener’s cottage” at 16th and White survives.
At that luncheon, a copy of his novel with the football chapter was placed on a pedestal as part of the décor. He met with several of UT’s movers and shakers, including the school’s then-president, Thomas Humes, and some prominent trustees, like Perez Dickinson, who also hosted a fete for Hughes.
Although the sport Hughes described was more like rugby than American football, so were the earliest examples of American football as it had evolved up north in the old eastern schools.
I can’t tell if there was a lot of specific discussion of football in Knoxville at the time of Hughes’ visit in 1880, but there are a few mentions of “football clubs” on the Hill later in the 1880s. There are also stories of Irish immigrants playing their own form of rugby in old Irish Town, downtown near Depot and Central. Our football evolved and differentiated itself a lot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But the first to really promote an organized modern football team in the area was, strange as it may seem, a Japanese student at Maryville College. His name was Kin Takahashi. He had picked up American football during a stay in the (San Francisco) Bay area, and he introduced it at Maryville College around 1888. Within a couple of years, there were teams in both Knoxville and Harriman, which had a lot of northern influence — though references to them are pretty vague.
J.J.: What were the most popular sports at the time?
Jack: Before the Civil War, Knoxvillians enjoyed mainly horse racing and some blood sports like cockfighting. Bowling had also caught on in the 1850s and had a strong following here, especially among German immigrants.
After about 1867, though, Knoxville was a baseball town. Baseball remained the city’s most popular sport until probably the late 1920s. Although baseball remained popular, football overtook it during the Neyland era.
J.J.: When did UT first field a football team? Where did they play? Were they a member of a conference like they are today, and what teams did they play against?
Jack: UT began playing in 1891, albeit not much at first. They played pretty casually, I gather — no conference, no coach, and they sometimes even included faculty on the team.
On November 21 of that first year, they traveled to Chattanooga to play Sewanee, which was one of the first truly competitive teams in the region. The Vols lost 24-0.
Maryville College was a frequent opponent in the early years, since they had the first team in the area. The Vols played seven games the following year, although they played some teams twice, such as Vanderbilt and Sewanee.
Vanderbilt and Sewanee always won in those days, but maybe it was a learning experience. UT did beat Maryville College and an athletic club out of Chattanooga. It’s hard to compare their early years to anything that came after because they often played against makeshift teams, military bases, the YMCA, or even obscure prep schools. Once I think they even played against a church. Toward the end of that first decade, though, they had joined the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and by 1899 they were mostly playing a schedule of real colleges.
J.J.: Who were some of our first football stars? What kinds of personal stories did they have?
Jack: Knoxville’s first football star wasn’t even at UT. His name was Lee McClung, and he played for Yale. He was a son of the guy for whom UT’s McClung Museum is named, but a lot of the wealthier families sent their sons to the Ivy League.
Yale was the national champion team in those days, and Lee McClung of Knoxville was its captain. He scored more than 1,000 points in his time at Yale, and earned some national press. The San Francisco Examiner called him “one of the greatest football players the world has ever known.” He did some coaching and training out west, then came back home for a while. Later in life, he was U.S. Treasurer. His name now appears on currency.
One of UT’s earliest football stars was Nathan Dougherty, who caused some excitement around 1908, leading a team that did better than most in UT’s first 35 years of football. Later, as an engineering professor on the Hill, he would have a major influence on UT athletics as an administrator.
J.J.: Where did some of names and traditions originate from? For instance, why is UT’s color orange?
Jack: It’s long been said that it was inspired by the daisies growing on the Hill. The original orange was nothing like the day-glo psychedelic orange of our ponchos today.
J.J.: Why are they called the Volunteers?
Jack: That’s a pretty easy one. Tennessee was the Volunteer State, named for volunteers in wartime. Supposedly it goes back to the War of 1812, or even earlier. It was definitely in currency by the 1830s.
J.J.: When did UT first become recognized as a nationally known program?
Jack: That didn’t happen until the Neyland years.
Major Robert Neyland, recruited from West Point in 1925, was so unusual, emphasizing defense over offense, that he got some national press for his unusual approach to the game in the late ‘20s. He accomplished amazing things, especially in terms of shutting out the other team with his defensive strategy. But the Vols suffered some lack of respect for their mostly soft schedules, and for Neyland’s first decade or so they were mainly a regional phenomenon.
It probably wasn’t until 1938, when Neyland’s team included Bob Suffridge, Bowden Wyatt, and George Cafego, that the Vols beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and people started thinking of the Vols as national contenders. In fact, some polls called them the national champs that year.
One of the great freaks of NCAA history was the following season, in 1939, when no team in the regular season scored a single point against the Vols. That got people’s attention.
