Jo Markelonis is a gracious woman in her middle 80s. She’s in a comfortable assisted-living home in Farragut, and doesn’t get around much, but her brown eyes are bright and her memories are vivid. She’s well remembered by Webb School alumni of a certain age, because for many years she worked as secretary with Robert Webb at the school he founded. This morning she’s remembering a job she had even back before that, back when she was in her 20s, and she was secretary to Gen. Robert Neyland.
Coach of the Vols for 21 seasons (he occasionally took time off for war), Neyland (1892-1962) led the team to unaccustomed national prominence, including the Vols’ only Rose Bowl appearances, an astonishing unscored-upon season, and one national championship (or more, depending on which poll you cite), and is credited with spawning Volmania. Knoxville was still mainly a baseball town when the World War I veteran arrived from West Point around 1925. The current multi-million-dollar renovation to the stadium named for him includes a prominent statue of the university’s most famous coach.
Markelonis knew him as a boss, with some qualities that may surprise his fans. Around 1950, when she got a job with University of Tennessee’s tiny athletic department, she was a recent UT grad, in English. She’d worked as a typist for UT’s admissions office during the mad postwar days when thousands of veterans crowded the old buildings of the Hill, waving their qualifications for the G.I. Bill.
She knew something about football. “When I was in school, there wasn’t all that much to do, in the way of entertainment and time-killers,” she says. So she went to ball games. “Most students did, though it was so much smaller then.” Football had grown during Neyland’s time, but by 1950 there were no upper decks in the U-shaped stadium, and the north end was open, offering just a few bleachers. Neyland’s Vols had their fans among alumni, as she recalls, but current UT students usually dominated the crowds. The more casual fans watched games sitting on the grass of the Hill.
She heard the athletic department paid better than the admissions office, and applied for a job. The office was in the western side of the stadium’s old masonry horseshoe, which was then just called Shields-Watkins Field.
The support staff, which handled clerical and bookkeeping duties for the athletic department and sold tickets, numbered about six. “Every football season, they’d add two or three,” she says.
The woman in charge, Edna Calloway, hired her. “I thought I’d be doing the same thing there,” she says. “Just typing and filing.” But then she was asked to take dictation for Neyland.
“He scared me to death!” she admits. “He was quite a celebrity.” Football was one thing, but in 1950 Neyland, a brigadier general of 57, was famous as a war hero. “He’d been in charge of supplying the China-Burma-India theater, and he had worked with Gen. MacArthur. I had no idea I’d be working for him.”
The first time she took dictation, she was intimidated. Neyland, an engineer by profession, directed some construction projects on campus, and she remembers taking notes for a letter about the construction of a footbridge, and wondering, afraid to ask, “Did he just say creosote?” She can’t remember how that turned out. Maybe he did say creosote.
Most of her work had to do with football. “He was very much opposed to free substitution,” she says, referring to the shift that enabled special teams and players who concentrate only on offense or defense. He considered it “rat-race football.” Once he was convinced free substitution wouldn’t ruin the game, he went for it. Free substitution rewarded, and demanded, much larger squads. His first free-substitution season, Neyland offered football scholarships to 110 freshmen. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em, or something like that,” she speculates.
Dictating a letter about free substitution, he was making a list of notable players to make a point, and was trying to remember the name of “that kid at Michigan.”
Without thinking, she piped up, “Harmon?” She thought he was thinking about 1940 Heisman winner Tom Harmon.
“He stood up and hit the desk. He said, ‘Edna has hired me a secretary that actually reads the sports pages!’”
She felt more at ease with Gen. Neyland afterward.
When Neyland learned she’d been an English major, he recruited her to tutor his rougher-edged recruits. “These are freshmen, and we’ve got to know if they can read and write,” he told her.
“Take over study hall for 100 football players? You can imagine how that is.” Some of them were slow, and some didn’t make it. “But most worked hard, wanted to stay in school, wanted to play football.”
“I took a lot of dictation,” she says, for the coach, who was a perfectionist about each letter. “He would reread it, and not like it, and go back and forth.”
Neyland was a detail man, on the field and in some surprising ways. When a grammatical question arose, the general would pull rank over the English major. “You know I was second in my class at West Point, in English,” he’d say. “As if to say ‘I know more than you do,’” Markelonis adds.
