The Neyland-Era Paradox

Why was our football Golden Age such a crappy time to live in Knoxville?

Whether it really looks like him or not, the new statue of General Robert Neyland is something to behold. The longtime Vol football coach, probably already the most prominently commemorated Knoxvillian in history, is even more securely immortalized, and right near the spot in the west side of the stadium where he kept his office for many years.

His name's already on our biggest building, and on one of central Knoxville's longer and more prominent avenues. He's the only athletic figure who merits a biographical entry in the standard Knoxville history, Heart of the Valley.

That he was a great football coach is not something people argue much about. One of the winningest football coaches ever, he won one, two, three, or four, national championships, depending on your source. Neyland invented Volmania. On his watch as football coach and athletic director, the football stadium grew from 7,000 seats in the mid 1920s—plenty enough for the players' frat brothers, parents, and girlfriends—to 52,000.

It's not unusual to hear apostles claim that Neyland "put Knoxville on the map."

Of course, that claim's been made about other institutions, especially the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Manhattan Project, as it evolved into Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And as it happens, all those first bloomed here during the period of roughly a quarter-century when Bob Neyland was coaching the UT Vols to conference and national championships.

You'd think, with all these wonders descending on the same medium-sized city in the space of about a generation, that we'd remember the Neyland era as a Golden Age for Knoxville.

Archaeologists won't find much evidence of it. In terms of economy, architecture, population growth, and especially reputation as a modern city, the years Neyland led UT to national-contender status may have been Knoxville's worst since the Civil War.

Knoxville had once been a dynamic place. In the 20 years before Neyland's arrival, Knoxville had mounted three major national expositions (one registered a million paying visitors), opened several factories of national significance, built its electric streetcar system into one of the finest in the South, hosted classical-music festivals, built several of the region's first steel-frame "skyscrapers," and launched one of the South's first radio stations.

When Neyland's Vols started winning, Knoxville started getting, for the first time in its history, really awful press. One journalist after another said the place had become more or less a dump. Between 1935 and 1952, Knoxville got the worst reviews in its history. Ernie Pyle called it the "dirtiest city in the world." John Gunther called it "the ugliest city… in America." Malcolm Muggeridge called the Knoxville area "sad, desolate, shabby." Others used terms like "drab," "hideous," "degrading," "corrosive." Somehow, travel writers rarely mentioned the local university's splendid football program.

Even some locals noted that a sort of stagnation had set in. In 1944, a Knoxville journalist remarked that Knoxville had become a "sleepy town" compared to what it had been early in the century. Knoxville, which in another generation had been a pioneer in radio, was one of the last American cities to get television service—in late 1953. Developers stopped investing much in the place. Knoxville's five tallest buildings of the late 1920s were still the city's five tallest buildings 40 years later.

Once home to 106 saloons and a regionally popular brewery, Neyland-era Knoxville repeatedly refused to legalize the sale of wine and liquor. But in 1951, Life magazine publicized the American Social Hygiene Association's assessment that Knoxville was one of America's 24 "most sinful" cities. (The problem they cited was the annoying persistence of prostitutes in Knoxville hotels; in Neyland-era Knoxville, it was much easier to find a prostitute than a legal glass of Chablis. The former pestered strangers in elevators; the latter didn't exist.)

In the 1950s, the Vols had a winning decade, which included Neyland's national championship (two of them, depending on whose poll you count), a couple of SEC championships, and several bowl bids, back when bowls were pretty rare events. During that heroic era for the Vols, Knoxville lost 10 percent of its population. The 1950s saw the biggest population drop in the city's history. In fact, the Home of the Vols sustained a bigger loss than any American city in the 1950s.

None of that was Bob Neyland's fault, of course. He was just a good college football coach.

There were unrelated factors, like the beginning of the collapse of the American textile industry. But I wonder if maybe Neyland was so great that he and his Vols, through no fault of their own—in fact, through their greatness—became a distraction.

Maybe people of the time assumed that, as long as the Vols were winning, the city itself didn't matter much.

Other suspects are equally ironic. The Neyland era coincided with other major developments so big we have come to think of them as definitive of our city.

During this time Knoxvillians came to learn, most of them for the first time, what Cades Cove was, what Mount LeConte was, what the Chimneys were. And that they were appealing places to spend the weekend.

Meanwhile, TVA began establishing amenities we'd never had around here—that is, lakes. Fort Loudoun, Watts Bar, Norris, Cherokee, Douglas: They gave us a diversity of destinations available to few cities.

Knoxvillians were so impressed with their new lakes, their new national park, and their amazing Vols that they stopped giving much of a poop about whether they lived in a great city or not. Or, for that matter, whether they lived in a city at all. They had the mountains, they had the lakes, they had the Tennessee Vols.

I'm not pointing out any of this to run down General Robert Neyland. He coached as well as anybody could.

All this is just to suggest that you can say "Go Vols," you're not necessarily saying, "Go Knoxville." They're different concepts.

Corrected: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, rather than "Laboratories"