Stadium recollections, highlights, tall tales

Marvin Westwestwords

This is part of history: Very few people called Robert R. Neyland to attention and told him how things were going to be.


University of Tennessee trustees asked The General if it would be OK to name the expanded football arena in his honor. They said he certainly deserved the salute. They reminded him that his record was good enough to stand the test of time, 173-31-12. Somebody mentioned his unyielding defenses that shut out 112 opponents.

From the files of Marvin West: Lindsey Nelson and Gen. Robert Neyland.

Think about that: zero times 112, mostly with a loose-tackle 6-2-2-1 alignment.

Neyland didn’t seem particularly moved, certainly not flattered, but said OK, no big deal. He supposed his name was better than no name. He got in a plug for his basic philosophy, that Tennessee football was about players, fundamentals, logical plans and proper execution, not him.

This was early 1962. Formal dedication was the third Saturday in October. That makes the stadium named Neyland precisely 59 years and a week or two old.

Alas, the great coach and patriot soldier died before the festivities.

Neyland Stadium is bigger now. Checkerboard end zones are distinctive. There are executive suites, sculptures, a light show, a disc jockey and other fancy attractions. More are coming. Can you believe a party deck?

Let us be thankful The Pride of the Southland band stays steady – and outstanding. Some things defy erosion. Oops, there is no longer a lead singer for the National Anthem.

If you are into minor details, the band played “Rocky Top” for the first time on Oct. 21, 1972, as part of the halftime show of the Alabama game. Nobody said “woooo.”

It will take heavy lifting to get stadium game results up to past standards. Forget not the home winning streak of 23, 1996-2000. Forget not that Phillip Fulmer teams won a hundred more than they lost, many in front of record crowds in the classic campus ball park beside the big river.

Since I am painting a word picture, I suppose I should mention the Vol Navy moored just across Neyland Drive with the magnificent mountains as a backdrop.

Favorite stadium stories start before the naming, when I was first a university student. From his dorm window on the east side, great blocking back Jimmy Hahn shot out a security light. Broken glass showered down on a policeman on patrol. Other players, spectators at other windows, cheered.

Neyland was upset when he got the news the next morning. He figured out the probable troublemaker on his own. Nobody was surprised when Jimmy was paged to the office.

Hahn, son of a strict Lutheran minister in Newport News, Virginia, had discovered campus freedom. He soon earned a reputation as the wild one.

“In the beginning, I did some crazy things to see how they felt. Then, I had to do some more to live up to expectations.”

Hahn said the shooting incident turned out better than he deserved.

“The General asked if I did it. I said ‘Yes sir.’ He asked why. I came up with a pretty good story about the light shining into my dorm room and disturbing my sleep. I said I had put up with it for a long while and finally did something about it.

“He told me the dangers of firing a rifle, that someone might be struck by the bullet. He went on to discuss military marksmanship and many of his adventures at West Point. He speculated on what he might have accomplished had he not divided his time with football. Just listening was a marvelous experience.

“After 45 minutes or maybe an hour, he suggested I bring my .22 rifle to his office for safe-keeping and take it home the next time I went that way.”

There is another nighttime tale from a different window. Doug Atkins, feeling bigger than his britches after a few sips of tea or lemonade, dangled a student manager outside the stadium wall to show teammates how very strong he was.

Jack Stroud, Army veteran, former paratrooper, tough tackle who came to Tennessee as a full-grown man, gently tapped Atkins on the shoulder, calmly suggested he bring the little guy back inside the room and deal with somebody nearer his size.

Once, and maybe only once, Doug Atkins backed down. He wanted no part of Jack Stroud.

Billy Graham brought a revival to Neyland Stadium in the summer of 1970. Tens of thousands attended. The evangelist said the first night was the biggest opener of his crusades.

The second crowd was larger. The third was 62,000 to hear Graham preach and Johnny Cash sing. George Beverly Shea had his turn, too, “How Great Thou Art.”

Some young people weren’t happy when they heard President Richard Nixon was coming as a special guest. Graham said he and Nixon were friends, that there was nothing political about the visit and he hoped no one tried to make it so.

