Every year, shortly before a new football season begins, a few friends who attended the University of Tennessee stop by Knoxville National Cemetery on Tyson Street. This is where they visit a West Point graduate who is interred in Section X, Grave 16A.
A simple headstone reads that this is the final resting place of Robert Reese Neyland. He is, of course, best known in the college football world as General Neyland.
“He pretty much… he made the history of Tennessee,” says Steven Mackey, a two-time graduate of the University of Tennessee. “We have this huge tradition that everybody talks about, and it is because of him. If not for him, who knows where Tennessee would be today in terms of football.”
Neyland is one of the greatest coaches the college game has ever known. He served as the Vols head coach on three separate occasions between 1926 and 1952, with his time on the sideline interrupted for six seasons due to military service. Tennessee went 173-31-12 under his direction, with four national championships and five SEC titles. His 1939 squad didn’t have a point scored against them, the last team in NCAA history to hold its opponents scoreless in the regular season.
Neyland’s influence on the program lives on today.
“You think about it, he designed Neyland Stadium,” said Mackey. “Every expansion has been based on his design.”
General Neyland passed away in 1962, but he certainly is not forgotten.
Richard Collins went to Tennessee in the 2000s. He’s from Sweetwater, a city located about a 45-minute drive from Knoxville. This is the seventh year that Collins and a few friends have made the short pilgrimage… along with their pal Jack Daniels.
“That’s just a little part that we all take in,” says Collins. “If we are gonna do it, he (Neyland) might as well too,” says Collins.
They call it “Reviving the General,” tasting some Tennessee sipping whiskey while paying tribute to the man most responsible for putting Tennessee football on the map.
“We come out here and take a shot with him because whiskey was his favorite, and we sit here and wish for a good season,” said Clint Cunningham, a Berkeley native who graduated from Tennessee and also sports a large Vols themed tattoo on his left calf.
“This keeps the connection to my university that I love and hold dear,” added Cunningham. “It keeps the connection to the football team I love and hold dear, and keeps the connection to my friends who I celebrate with.”
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