The Great General
by Griffin H.
I did a report on General Robert Neyland in the winter, and wanted to share it with you.
PowerPoint: Brig. Gen. Robert R. Neyland III
Research Paper: Research Paper General Neyland
“I learned everything I know from Neyland,” once said the famous Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama. Brigadier General Robert Reese Neyland III was a legendary coach at the University of Tennessee, as well as a gifted athlete and a decorated WWII veteran. He was born on February 17, 1892, in Hunt County, TX. (Gilbert 9) Neyland would one day grow to be one of the greatest coaches in all of college football. And indeed General Neyland influenced football forever through his innovation and an amazingly simple game plan.
His education was an interesting time in his history. Young Neyland convinced his father to allow him to study engineering at Texas A&M. He stayed there for a year, and then enrolled at West Point Military Academy. To this day, Neyland is considered the greatest athlete to come out of West Point. After being banned from all athletic activities outside the gym for nine months, Neyland took the time to improve his boxing skills. He claimed the heavyweight title three years in a row there. He pitched a record 35 wins, including a 20-0 streak. He was reportedly recruited by the New York Giants, Detroit Tigers, and Philadelphia Athletics. He played end on the 1914 national champion team in football, and the 1915 team. Neyland would later return to the Academy to coach alongside Charles Daly, his mentor, for two years (1921-22). (Kozar 9) Being a soldier would later help Neyland by teaching him leadership, perseverance, teamwork, and how to think logically. But how did he go from an officer to a coach?
Neyland was influenced by many people. Robert became interested in coaching football because he had played with considerable success and enjoyed getting a “taste” of coaching Army. Some major coaches that influenced him were Knute Rockne of Notre Dame, Gil Dobie of Washington, Wallace Wade of Alabama, and of course Daly. Neyland has a very interesting football lineage that stretches back to the beginnings of the game. Walter Camp was the creator of football and a famous Yale coach. Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner are considered the artists that help create the finer points of the game. When Percy Haughton became head coach at Harvard, Charles Daly served as his assistant. And when Neyland came to West Point, Daly would become his coach. And once Daly’s philosophies were passed on to Neyland, he needed a job. (Kozar 9)
Neyland began his dynasty with a choice. One he probably wouldn’t regret. Neyland wanted an ROTC-coaching combo job, and two schools met those requirements; The University of Iowa and the University of Tennessee. Neyland decided that with UT, the only way to go was up. Neyland became the Ends coach alongside M.B. Banks in 1925. One week, when Banks fell ill, Neyland led the Vols in a 12-7 upset of the Georgia Bulldogs. In 1926, Banks’ contract ran out and he was fired. While Banks moved on to a high school job, Neyland was hired as head coach in 1926. His task was very clear: Do something about the series with Vanderbilt. After losing in ’26 and tying in ’27, the Commodores would take the game only 8 times in 83 years, giving UT a record of 74-8-2 from 1926-2010. (West 3) Mission Accomplished. Neyland couldn’t help being in called into the military twice during his tenure. These stints did not stall his success however. After Panama in 1935, Neyland went 6-2-2, 6-3-1, and then began a streak of 17 consecutive shutouts. Then, after serving in WWII from 1941-45, Neyland coached a 9-2-0 team and later his 1951 national championship team. He didn’t just win though, he had a strategy too. (Kozar 15)
Neyland’s game plan consisted of the Single Wing Offense, Quick-kicking, and a stout defense. Neyland used the Single Wing as a power running game, outnumbering the defense at the point of attack. He would Quick-kick, kicking on an earlier down than 4th, to surprise the other team and give them bad field position. He wanted his defense to give ground grudgingly, bend but don’t break, and pounce on the first mistake. (West 3) Some of his innovations are the QB position as it is used today, press box spotters, sideline telephones, tear-away jerseys, and in-depth scouting reports. (Correa) “Football is a miniature war game played under somewhat more civilized rules of conduct,” said Percy Haughton. “Moral factors in football akin to those in war,” said Walter Camp. Neyland applied war techniques to his plays through a massing at the point of attack, maneuvers that put the enemy at a disadvantage, and a force to protect the weak side. And that strategy produced extraordinary stats. (Kozar 14)
Neyland’s records were very impressive. Neyland was 173-31-12 overall. That winning percentage of 82.9% is the best of any coach to coach 20+ years. (One Hundred Years) His teams outscored opponents by a combined total of 4,592-1,202. (Kozar 15) None of Neyland’s first 7 teams gave up 51+ points in a season. (Adams) He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956. He won 4 national and 7 conference championships. He coached 9 unbeaten seasons. He still holds the record for consecutive shutout quarters (71), and games (17). He never had a losing season. And he only lost 1 home game in 21 years. Unfortunately, a dynasty can only last so long. (Correa)
