Celebration of Wait Field

Marvin Westwestwords

The University of Tennessee, “a premier public research institution,” is celebrating 225 years of “lighting the way for others.”

The new chancellor, Dr. Donde Plowman, and the godfathers have done their research. They are aware they are counting years when the school had other names. They also know there is more to football than the current black cloud hanging over our heads. They have established a landmark in recognition of the early 1900s. New, beside Phillip Fulmer Way, near Cumberland Avenue, is a handsome marker for what was once Wait Field.

Former sports information director Bud Ford, restored to official historian status, has long been an advocate of preserving records and uncovering forgotten treasures. He told me about Wait Field years ago. He even convinced me it is Wait instead of Waite.

On Friday (10/11) at 11 a.m., the world will get the word, that from 1908 to 1920, before Shields-Watkins Field and the big stadium named for Neyland were even a dream, Tennessee played football where the Walters Life Science Building now stands. You are invited to the ceremony.

The field was named for Charles Edmund Wait. He joined the faculty in 1888 as professor of chemistry and metallurgy. Among many other duties, he served as chair of the faculty committee on athletics and president of the athletics association.

Believe me, the story gets better. Sportswriter Grantland Rice, before he was totally famous, was referee of the first game on campus, at Wait Field, Oct. 3, 1908, Tennessee 12, North Carolina 0, overflow crowd of 2,000. Allegedly, there was smoking and drinking and a bit of profanity, but only 11 fans were truly rowdy.

Rice’s report appeared in the Sunday Nashville Tennessean.

OK, if you must know, Rice came over on the train because the Volunteers were going to play at Vanderbilt in November. He was gathering information for a comparison. He made notes between plays.

Keep in mind that I didn’t see it but there are tidbits about the 1908 UT team. It was coached by Izzy Levene, a former Pennsylvania player, to a 7-2 record. The Vols beat up on Maryville and Chattanooga.

The late Tom Siler, my first real mentor in the newspaper business, told a charming tale of the team return from Atlanta and a 6-5 victory over Georgia Tech.

In those carefree times, players decided it would be very funny to gather up the brass spittoons from the train. The porter ignored the transgression but the conductor got angry. Most Vols gave back their souvenirs.

As the conductor was counting, somebody took his lantern. That did it. He telegraphed ahead to Knoxville and half the police force was waiting when the train stopped short of the depot.

Everybody was put under temporary arrest. Luggage was searched. A few embarrassments were found but there was no lantern.

Long ago Vol Benton White explained that the culprit escaped out a window and across the tracks in the darkness. The middle-of-the-night victory parade down Gay Street was delayed.

Tennessee later lost at Vandy but there was a bright and shining moment. Walter Leach, on a fake kick, circled left end and ran 60 yards. Grantland Rice described the play with 41 colorful words and six commas, woven into one delightful sentence.

Leach and Nathan W. Dougherty received all-Southern honors. Dougherty is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Wait Field was home to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association champions in 1914. Tennessee went 9-0, including the first victory ever over Vanderbilt.

The final game at Wait Field was Nov. 25, 1920, a 14-7 win over Kentucky. Ah yes, those were the days.

Tennessee played baseball at the site. It was also used for band practice and ROTC drills. Some of this information is directly from the new marker. You really should see it.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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