J.J.: It’s often joked that few of the Vols’ fans ever actually attended college at UT. That’s perhaps unfair, but it does catch an essential truth — the Vols are East Tennessee’s football team, and we lavish the same affection on them that other areas do on their professional teams. How long has that been the case?
Jack: I guess it was around the time that the stadium got bigger than the student body. That was probably true by the late 1920s, more dramatically so by 1940 or so.
I think one of the reasons college football became so popular in the South was that there weren’t major pro teams in Southern cities, in any sport. Back then, even Atlanta didn’t have the Braves yet.
The Vols were undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but to many people, their team became just “Tennessee.” That T was on the helmet, and if you lived in Tennessee, you had a right to be a fan. Of course, some might have been confused when Tennessee played Auburn, because Auburn’s not a state.
J.J.: When was Shield-Watkins Field built? Where did they play before it was built?
Jack: Before Shields-Watkins Field was built, the Vols played on borrowed public spaces, sometimes even in Chilhowee Park. More often, however, they played at Baldwin Park, over near Mechanicsville — I think it was around the area along Dale Avenue where all those soccer fields are today — but by the early 20th century, they were on campus at a place called Wait Field.
It’s a problem when your campus is on a notably steep hill, and some people complained that Wait Field, which was on the northwest foot of the Hill, wasn’t completely level. They also complained that it had rocks, and that the ball would bounce out into Cumberland Avenue whenever somebody kicked a field goal.
By World War I, the infamous Wait Field was a laughingstock and wasn’t even considered a regulation field by conference standards. An effort led by UT administrators —such as Brown Ayres and Harcourt Morgan as well as engineering professors Charles Ferris and Nathan Dougherty, the early Vol hero — got major funding from a local banker, W.S. Shields, and his wife, Alice Watkins Shields.
They bought up a bunch of modest houses near Second Creek, the flattest area near the Hill. It was completed partly as a volunteer effort, with students and faculty helping with the grading, and finished in 1921. It was originally planned to be used for several sports, and in fact the first game played at Shields-Watkins was a baseball game.
J.J.: What would have been the experience of a fan back then when they attended, say, a home game?
Jack: In the earliest days, it was probably something like a church picnic or a minor festival — you’d sit in the grass and enjoy whatever you could see of it. If we could go back to the first days of Shields-Watkins Field, it would probably remind us of a high school game. For five years or so in the early ‘20s, the bleachers held just 3,200 people.
J.J.: Did the construction of Neyland Stadium have a major impact on the city beyond simply allowing more fans to attend games?
Jack: Yes, in both positive and negative ways.
It’s a major monument, something to behold and brag about. Most cities have nothing like it — not even New York City has anything like it.
But it has created a major traffic issue that calls for many more police man-hours and probably highway design and construction that might not have been necessary otherwise. James White Parkway, which occupies hundreds of acres of the central part of town that — before Urban Renewal — was home to hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses, has always seemed underused on a typical business day. Whenever I’ve heard it questioned, someone says, ‘Duh, we need it for game day.’
J.J.: In your estimate, what has the cultural and economic impact of the Vols been?
Jack: It’s been a cultural positive, I think. Game days have been our equivalent of a medieval festival, with jesters and minstrels and dancing girls, and the big tournament. Tailgating makes for sort of a communal feast.
It must serve a need. In the long periods when Knoxville didn’t have any very fun festivals, football must have answered that human need for festivals and tradition.
And there are aspects of it that are unique to Knoxville, or at least unusual. The Vol Navy, for one. The marching band is venerable. Neyland Stadium is one of the very few college stadiums that’s located right on a navigable waterfront, and it highlights the fact that the campus is located in a sort of river peninsula.
Economics is a very complicated calculation that I don’t think anybody has ever really addressed honestly and comprehensively. Fans do pack the hotels and certain restaurants—especially those within half a mile of the stadium. I’ve been told chain restaurants all over town do well on game days. Merchants of orange fan gear do very well. Gas stations also do well, I’m sure.
But for lots of other businesses, game days are something less than a typical Saturday. For businesses within half a mile of the stadium, including many downtown shops and restaurants, football sometimes kills business altogether. People don’t shop for produce at farmers’ markets if they’re on their way to a ball game. Hardware and garden and grocery stores probably don’t do as well.
You can say, well, those people will probably buy what they need on Sunday, instead, so it all evens out. But by that token, you can say that all the money most people spend on hot dogs, hamburgers and beer near the stadium would have been used to buy food and drink in the general area even without a game.
Of course, the best economic impact is when a rank stranger spends money here — like fans of the visiting teams who spend dollars in Knoxville when they wouldn’t even be here otherwise. So the best outcome for Knoxville merchants would be to maximize playing nearby teams with motivated fans like Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Kentucky, who might send several thousand fans this way. And if it’s true that happy winners spend more money, it would be economically important to lose to them.
