Football truths straight from The General

Marvin Westwestwords

If Josh had asked, I could have provided sound advice regarding defensive coordinators.


The new coach didn’t ask for this, either, but I am offering football truths straight from The General. No charge.

Robert R. Neyland as a cadet

Maybe you’ve heard this story: On Oct. 31, 1953, at Chapel Hill, long before the kickoff of Tennessee versus North Carolina, I spent two hours with Robert R. Neyland. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a true blessing.

The UT athletics department subsidized my earliest travels as sports editor of the Orange and White, then the university newspaper. In return, I was available for duties as assigned by Gus Manning. He was responsible for almost everything, a hundred details, travel arrangements, food, tickets and money.

The day before was my first plane ride. On the remarkable Saturday, I was The General’s designated driver. Gus knew I didn’t drink and would be wide awake at dawn’s first light.

Neyland had retired as coach of the Volunteers. He was still serving as athletics director. He wanted to go early to the stadium to secure an ideal parking position. He had a permit for the most favorable lot but he wanted to be on the front row.

We went to Kenan Memorial Stadium at least two hours too early. As we waited in the complimentary Chevrolet for workers to finish sweeping walkways and eventually open the gates, he talked football philosophy. It was a clinic in how, when and why.

He told stories about players and games, blocks and tackles, fumbles and recoveries, interceptions and returns, yellow flags on green fields and punts that looked like they’d never come down.

I found it strange that he put more emphasis on losses than victories. He had almost six times more successes. Bad days and disappointments had made a deeper impression.

Neyland had no idea what he was doing for me. He wasn’t even talking to me. He was just remembering, reciting, replaying football truths and treasures.

He said the best predictor of future success is past success.

He favored speed over bulk and strength. He thought a good blocker was far more valuable than a good running back but he said tailback Gene McEver was the best he ever saw. Yes, he mentioned great guard Bob Suffridge.

He said the team that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins. That might have been his favorite among the seven maxims.

Neyland believed strongly in field position. He said the kicking game was where the breaks are made.

He talked about defense, about bending but not breaking, about protecting the flanks, about funneling plays inside where there were more people to make the tackle.

Offensive efficiency (staying ahead of the sticks, reasonable third downs, finishing drives with touchdowns) was a basic principle. Field goals were failures.

He didn’t call it explosiveness but he believed big plays made a big difference. He wanted all he could get but he didn’t want to give up any.

When Neyland explained football, he peeled away the complexity and made it sound almost simple — fundamentals, preparation, execution.

The General had a kind and generous exit line when it was finally time to go.

“You being here kept me from talking to myself.”

I later learned more about the coach. His teams won 173, lost 31 and tied 12 times. He delivered nine undefeated seasons, seven conference championships and four national championships of one variety or another.

He teams reeled off undefeated streaks of 33, 28, 23, 19 and 14 games.

Even today, Neyland is regarded by historians as one of the best, if not the best, defensive football coaches ever.

Sports Illustrated named Neyland defensive coordinator for its “Best of the 20th Century” team. Can you imagine 112 shutouts? Can you believe 17 in a row? That was Suffridge, Ed Molinski, Bowden Wyatt, Bob Foxx, George Cafego, Abe Shires, Leonard Coffman, Sam Barthomew and a few others. Please remember those names.

Almost all of what Neyland said that morning in Chapel Hill remains valid. It wouldn’t take him long to figure out a defense for the spread, run-pass options or flash-and-dash of today’s game.

He might have a bit of trouble with modern recruiting and the transfer portal and nose tackles that weigh 350.

Josh, if you tune out the clutter, speculation and screaming, and just listen for echoes, I think you would hear that winning the turnover battle results in victory 73 percent of the time. Positive field position leads to 72 percent success. If you are efficient in the red zone, you win 75 percent of the time.

I don’t hear well but I can almost hear Neyland today: Protect the kicker, protect the quarterback, protect the football, protect the lead.

Cover receivers, rush the passer, pursue and gang tackle, carry the fight to the foe. Don’t get tired. Put on more steam.

Nothing to it, Coach Heupel, just recruit good guys who will give honest effort, teach and help them improve, win a few more than you lose, earn your own bronze statue and maybe they’ll name a street or rename the stadium for you.

On second thought, that last part might be out of reach.

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

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