There may be no better representation of Tennessee Volunteers football than the wooden sign found in the team’s locker room, which reads, “I Will Give My All For Tennessee Today!” Similar to the ritual that takes place in South Bend, Indiana, members of the gridiron crew tap the placard as they make their way to the field. This tradition helps the Orange and White remember who they’re fighting for, and on Saturdays in the fall, more than 100,000 fans pack inside Neyland Stadium to provide the exclamation point.
Whether it’s the checkerboard end zone pattern, the renowned “Power T” logo or the opening bars of “Rocky Top,” the Vols have one of the more storied legacies in the history of NCAA athletics. The school’s first football team debuted in 1891, but it was Robert Neyland’s arrival in 1926 that put the Orange and White on the map. Over the course of his first seven years on the sidelines, Neyland lost just two contests outright. He’d step down in 1935 but would return the following year to begin another multi-year march for the title. From ‘38 to ‘40, Tennessee posted three campaigns of at least 10 victories, received consideration for the national championship twice, and appeared in the Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls respectively.
Neyland left Knoxville to fight for his country in ‘41, returning five years later to again guide the Volunteers toward gridiron glory. It took a little longer this time, but the payoff was worth it. After going 11-1 in ‘50, “The General” led Tennessee to an undefeated season in ‘51 to earn the school’s first consensus NCAA crown. Topping Neyland’s feats would be no easy task for anyone who followed, but Doug Dickey came close in ‘67 when his club went 9-2, won the Southeastern Conference title, and earned a share of the national championship.
As the years have gone by, the Vols continued to routinely book trips to the postseason, and their 40-plus appearances in bowl games rank as one of the highest totals in all of college football. Quarterback Peyton Manning garnered accolades left and right during his time in Knoxville, but ultimately, the future All-Pro passer came up short in his pursuit of adding to the school trophy case. Manning did, however, leave a blueprint for future success. In ‘98, Tennessee posted a record of 13-0, competed in its first-ever BCS showdown, and walked away with yet another NCAA crown.
Despite all the gridiron success, there are plenty of folks in Knoxville and beyond who’d argue that the women’s basketball program is actually the university’s finest group of athletes. Those hoops fans wouldn’t be wrong, either. Former head coach Pat Summitt won more than 1,000 games during her time at Tennessee and led the Lady Vols to a staggering eight national championships.
Regardless of the playing surface, opponents know two things headed into a matchup with Tennessee: 1. It’s going to be a battle until the bitter end, and 2. The Pride of the Southland Band will play “Rocky Top” many, many times.