Another negative impact is that football is perceived to be so overwhelming that it’s difficult to schedule festivals and weddings and concerts in the fall. Planners are always trying to avoid game days, whether they really have to or not. It would seem rather easy to schedule a big event on a Saturday evening when kickoff is at noon, but we never know what time the game’s going to be over until it’s too late.
It’s partly the uncertainty of when the game is going to be played (that detail is sometimes determined by TV programmers on the West Coast) that makes fall Saturdays such a dead zone for anything but football. It wasn’t like that in Neyland’s time, when you could have the biggest game of the year on Saturday afternoon but then still have plenty of unrelated events downtown that night.
In the last couple of decades, Knoxville has developed a festival culture that brings in lots of visitors and sometimes earns us attention from the international press. But the “game day” onus has forced everything into a festival season, from March to June—rarely in the fall.
It’s interesting that some other college towns are able to handle multiple events on game days. I was talking to a friend from Ann Arbor, Michigan, about that paradox. Ann Arbor is a much smaller city than Knoxville, but it has a larger football stadium than Neyland and a team with a better all-time record than the Vols. They’re proud of the Wolverines. But here’s the thing: they don’t shut down for game days. There are lots of unrelated events in town on those days, and they see nothing weird about it.
I can’t help pointing out that during the Neyland years, when the Vols were most famous, the city of Knoxville was culturally and economically in the dumpster. The worst press Knoxville has ever gotten was in the period 1935 to 1980, when it was called the “dirtiest city,” the “ugliest city,” etc., by more than a dozen different observers. In the 1950s, when the Vols won the AP national championship, Knoxville lost 10 percent of its population, the biggest drop in the city’s history.
Did the Vols keep our spirits up during that time? Or was there something about the overwhelming pride in winning college football teams that distracted the citizens who let their city get worse? I’m not sure I can answer that.
J.J.: As an aside, how important are athletics in general when studying a society?
Jack: Well, it’s something you can’t ignore.
For centuries, we just celebrated political and military history, and stopped there. But for the last couple of generations, there’s been a whole lot more interest in cultural history, and that includes sports. We study Native American sports, Medieval sports, the ancient Olympic Games. Sports give us clues about any people’s values.
J.J.: As an historian, do you ever wonder “What if things had turned out differently?” How do you think Knoxville’s history would have changed had the Vols never become a huge football program? Or would there be much of a difference, other than a lot less of the color orange?
Jack: It’s hard to pry the Vols away from UT’s massive expansion in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Vols have been used in recruiting students ever since. So, as weird as it seems, I’m not sure UT would be as big as it is today.
What would have filled the void? Every city Knoxville’s size seems to have some sports loyalty. Would baseball be bigger than it is? Some things might just be reshuffled on the calendar. I bet we’d have many more fall festivals, or that some of the big festivals we have in the spring, like Big Ears or Rossini or Hola, would be in the fall.
J.J.: What are the biggest differences you’ve seen the UT football program go through — or put the Knoxville area through — over the course of your lifetime?
Jack: For me, personally, the game-day experience is almost unrecognizably different.
When I was a kid in the ‘60s, people got dressed up to go to the game, and not in orange. Men wore jackets and ties. Life in the stands was jovial but civilized. It did smell like cigars, because men had a right to smoke cigars at a football game.
You didn’t hear anything louder than the band’s trumpets or the referee’s whistle. No recorded music, no fireworks, no hyperamplified sound effects. It was all about football, and we could hear each other talk about the next play. At halftime, the band would do something mildly clever with their formation and play the traditional fight songs. “Rocky Top” was just a funny song you heard on the radio.
I’ve been to about 100 Vols games at Neyland Stadium in my life, and enjoyed all of them but the last three or four. They were just too loud, and the crowds seemed chaotic and rude.
I haven’t been to a game in a long time.
But one thing I’ve noticed is that Knoxville’s not dead anymore during the game. Grocery stores used to be completely empty during a game and clerks would be distracted because they’d be listening to John Ward on a transistor radio. It’s not like that at all anymore.
One thing I can’t figure out, though, is people who wear bright orange jump suits in honor of the game but then go casually shopping while the game is actually being played, as if they don’t have any interest in the actual playing of the game or whether the Vols are even winning.
Well, folks, that all for this installment of Hard Knox Histories, our bi-weekly collaboration with the Knoxville History Project. If you’re at all interested in the history of our scruffy little city, then you definitely want to take a look at KHP’s exceptionally cool website at https://knoxvillehistoryproject.org.
Thanks as always for reading Hard Knox Wire! We’ll be back with another blast from our Big Orange past on November 19.
Jack Neely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on November 5, 2021.