In the spring of 1925, Capt. Robert Reese Neyland, 33, finished with immediate military obligations, sat behind his desk near the commandant’s office at the U.S. Military Academy and plotted his future.
His boss, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, said Bob could be a great soldier. He thought he might rather be a football coach. They were less often shot.
Having been trained to think logically as an engineer, Neyland had a map of the United States spread before him. He had heard of possible openings at Iowa and Tennessee. He could visualize corn and cows at one place. There had to be more people at the other.
He dispatched a letter of inquiry to the University of Tennessee.
Nathan Washington Dougherty, dean of the College of Engineering and chair of the UT athletics board, found the letter very interesting. He conducted a superficial review. The young man had graduated near the top of his West Point class. He had received additional instruction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had participated at a high level in football, baseball and boxing. He was said to be a natural leader, quiet by nature but very decisive in his thinking. He had served with the U.S. Army on the Mexican border and in Europe.
Dr. Dougherty scouted around and, indeed, found there was an opening atop the UT military science department. And, there was $750 in the athletic budget he could use to hire an assistant coach.
Neyland received an encouraging reply.
He had a bit of background about Tennessee. He had seen the Volunteers two years previously. For some inexplicable reason, those hillbillies had come to play Army. They wore store-bought shoes and brought their own barrel of apples. The score was 41-0 and could have been worse.
Neyland pondered. He knew he could meet expectations in the classroom. He concluded Tennessee football had no way to go but up. He hitched a ride to New York City and caught a train to Knoxville. He found the campus on his own and met a man who could speak his language. Dougherty was educated and had been an all-Southern football guard and captain of four sports.
Neither told me this, but I have always believed there was an unofficial addendum to the basic agreement. The head coaching job would soon be open.
Sure enough, M.B. Banks discovered the very next year that Central High School would pay more for a coach and teacher. Dougherty did not conduct a national search for a replacement. Neyland was promoted from end coach in a five-minute meeting. There was one suggestion that sounded like a mandate: Beat Vanderbilt.
If Phillip Edward Fulmer had known just a little more Tennessee football history, he could have used those same two words in December 2017.
After Butch Jones was fired, after the tumultuous coaching search cost John Currie his job, after Fulmer was hired to restore order, after he settled on Jeremy Pruitt as the man to clean up the mess, he could have simply summarized the assignment.
“Beat Vanderbilt” was and remains the preliminary step toward success for all Volunteers.
We can fret about Alabama, Florida and Georgia at our convenience. They’ll be there, as thorns on a rosebush, whenever. Vanderbilt is the pressing problem.
It is inconceivable that Tennessee has sagged far below the Commodores, historic bottom-feeders in the Southeastern Conference. There are old-timers who have stopped watching because the Vols have lost three in a row and gotten worse year by year – 45-34, 42-24 and 38-13.
Those beatings were not flukes. Vandy has been kicking Tennessee’s can. Last time I looked, the Commodores appeared faster, better prepared and more highly motivated. Tennessee got absolutely bullied by Vanderbilt on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It was humbling to see coach Derek Mason remove starters, call off the dogs, actually stop trying to score more. It was more humbling to see him dance a jig, in celebration of a rout. That scene needs to be the absolute low point of Pruitt’s coaching career.
Vanderbilt has five victories over Tennessee since 2012. That matches its success during the previous 56 years. Is it possible Vandy has improved that much, or is the Tennessee crash beyond belief?
That last loss was the Vols’ sixth of last season by 25 or more points. It certainly gave us a November to remember.
I doubt I will ever forget Pruitt’s summation: “Lord knows we have a long ways to go.”
Now I ask you: How much of that ground has Tennessee made up? Does Tennessee now have better players? Will the Vols be better prepared come Nov. 30?
Summertime talk about restoration, seven, eight or nine victories and a happy bowl romp is meaningless. Happiness is somewhere else until Tennessee beats Vanderbilt.
Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.