By Tom Mattingly
Sometimes sportswriters come up with an idea that makes sense years later.
The year was 1926. It was a Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 6. The baseball pennant races were in full swing. The football season was set to begin on Sept. 25. A new coach was ready to take charge.
That morning’s Knoxville Journal contained this note on p. 9, a “relatively obscure item,” as Knoxville Journal sportswriter Russ Bebb termed it years later. It foreshadowed the excitement we see on campus and across the community today. It wouldn’t be long before news about the Tennessee football program would be found on the front page of the sports section.
“Coach Bob Neyland will gather his Vols at Shields-Watkins Field at 8 o’clock and start the Orange and White aspirants on the rocky road to glory.”
There were 25 prospective Vols present that day.
No one knew what the years ahead might hold, but one thing is clear. Neyland had established a simple plan for gridiron success.
“Men, we will practice two and one-half hours each day,” Neyland said. “That’s all. Each practice will be organized. We will know what we want to accomplish each day, and we will work full speed. Any questions? Let’s go.”
Neyland became the 11th coach in school history and brought stability to the position.
Including the 1891 season opener against Sewanee in the rain at Chattanooga, the Vols had had student coaches from 1891-93 and 1896-97.
The “rocky road to glory” would be part of a grand and glorious time frame, establishing a tradition that is still evolving.
Shields-Watkins Field seated 6,800 in 1926, Neyland’s first season as head coach, with stands on the east and west sides, and now has a capacity of 102,455, double-decked on all sides. It’s an impressive venue for college football.
It’s difficult, however, to see large crowds today at Neyland Stadium, one of the harvests of Bob Neyland’s success at Tennessee, and the continued growth and the development of the campus and city of Knoxville, without mentioning the impact of John Gunther’s 1940s book “Inside U.S.A.”
The city of Knoxville took a major drubbing near the end of Gunther’s analysis of the state of Tennessee. It came as the result of a Sunday afternoon spent in Knoxville in May 1945.
“Knoxville is the ugliest city I ever saw in America, with the possible exception of some mill towns in New England,” he wrote. “Its main street is called Gay Street; this seemed to me to be a misnomer. Knoxville, an extremely puritanical town, serves no alcohol stronger than 3.6% beer, and its more dignified taprooms close at 9:30 p.m. Sunday movies are forbidden, and there is no Sunday baseball.”
Not only that, he called it an “intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness.”
It was an opinion, expressed succinctly in fewer than 100 well-chosen words, he never recanted before his death in 1970.
Things did change for the better. Somehow, someway, Knoxville emerged from Gunther’s criticism to the point of being named an All-American City in 1963, hosting a World’s Fair in 1982, and being hailed as a great place to live.
Fans come to Knoxville from every direction to see the Vols play. The campus takes on a life of its own on game day, from the Vol Navy on the Tennessee River to Big Orange tailgating in nearly every conceivable location. There is a multitude of places to stay and places to eat, drink, and sleep (with a two-night minimum on game weekends). The city is a good host.
More than 35 million fans have passed through the Shields-Watkins Field/Neyland Stadium gates since the late 1940s, back in Gunther’s day.
For the city of Knoxville and the Tennessee football program, it has been a “rocky road to glory.” There have been good days and bad days, ups and downs, for the Vol program and for the city itself.
The name of the unknown sportswriter from 1926 who coined the term “rocky road to glory” is consigned to history.
For his part, Neyland probably had no idea what kind of impact the Vols would have on the local community over the years, but there are monuments to his influence across the campus and city.
There are no monuments anywhere in town to John Gunther, the idea of “out of sight, out of mind” being the apparent attitude of city leaders and residents.
Gunther did, however, get the attention of Knoxville city leaders and residents alike, and they responded admirably.