The University of Tennessee kicks off its 2010 football season this weekend with a lot of new names and faces leading the Vols' proud program. In honor of the arrival of football time in Tennessee, we take a look at why the road that parallels the Tennessee River and UT's stadium are emblazoned with the name Neyland.
Most UT fans know Neyland Stadium is named in honor of the school's most successful coach, General Robert Neyland. Neyland was leader of men on the battlefield during both world wars and the architect of four national championships teams at the University of Tennessee. Yet, the reasons why they call it Neyland Stadium go deeper than wins and losses.
"General Neyland died in January of 1962 and later that year the stadium was named in his honor," said former sports information director and iconic Tennessee personality Gus Manning. "I worked for General Neyland and he was a great organizer, a disciplinarian, and he could get things done."
Neyland's journey to Knoxville began in 1925 when UT President George Hoskins sent Nathan Dougherty to West Point in search of a new ROTC instructor.
"Dougherty told me on more than one occasion that President Hoskins called him in and they had a discussion about what they wanted in a ROTC instructor," said Charlie Brakebill, the now retired Vice President for Development who worked for 39 years at the University of Tennessee. "Dougherty said as he was walking out the door, Hoskins said almost as an afterthought, 'By the way, check and see if you can find someone who knows a little football.' Of course, he found Robert Neyland."
Neyland engineered a football powerhouse that won four national championships, but he was also an engineer off the field.
"He studied engineering at M.I.T. and also at West Point," said Manning. "When we expanded the stadium and added the upper deck, Neyland helped with the design and was always tracking everything. When he was down in Louisiana during the last year of his life, every single day I had to call him and tell him how much steel had gone up on the stadium and so forth."
Manning said Neyland did not know the stadium would be posthumously renamed in his honor, or at least he never said anything about it.
Following Neyland's death, litanies of items were named in tribute of the famous coach. That includes changing River Street to Neyland Drive. Furthermore, faculty members sought to create an academic scholarship in honor of Neyland.
"I don't think people understand what a scholar he was," said Brakebill. "Before he died, he had talked to the school about using athletic funds to create an academic scholarship. The funds would go purely to scholars, nothing to do with athletics. Today some of the brightest minds that come to Tennessee are Neyland Scholars."
The formation of the scholarship led to an education for Brakebill on the pronunciation of the name Neyland during a visit to the home of General Neyland's widow.
"Peggy Neyland was a very gracious lady and someone I had heard was very difficult to misunderstand," said Brakebill. "Before I got too far through the door of her home, I called her Mrs. 'NAY-land.' She stopped me and said, 'Let's get the pronunciation of our name correct.' Mrs. Neyland then raised her dress up 12 inches above her knee and slapped her knee as hard as she could. She hit it so hard that I kind of jumped being a little nervous. Then she said, 'Our name is pronounced knee-land, like my knee.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am,' and didn't screw that up again."
"People are getting better about it, but there are still a lot of them that call it NAY-land," said Manning. "Just get the name right. It is KNEE-land, not NAY-land."
Today large photographs of Neyland adorn the latest addition to the stadium that bears his name. In November a statue of General Neyland will also be unveiled in front of the stadium. As time passes and more people associate the Neyland name with stadiums, statues, and roads, those who truly knew him remember the personality of a brilliant man.
"He was not a social climber, as they say. He could be kind of aloof, but he liked to have fun. He could recite poetry unbelievably," said Manning. "He was also a tremendous bridge player, but he made you awful nervous playing with him because after the bidding was over he knew where every card in the deck was. He was a brilliant man, no doubt about it. One of the most brilliant people I've ever encountered here on this campus."
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