VOL. 9 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 16, 2016
A UT Hall of Fame without Neyland? How’s that possible?
By David Climer
His name is on the football stadium, where a twice-life-size statue of him is displayed between gates 15A and 17.
General Robert Neyland coached the University of Tennessee football team for 21 seasons between service tours in the U.S. Army. His teams won four national titles and seven conference championships.
The roadway that runs between the stadium and the Tennessee River bears his name.
With all due respect to those who came before and since, the most significant figure in University of Tennessee athletics history is Gen. Robert R. Neyland.
So if you’re going to start a Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame, it is only logical that it includes Neyland, right?
Welcome to UT, where logic is on an extended spring break.
When a banquet is held on the evening after the Orange & White Game on Saturday, the university’s first combined men’s and women’s sports hall of fame will be celebrated.
The list will include many of the biggest names in UT athletics history. But the biggest of all – Neyland – will not be announced.
The bungled UT Athletics Hall of Fame situation is the latest example of the muddled manner in which the university, particularly Athletics Director Dave Hart, has handled the merger of the men’s and women’s sports programs.
Previously, the programs operated separately, each with its own athletics director. Given orders to put all UT sports under one roof in order to control costs and precipitate a smoother management system, Hart got down to business.
It has been far from a smooth transition.
Once merged, it was Hart who decided all women’s sports teams would drop the “Lady” from their names – except the Lady Vols basketball team. If that strikes you as illogical, well, this is UT.
Now we have a sports hall of fame minus the name Neyland.
How did this happen? In trying to do the right thing, Hart and his pals got it all wrong.
For decades, there have been discussions about initiating a hall of fame for all UT sports. For whatever reason, it failed to gain traction.
In 2001, the women’s program took matters into its own hands and established the Lady Vol Hall of Fame.
Once the decision was made to establish a university-wide sports hall of fame, the powers-that-be decided to grandfather (or grandmother?) in the 73 members of the Lady Vol Hall of Fame.
Of those 73, 65 are former athletes. The other eight are coaches and administrators.
In this era of Title IX laws and equal opportunity, it was determined that 65 male athletes would be inducted, matching the number of women in the hall of fame. In order to be considered, the male athletes had to have completed their eligibility before 1990.
OK. Now we have our ground rules. Let the inductions begin.
But somebody decided that the Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame banquet just wouldn’t be complete without Peyton Manning, who played at UT in 1994-97, on the invitation list. So they made an exception. Actually, they made six exceptions so it wouldn’t appear so rigged.
In addition to Manning, Al Wilson, the emotional and physical leader of the 1998 national championship football team, and basketball star Allan Houston were included in the post-1990 exceptions.
In order to balance that, UT added three former athletes from women’s sports, including basketball’s Kara Lawson.
Another way of looking at it: They made an exception for Peyton Manning but not for Bob Neyland.
This would have been easy to fix, but nobody bothered to spend a few minutes thinking logically.
Please allow me:
The list of Lady Vol Hall of Fame inductees that is now shifting into the combined men’s and women’s hall includes eight coaches and administrators. Why, then, not enshrine eight non-athletes from the men’s program? That would allow these gentlemen to get their due:
-- Ray Mears: He had a winning percentage of .713 and claimed three SEC titles while making basketball relevant at a football school in his 15 years as coach.
He went 15-15 against Kentucky. All things considered, the man who coined the phrase “Big Orange Country” belongs in the UT Athletics Hall of Fame.
-- Phillip Fulmer: In addition to winning the 1998 national championship, Fulmer went 152-52 as Vols football coach in 1992-2008.
His teams finished in the AP Top 25 in 13 of his 17 seasons and appeared in 15 bowl games.
-- Doug Dickey: UT football had hit on hard times when Dickey arrived as coach in 1964.
He scrapped the single-wing offense and installed a variation of the T-formation. He went 46-15-4 in six seasons and won SEC titles in 1967 and ’69.
He returned to UT as athletics director in 1985 and oversaw a wide range of improvements before retiring in 2003.
-- Bob Woodruff: He was the moving force behind facilities upgrades and the program’s overall success as athletics director in 1963-85.
Woodruff had a talent for securing large donations that helped foot the bill for construction of Thompson-Boling Arena and the expansion of Neyland Stadium, among others.
-- Ray Bussard: Of all the colorful personalities in UT sports history, Bussard stands out.
His swimming and diving teams were known for wearing coonskin caps before meets and emptying bottles of water from their home pool into other pools on road trips.
He steered the swimming program from its infancy to a national championship in 1978.
-- Chuck Rohe: During his track and field coaching tenure, Rohe won 15 consecutive indoor and outdoor SEC championships.
He also coordinated football recruiting for several years and was responsible for bringing dual-sport athletes like Richmond Flowers and Chip Kell to UT.
-- John Ward: For more than three decades as a radio broadcaster, Ward’s voice was synonymous with UT football and basketball. He helped build the Vol Network into one of the largest, most successful broadcast platforms in college sports.
-- Gen. Robert R. Neyland: Enough said.
David Climer, who will be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame this summer, can be reached on Twitter @DavidClimer or at firstname.lastname@example.org.