Attendance swelled to 75,000 with a large overflow outside. There were protesters. Only a few were arrested.

Unforgettable: When ushers were passing collection plates, Nixon discovered he had no cash. He borrowed $5 from Graham to make a donation.

The Jackson Five almost came to town in 1984. Michael’s dressing room required special decorations.

Somebody heard threats had been made on the entertainers’ lives. Shows were cancelled at considerable loss. Only one was resurrected. Michael arrived in an armored car. No one was killed or injured.

Kenny Chesney’s 2003 stadium concert sold 60,000 tickets. Chesney talked about the energy.

“Every show is incredible, but there’s something about those really big ones.”

Garth Brooks wrapped up his 2019 Stadium Tour with a record-breaking performance for 84,846 – Unanswered Prayers, Callin’ Baton Rouge, Friends in Low Places.

Almost forgot: Interesting happenings in 2005 when Peyton Manning’s No. 16 jersey, Reggie White’s No. 92 and Atkins’ No. 91 were retired. John Majors’ 45 was retired in 2012.

The stadium became a crime scene soon after Tennessee started selling beer and other alcohol products. Security video showed five people crawling under a hole in the fence. Police responded. Two still inside were carrying cases of beer. UT prices made this a serious charge.

Incidentally, the first Neyland Stadium game with beer for sale involved the Brigham Young Cougars, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Vols lost.

A football incident is runner-up on the dumb list. Last October, Georgia-Tennessee game, Bulldogs wide receiver George Pickens committed the strangest of personal fouls.

Vol quarterback Jarrett Guarantano ran out of bounds on the Georgia sideline. Pickens rushed up close to talk trash and squirted water on him.

Seriously, he aimed a water bottle right at Jarrett and let him have it. Penalty flags flew.

“It’s just disappointing. It’s silly behavior,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s immature … What are we thinking? … Somebody comes out of bounds and you squirt water at him, what are we, 7-, 8-years-old? I mean, come on. Let’s play football.”

There are other landmarks. Tennessee set a season attendance record by averaging 107,595 in 2000. The all-time single game record is 109,061 for the victory over Florida in 2004. That was the year Sports Illustrated said Neyland Stadium, the campus and Knoxville was the best college football weekend experience.

My all-time favorite stadium story is encapsulation and the athletics board meeting of Oct. 5, 1974, when Bob Woodruff presented the idea of converting the south end of Neyland into a make-believe basketball arena for 27,000 fans.

The athletics director purchased feasibility data from engineers and sketches from architects. He had displays, charts and graphs. Part of the project was to be a giant fabric roof tied off with cables. A more permanent grandstand (plush theater seats), on giant wheels, would be rolled from one end of Shields-Watkins Field to the other to serve in the north for football and the south for baskets. The campus steam plant was going to provide heat.

My initial reaction was to shake my head, clear the fog, fight off shock and try to comprehend Bob’s “invention.”

I looked around the board room at the glazed expressions and felt some better. Most did not begin to understand what Woodruff was talking about. President Edward J. Boling had been tipped off in advance. He looked least confused.

Dr. Boling promised to study the study. His strongest comment was “This idea may become reality.”

He was not very convincing.

When asked point blank, Woodruff admitted to cost estimates of $11 million and maybe a little more. No, he did not have the money in the bank. He thought the fabric would last from 10 to 20 years. He did not think rolling the grandstand back and forth would destroy the football field.

Woodruff said there was consideration of a bubble concept, an inflated cover for basketball seats. Puzzled expressions turned to disbelief.

Bob had a smaller bubble for football practice. It was erected on level ground.

Encapsulation made page 1 of what was then The News-Sentinel. That was as close as it came to reality.

There was a personal spinoff. I received five invitations to deliver civic club speeches. One program chairman was blunt. He said the membership might understand my explanation but there was no chance Woodruff could explain what he proposed to do to Neyland Stadium.

Bob chuckled about his reputation as a public speaker. He was said to be the oratorical equivalent of a blocked punt.

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

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