November 2012

The recent firing of Derek Dooley as head football coach at the University of Tennessee brought to mind another gridiron coach from the college’s yesteryear. 

On January 24, 1951, the University of Tennessee gave 58-year-old football coach, General Robert Reece Neyland, a lifetime contract after his team won 10 games that season, lost one to Mississippi State and upset Texas 20-14 in the Cotton Bowl. Tennessee scored 315 points to their opponents’ 57, placing the Vols fourth in the country in the final Associated Press poll.

Robert Neyland Playing Card; Bill Britton, Neyland, Paul Parker

Although Neyland's annual salary was not made public, speculation placed the figure at $16,500 plus an additional $2,500 for expenses, making him one of collegiate football’s highest paid coaches. He was a disciple of the old single-wing formation.

In announcing the extension of the coach’s contract, Nathan Dougherty, chairman of the Athletic Council, said, “Our agreement with General Neyland ensures that he will remain at Tennessee for the remainder of his athletic career.” The coach responded, “I'm very happy to remain at Tennessee because I’ve always wanted to stay here.”

Neyland came to Tennessee from West Point in 1925 as a military science instructor and assistant football coach, becoming an overnight success. His Volunteers won eight games and lost one that year. In the next six years, Tennessee won 51 games, lost one and tied five. Neyland's overall record in 19 campaigns was 154 wins, 24 losses and 11 ties. Skillful blocking and tackling became trademarks under Neyland’s balanced single-wing system.

As a major in the Army engineers, Neyland went to the Panama Canal Zone in 1935. Although he retired the next year and returned to Tennessee, the Army summoned him back to active duty in May 1941. He served a five-year stretch, retiring with the rank of general.

In 1951, it was common knowledge that the general wanted one more outstanding season before he quit active coaching and relegate himself upstairs at Tennessee. That desire was to include an unbeaten and untied season plus a bowl game victory, allowing him to invoke the lifetime clause of his contract and retire as athletic director and advisory coach. Neyland, then 59, had accomplished this only once during his 21 seasons at Tennessee. That occurred in 1938, when the Vols dumped 10 regular season opponents, yielding only 16 points while piling up 276 and then trimming Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl 17-0.

Tennessee went on to beat Texas in the 1951 Cotton Bowl 20-14, but lost in the Rose Bowl, twice in the Sugar Bowl and again in the Orange Bowl. Neyland made it known that he was ready to retire from the sport.

In 1952, the general, who lived modestly on an income reported to be $25,000 a year, owned a $200,000 plus home at Sarasota, Fla., where he fished after every football season. He made no bones about wanting to retire within a few years. Neyland's mantle as head coach was expected to transfer to balding Harvey Robinson, his offensive coach and Tennessee quarterback in the 1930s.

Whenever a longhaired musician hit town, Robinson, an accomplished pianist, was present as an enthralled spectator. Neyland, famous for his “bull” victory roars, was strictly from the big band era of Vaughn Monroe and Spike Jones. Robinson was more communicative than the general. Neyland shunned publicity, never appeared on television or radio and granted only a few cautious interviews. He vehemently rejected all offers for ghostwritten articles bearing his signature.

Neyland’s coaching finale occurred after the 1952 season. On advice of his doctor, he asked the university to relieve him of his coaching duties, which they did. He remained as athletic director. As expected, Harvey Robinson got the nod to become Tennessee’s new coach. The 70-year old general died on March 28, 1962. Today, the stadium and road behind it proudly bears his name. 

Read more

In 1935, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article titled “Facing the Problems of Youth” for the February edition of “National Parent-Teacher Magazine.” She later used the subject as she began traveling around the country giving lectures.

The first lad made a stopover in Johnson City on May 30, 1939 and delivered a brief speech that mirrored her article, shortening the title to “Problems of Youth.” The event took place at 8:00 p.m. in the big City Hall auditorium at the northwest corner of West Main and Boone streets. As you read her comments, think about how things have changed, yet remained the same over the past 77 years. Here are excerpts from her talk:

“Education today is not purely a question of the education of youth; it is a question of the education of parents, because so many parents, I find, have lost their hold on their children. One reason for this is that they insist on laying down the law without allowing a free intellectual interchange of ideas between themselves and the younger generation.

“I believe that as we grow older we gain some wisdom, but I do not believe that we can take it for granted that our wisdom will be accepted by the younger generation. We have to be prepared to put our thinking across to them. We cannot simply expect them to say, ‘Our older people have had experience and they have proved to themselves certain things, therefore they are right.’ That isn't the way the best kind of young people think. They want to experience for themselves.

“I find they are perfectly willing to talk to older people, but they don't want to talk to older people who are shocked by their ideas, nor do they want to talk to older people who are not realistic. We might just as well accept things, which are facts as facts and not try to imagine that the world is different, more like what we idealized in the past.

