From the Power T to the orange and white checkerboard end zones, the University of Tennessee has one of the South’s most distinguishable sports programs. Players such as Peyton Manning and Reggie White have passed through Knoxville and continued on to have Hall of Fame careers in the professional ranks.
Tennessee’s inaugural football season came in 1891, but the team’s first victory didn’t come until the next year, when it beat Maryville, 25-0. That kicked off a long tradition on the gridiron for UT, as it has the third-most wins (664) of any Southeastern Conference program, behind only Alabama and Georgia.
Early on, though, the team had trouble finding a steady leader. Tennessee didn’t have a head coach until 1899. Then, they had seven come and go over the next dozen years.
During that stretch, in 1902, the football team became known as the “Volunteers,” a nickname that fans hold near and dear. The moniker comes from the willingness of the state’s residents to serve for the country in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.
In 1921, the crew began playing its games at Shields-Watkins Field, a venue that, at the time, had 3,200 seats and was used for baseball the spring before. Today, that same location holds north of 100,000 fans. The Vols first wore orange jerseys in 1922 under Coach M.B. Banks, choosing the color because of the common American daisy.
Of all the reasons to be hired, Bob Neyland was brought on in 1926 in part because of Tennessee’s struggles against in-state rival Vanderbilt. A crazy thought today, as the Commodores have been mired in mediocrity for some time now.
Nonetheless, Neyland, an Army captain and backfield for the Vols the season before, was called on to even the series with Vandy by the faculty chairman of athletics, Nathan Dougherty. Dougherty was also a back-to-back All-Southern selection in his playing days at UT.
The team bagged a Southern Conference title in 1927 by going 8-0-1. One of those victories was a road upset of Alabama, a game in which sophomore tailback Gene McEver returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Half a decade later, Tennessee won another league title with a 9-0-1 record in 1932. The next year, the program was off to the young Southeastern Conference. When Neyland left after the 1934 season, he’d posted a 76-7-5 mark with the Vols. The team enjoyed two different winning streaks of at least 28 games and also went 30 games at home without being beaten.
Neyland, who left because he was called to military service in the Panama Canal Zone, returned after a season away. Taking over for Bill Britton — his replacement for the 1936 campaign — Neyland picked up almost right where he left off.
In 1938, the Vols finished 11-0 and were named national champions by a handful of different sources. The squad that followed upped the ante by shutting out 10 straight challengers. They also hold the distinction of being the last college team to blank an entire regular season schedule of opponents. UT played USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day of 1940.
In his second tenure, which spanned five years, Neyland went 43-7-3. In 1940, military service once again pulled him away from the program that he’d been so masterful in building up. John Barnhill kept things steered in the right direction while he was gone, helping the Vols to appearances in the Sugar and Rose bowls.
Neyland’s Third Act
Neyland didn’t expect to promptly restore his Vols atop the league when he returned from World War II in 1946. Yet, that’s what ended up happening. Tennessee claimed an SEC crown that season and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl.
So-so seasons ensued and naysayers contended that his offensive philosophy — that of the single-wing — was outdated. His 1950 group responded with an 11-1 showing that was punctuated with an upset of Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
The next year, the Vols went undefeated, posting a 10-0 record that included their first appearance on television — a 27-13 victory over Alabama. Tailback Hank Lauricella finished as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and guard John Michels and defensive tackle Doug Atkins were eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
The team went 8-2-1 in 1952, and Neyland stepped down from his post prior to the Cotton Bowl. He finished his career on the sidelines at UT with a 173-31-12 mark.
Staying in Contention
Coach Bowden Wyatt took over in 1955 after Neyland’s successor, Harvey Robinson, had a mediocre crack at it. Wyatt, a member of the Vols’ dominant 1938 edition, and tailback Johnny Majors powered UT to a 10-1 season in 1956. Majors was twice touted as SEC Player of the Year and was an All-American selection during that campaign. The team finished second in the final AP Poll.
That would wind up being the high point of Wyatt’s stint, as Tennessee would suffer at least two losses in each of the six seasons that followed. In 1962, Neyland passed away and Wyatt’s time leading his alma mater came to a close.
Coach Doug Dickey left his job as a top assistant at Arkansas to helm the Vols in 1964. He brought with him ideas that helped shape the Vols into what we recognize today. Under him, Tennessee ditched the numbers on the side of their helmets to the Power T and also put a checkerboard pattern in the stadium’s end zones.
By 1965, Dickey’s second year in charge, the team posted an 8-1-2 record and made its return to the postseason, starting a 10-year stretch in which the Vols would play in a bowl. In each of the next four seasons under Dickey, UT would win eight games. That included 1967, a campaign in which Tennessee lost its opener, then reeled off nine straight wins and won the SEC title.
Dickey bolted to take over Florida’s program in 1969. Bill Battle stepped in to fill his role with the Vols and became the first Division I head coach to win 11 games in his first year. While Battle was there, Condredge Holloway starred behind center, adding a rushing flavor to his duties as a passer.
Johnny Majors, a former Vols tailback, returned to Knoxville as head coach in 1977. He aimed to continue his success, as the season before he’d led Pitt to a national championship. Over the next 16 years, he turned in a 116-62-6 total record with UT.
Defensive tackle Reggie White anchored the defense in 1983, and two seasons later, the Vols ended a 15-year drought of not winning a conference crown. In 1989, UT was the most improved group in the nation, notching an 11-1 mark, an SEC title, and a trip to the Cotton Bowl.
Phillip Fulmer took the reins during the 1992 season. He’d surpass the 50- and 75-win thresholds faster than any coach in SEC history. His tenure included campaigns with Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning operating the offense.
In 1993, Shuler finished as the runner-up for the Heisman. The next year, Manning took over, and by the time he rounded out his collegiate career, he was the owner of 42 NCAA, SEC, and Tennessee bests. He became the fourth quarterback in college football history to throw for 11,000 yards.
It was the year after Manning left for the NFL that Fulmer and Tennessee reached the pinnacle of the sport. Behind signal-caller Tee Martin, the Vols went 13-0 and topped Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Coach Lane Kiffin joined the Vols in 2009 after coaching the NFL’s Oakland Raiders but stayed only one year before jumping ship to go to USC.
Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, and Jeremy Pruitt all guided Tennessee over the next decade, which only saw UT win more than seven games on three occasions.
Last season, Josh Heupel, a former national-champion passer at Oklahoma and coach at UCF, got the job and installed a quick-paced attack. On the way to a 7-6 finish, Tennessee downed six different teams by 24 points or more. In the FBS rankings, the team moved up 99 spots in terms of scoring offense and averaged over 39 points per contest.
This season, The Vols’ are flying high, led by leading Heisman Candidate Hendon Hooker. Coach Heupel has the team firing on cylinders as the team is 7-0 and currently ranked #2 in the nation. This week, Tennessee has arguably one its biggest games in program history as they travel to Athens to take on the #1 Georgia Bulldogs. With a win, Tennessee will be in a great position to make the College Football Playoffs this season.
Near and far, Volunteers faithful can be seen wearing Fanatics officially licensed sports apparel, along with having their sports collectibles and memorabilia.