Neyland was famous for his maxims—the oft-recited keys to success on the gridiron, like “Press the kicking game” and “The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins.”
Asked whether she ever typed those up for him, she makes it sound like a dumb question.
“Did I ever,” she says, as if she can still feel the finger stress. He liked to hand out freshly typed copies of them to visitors. He noodled with them over and over, sometimes added a few—a long list appears carved in marble on Volunteer Landing, in the shadow of the stadium—but he always kept the basic seven.
Neyland was casual on a daily basis, typically coming to work in a short-sleeved shirt. “But on the field he always wore a gray suit and a tie. It was like a superstition, maybe. And he sat on the sidelines in an old cane chair.
“I have heard him say that by game time, ‘You’ve taught them all you can, they’re supposed to know what to do.’”
He pronounced the name Nee-land, contrary to how most Vol fans pronounced it, but didn’t make a big deal of it. “I never heard him correct anybody, but his wife would correct anybody who said it wrong.”
Neyland ruled the roost, and she doesn’t even remember him dealing with UT administration much. “This was his department, not the university’s.”
The Vols’ small coaching staff was secretive in general. The secretaries on the ground floor dealt with the public and the press. The stairway up to the second floor, where the men worked—Neyland and his staff—was kept locked. “There were not that many of them, and you got to know them when they came down to get a cup of coffee or dictate a letter,” she says. Legendary Vol star, later coach, George “Bad News” Cafego, she calls “the nicest man. You wouldn’t believe the difference in the way people described him on the football field and how he was in person.”
The stadium was crawling with characters. She remembers in particular Deanie Hoskins, the grounds keeper who was one of the few who would talk back to the general. “He was in charge of the football field,” she says, “therefore, he owned the football field.” He kept a shotgun with a load for scaring pigeons. She doesn’t think he loaded it with real shot, but she’s not sure. She recalls Neyland asking him, “Is the field ready for the game?”
Hoskins responded, “You get your goddamn team in the same condition the field is, and neither one of us will have any problem!”
Bowden Wyatt was coach for part of her tenure there. “He was great. That’s the only way I know to say it. But they fired him. I never did understand that.”
She remembers sportswriters like Tom Siler and Lindsey Nelson, the future New York Mets and CBS broadcaster, who actually worked in the office for a time. He was, she says, an uncanny authority on all sports.
Neyland’s office was comfortable but plain, a couch and a desk and a table, with minimal personal mementoes. She says he was a private man, but in his later years, he was working on an autobiography he never finished. “I could never get him to go past the early childhood years in Texas,” she says. She doesn’t remember ever lunching with Neyland—she thinks he probably just got a sandwich from the training table—but he did take her and the staff to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl in 1952, when they dined at Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace before the national-champ Vols’ loss to Maryland. Neyland retired as coach after that season, but stayed on as athletic director.
That’s all pretty interesting, to an old Vol fan, but then Ms. Markelonis tosses off a surprising detail.
“He loved to play bridge,” he says. “I understand a lot of men from the Army did. They would play for hours.” One favorite player at his table was former Vol Deke Brackett, who often sat at Neyland’s bridge table even when he was backfield coach for UCLA.
One time Neyland stuck his head out the door, and asked if she played bridge. “We need somebody to sit in,” he said.
“I don’t play bridge,” she answered.
“You don’t?!” he roared. “Well, you could learn!”
It was the one order she didn’t follow.
Then, another surprise. “He liked poetry.” He had a copy of W.H. Auden’s Book of Light Verse, an anthology edited by the modern English poet in 1938. “He prized that. He kept it for years. It was one of the few personal things in his office.”
He had a soft side. “He surprised me one time. He stood up and looked out the window and said, ‘You know, East Tennessee in October is the most beautiful place on Earth.’” After a pause, he added, “Now, the rest of the year, I can take it or leave it....”
In his final years at UT as athletic director, he gained a lot of weight. “He was already a pretty big man when I met him,” she says, but after 60 he grew enormous. She doesn’t know why. “I hear they’re going to put up a statue. I hope they use a young picture.”