“But if the relationship is such that youth has no desire to talk to older people, then, I think, it is entirely impossible to help the youth of today—and they need help badly. I think they are very glad to have it, too, when it is given in a spirit of helpfulness, not self-righteousness. We don't need to idealize things that are past; they look glamorous, but perhaps they were not so glamorous when we really lived through them.

“My own feeling would be that the most important education is the education which will enable us, both in our homes and in our schools, to understand the real problems that our children have to meet today. It is easy enough to impart book knowledge, but it is not so easy to build up the relationship between youth and older people, which is essential to the working out of their problems—very difficult problems on which young people need our leadership and our understanding.

“We cannot pass over the fact that the world is a hard world for youth and that so far we have not really given their problems as much attention as we should. We smile—I smiled myself the other day when one young boy said that he hoped to go in and clean up politics. Politics need to be cleaned up, of course. Everything that is human needs that particular kind of enthusiasm.

“But we older people know that we don't always succeed as easily as these young ones think they can. Yet I doubt if we should smile. I think that we should welcome their help, and find places where this tremendous energy that is in youth—if it cannot be used immediately in making a living—may at least be used where it is so greatly needed today.

“I should like to leave with you this one idea which I have been thinking about a great deal of late: the necessity for us as parents, as teachers, as older people, to put our minds on the problems of youth, to face realities, to face the world as it is and the lives that they have to live—not as we wish they were, but as they are – and, having done that, to give our sympathetic help in every way that we can.” 

Read more

In 1947, five local physicians had their practices at 234, 236 and 238 E. Market Street near Tannery Knob (where I-26 now comes through). Doctors George Scholl and Mel Smith were at the first two-story dwelling, doctors Harry Miller and J. Gaines Moss at the second and doctor Ray Mettetal at the third. Unlike the other five doctors, he and his family lived upstairs and had his practice downstairs.   

Dr. Mettetal told my parents something that year that would have a profound impact on my life – I had rheumatic fever. The disease is an inflammatory infection affecting the joints and possibly the heart, skin and brain, targeting youngsters between the ages of four and eighteen. I was five at the time and sickly with the classic symptoms of fever, joint pain, fatigue, paleness, lack of appetite, weight loss, a rash and bouts of strep throat. 

My daily routine quickly began to change significantly. After two-weeks of being quarantined in our smallish apartment, I was subjected to absolute bed rest with limited physical activity. I was not permitted to walk so I had to be carried everywhere I went. Unlike today, almost total inactivity was considered essential to control rheumatic pain and spare damage to the heart. 

Once a month, I was taken to Memorial Hospital (Boone Street and Fairview Avenue) for a blood “sed (sedimentation) rate test” that measured the amount of inflammation still present in my body. The procedure was performed on the second floor along the north end of the hospital with windows overlooking E. Watauga Avenue.

I grew to dread the needle that was placed in my arm and held there for what seemed like an eternity. The attending nurse always had me look out the windows to get my eyes and mind off the needle. I recall seeing a man on Watauga chase his hat that had blown off from a wind gust. Everyone was laughing at him except me.

For about six months (maybe longer), I spent my days in bed, at our dining room table, in a chair with a bag of toys on our table’s center leaf that was positioned across the arms or sitting in a chair looking out the window of our second floor apartment. I observed traffic below and saw people at the Sur Joi Swimming Pool (107 Jackson Avenue). Sometimes I played 78-rpm records on our old upright radio/record player. A thoughtful young lady, Anna Buda (sister of George Buda), who lived in a nearby apartment, routinely came by with her little dog, Butchie, and let me play with him.

Some time ago, I came across a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ad in an April 30, 1944 edition of Time Magazine. It featured a young boy (about my age when I was sick) with rheumatic fever in a bed crammed full of toys, books, games and crayons. A young girl was entertaining him with a puppet show at his bedside. The ad emphasized the need to keep patients fully occupied until all signs of the disease had cleared up. Entertainment, it said, was the best medicine a patient could receive.”

A second advertisement in a February 1944 edition of Good Housekeeping Magazine showed a mother privately talking to the doctor with a young boy in bed in the next room. It consisted of solemn questions and answers between Mrs. Roberts and the physician.

Until 1960, the disease was a leading cause of death in children and a common source of structural heart disease. Although the malady had been known for several centuries, its association with strep throat was not made until 1880. In the 1930s and 1940s, rheumatic fever was a serious medical concern for adolescents. With the discovery of penicillin followed by a plethora of other antibiotics, patients could then be treated adequately.

The end of my illness meant learning to walk again. My dad held my arms much like he did when I took my first steps as a toddler. I was assigned the morning session of Miss Taylor’s first grade class at West Side School because I needed an afternoon nap. In 1950, we moved from our apartment to the “wide open spaces” of Johnson Avenue. My new active lifestyle of running and playing was a thrill that is firmly embedded today in my memory. 

Read more