Neyland just couldn’t seem to be separated from the University of Tennessee. The two were stuck like glue. Even after retiring in 1952, the General would remain at the University as Athletic Director. (West 4) His first order of business as AD was to fulfill the vacant spot he left. He hired one of his assistants, Harvey Robinson to serve that purpose. Robinson was a favorite among fans, until his first season started. Robinson was very inconsistent, and was fired. Not only was he fired, but Neyland ordered a complete sweep of all personnel on Robinson’s staff. The General searched for a new coach. He found Bowden Wyatt, an old assistant and a long time admirer of Neyland. Wyatt went 6-3-1, 10-0 winning the SEC that year, 8-3. Bowden’s program slipped as his seasons started to slide downward with 4-6, 5-6-1, and two 6-4 seasons. The old General was too weak to help. Wyatt would have to continue without his mentor. (One Hundred Years) Brigadier General Robert Reese Neyland III died of kidney and liver ailments on March 28, 1962 in New Orleans, LA. He was 70 years old. But the great General Neyland was not to go forgotten. (West 4)
His legacy lives on. He influenced such coaches as Henry Sanders, Bobby Dodd, “Bear” Bryant, and of course Bowden Wyatt. He also influenced everyone he competed against, and every player and coach he taught. (One Hundred Years) Neyland has been honored at UT through his name on the football stadium and indoor football complex, as well as the road paralleling the Tennessee River. (General Neyland) He also has a scholarship and trophy named after him, and a larger-than-life statue greets fans at Neyland Stadium. The General Robert Reese Neyland trophy is given by the Knoxville QB club to “an outstanding man who has contributed greatly to college athletes.” Winners include: Wallace Wade of Alabama, Bobby Dodd of Georgia Tech, “Bear” Bryant of Alabama, Vince Dooley of Georgia, Bobby Bowden of Florida State, and Johnny Majors of Pitt. (General Robert) When news of Neyland’s death reached Bowden Wyatt, he simply said, “General Neyland now becomes a legend.” After asking a few Vols fans what the name General Neyland meant to them, these were some responses, “A football legend. He is very important in the history of the Vols, and college football as a whole because of his innovations.” Another said, “The name General Neyland, to me, it is the essence of college football as I know it. A name that reminds me of true college football. It was about playing your heart out and loving the sport. So the name to me means true college football, with coaches that simply love the game.”
And indeed, Neyland left behind an untouchable legacy, only reached by the rank of Legend. A legend crafted through his background, education, influences, coaching, strategies, and later years. It’s no wonder at his retirement banquet, Bear Bryant said, “Thank God the old guy finally quit.”
Diagram 1: Single Wing Offense (Kozar 14)
- Snap can go to Tailback, Fullback, or even the Quarterback.
- The back was normally in motion
- TB (1) blocks, runs, passes, and sometimes punts
- FB (2) acts as a power runner, and blocks
- QB (3) blocks and calls plays
- Wingback (4) acts as a Wide Receiver
- It fools the defenders as to who had the ball
Diagram 2: Defense (Kozar 14)
- The first layer consists of 6 lineman
- The second layer contains two linebackers
- The third layer is made up of two halfbacks (corner backs)
- There is also one deep safety
Table 1: Some of his 38 Team Maxims (Kozar 28)
- A good blocker never looks back
- Never stop till the referee’s whistle blows
- A team that won’t be beat, can’t be beat
- You can’t fight like a man with less than 100% loyalty and college spirit
- Use your head. 75% of football is above the neck
- One increasing purpose
- Never stop fighting
- Hate the scrimmage line; it is a restraining mark
- Play your own position well first
Adams, John. “FSU’s Bowden Knows What Neyland Meant to Football,” Knoxville
Correa, Gabe. “General Robert Neyland,” Smokey’s Trail. 30 April, 2009. 7 January, 2011. < http://www.smokeys-trail.com/HallFame/robert-neyland.html>
“General Neyland,” UT Sports. 7 January 2011. < http://www.utsports.com/sports/m- footbl/tenn-10-neyland-stadium.html>
“General Robert Reese Neyland III.” UT Sports. 7 January 2011. <http://www.utsports.com/uploadedFiles/Sports/Football/Gen%20Robert%20R% 20Neyland%2007.pdf>
Gilbert, Bob. Neyland: The Gridiron General. Savannah, GA: Golden Coast Publishing
Kozar, Andy. Football as a War Game: The Annotated Journals of General R. R.
Neyland. Nashville, TN: Falcon Press, 2002.
One Hundred Years of Volunteers: Volume 1. Videocassette. UTV, 1990.
Pearlman, Jeff. “General Excellence,” Sports Illustrated. January 1999. Pg. 8-16.
West, Marvin. Legends of Tennessee Vols. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing LLC,
He truly was the greatest football coach to ever live, and a hero, on and off the field.