Tennessee recruiting tales: Getting Atkins, McEver and Kiner

Marvin Westwestwords

So, they had another Super Bowl and the Vols lost another basketball game. Set that aside. Big stuff is coming.


On Wednesday, Jeremy Pruitt and his Tennessee staff will wrap up their third harvest of prep football talent. If somebody hits a late home run, or pulls the proverbial rabbit out of a hat, class ranking will improve a notch or two but won’t come close to the big boys of the Southeastern Conference.

If you believe evaluations by recruiting services, the Vols are not catching up very fast.

Nevertheless, Pruitt will announce “good news” and who is how big and how fast and Tennessee fans will pay $30 each to help celebrate in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.

Entertainment will be light. They don’t tell recruiting tales like they did in the good, old days. There will be no inside wheeling and dealing information, none like this:

In the spring of ’49, when Doug Atkins was 6-6 and just 197, good in basketball and still learning football, Tennessee defeated Murray State and a Standard Oil distributor in an exciting recruiting battle.

“The oil man also owned a radio station and he was going to give me a used car and $400 a month if I’d go to Murray State,” said Atkins. “He said he’d put the money in escrow. If I had known what that word meant, I might have accepted the deal.”

Most in Atkins’ hometown, Humboldt, wanted Doug to go to Tennessee.

“They said it wasn’t enough to be a big fish in a little pond, that I ought to be a shark in the ocean.”

Ike Peel, Tennessee assistant coach, reeled in Atkins. He used tender, loving promises as bait.

“We’ll take care of you.”

“Whatever you need.”

Doug thought he heard $50 a month in spending money. He knew for sure that wasn’t as much as $400 but it would be enough for occasional liquid refreshments.

“I never saw a penny of it.”

Atkins later asked the great Robert R. Neyland about the missing money. The General bluntly disavowed any such promise and called the idea and the question uncouth. At the time, Atkins didn’t know what uncouth meant.

“He told me I didn’t hear $50 from him, that he was running things at Tennessee, that nobody got paid under the table.”

Years later, Atkins asked Peel what happened.

“Ike said it was me or him, that he had a wife and kids to feed, that he had to sign me to keep his job, and that he had to tell me whatever it took to get it done.”

***

Gene McEver was discovered in Bristol in the fall of ’26 by former Tennessee captain Jay G. Lowe, new coach at Tennessee High. McEver, talented tailback, played on the wrong side of town. He was tearing up opponents and Lowe’s team was next.

The young coach asked Neyland for help in devising a defense. Neyland offered a few suggestions and a parting thought: Tell me how you do.

Neyland soon received a short note.

“Defense was perfect. It worked just as you said. McEver gained very little from scrimmage. Unfortunately, we had to punt five times. He returned all five for touchdowns. Your friend, Jay.”

Tennessee convinced McEver to become a Volunteer. He was on campus, for practice in July and August 1927, but went home for a visit. He did not return. Neyland heard he might be at Wake Forest.

The Vols needed a scouting report on early foe North Carolina and the Tar Heels just happened to be opening at Wake Forest. Neyland dispatched trusted aide Bill Britton to observe and take notes.

“And while you’re there, look around for McEver,” said Neyland, as if it mattered only a little.

After the game, Britton looked and looked. He finally spotted Gene with a group of guys. Coach and player talked. Britton wanted him to ride back to Knoxville in his model T Ford. Gene said no, that he wanted to tell Wake coaches goodbye.

McEver said he’d show up on Monday. He did. He played well. He became an all-American.

“He was the best player I ever coached,” said Neyland. “He was the best player I ever saw.”

McEver was the first Volunteer inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

***

Tennessee recruited Steve Kiner on the rebound from Florida. The quarterback, strong safety and noted Tampa high school brawler (three arrests, no convictions) signed with the Gators. Part of the deal was a summer job at developer Bill Watson’s magnificent estate. Steve kept the grass mowed but mostly played the par-three holes on the back 40.

Watson’s daughter came home from college. She was not overly impressed by the yard boy but did ask him to bring her a Coke out by the pool. Steve politely obliged.

After a while, she asked him to fetch a refill.

“For some strange reason, I said I was busy, that she could get her own damn drink, that her legs weren’t broken.”

Daughter told daddy. Big-donor daddy called Florida coach Ray Graves. Rudeness and a surly disposition would not be tolerated. Coach called Kiner and said his scholarship had just been revoked.

Somebody inside the Florida walls tipped off UT assistant coach Vince Gibson. The next day, Kiner had a new scholarship offer. The net result was one of the best linebackers in Volunteer history.

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

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