Robert Reese Neyland attended Burleson Junior College in his hometown of Greenville, Texas, for a year and then transferred to Texas A&M for a year, studying engineering and playing baseball and other sports. He took the examination for appointment to West Point, and in 1912 Congressman Sam Rayburn appointed him to the US Military Academy.
He did not letter in his freshman year, and in his second year he was disciplined for a hazing incident and barred from any athletic activities outside the gym for seven months. Furious at a penalty he thought patently unfair, he used the gym time to hone his boxing skills to become a three-time NCAA heavyweight champion. Once his sentence was served, he returned to the athletic fields, particularly on the baseball diamond, where he pitched a record 35 wins, including a 20-game winning streak, with only 5 losses. He pitched the first no-hitter in West Point history against Colgate in 1914. In his final Army-Navy baseball game (1916) he was knocked unconscious by a beanball. He went back in with his vision still blurred to pitch the win, earning the personal praise of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. The game in which he was hit with the beanball was the only game his mother, Pauline Lewis Neyland, attended.
He played end on the 1914 and 1915 Army football teams (which won the National Championship in 1914). Although reportedly recruited by the New York Giants, Detroit Tigers, and Philadelphia Athletics, he went to war as soon as he graduated, serving as an engineering company commander in the Argonne campaign and after the war as commander of the Eighth Engineers in Pershing’s action against Pancho Villa in Mexico.
When the New York Times reported that Neyland, at age 27, was one of the two youngest regimental commanders in the US Army, he was almost immediately demoted to captain. When Neyland complained that his youth had been responsible for the demotion, his successor awarded him a below satisfactory rating and sent him to MIT for one year of postgraduate studies in civil engineering.
In 1921 he spent six months as an aide to MacArthur at West Point and two years as assistant football, baseball, and boxing coach. By 1925 Neyland had developed his own ideas about how the game of football should be played and looked for an ROTC assignment in which he could additionally coach football. There was an ROTC vacancy in Iowa and one in Tennessee. He decided upon Tennessee and is said to have done so because at Tennessee “there was no way to go but up.” He served concurrently as assistant to the district engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Chattanooga. His job as assistant football coach paid $700 a year and was secondary to his ROTC assignment. In his first year (1925), Coach M. B. Banks became ill before the Tennessee-Georgia game, and Neyland coached the team to victory. Banks was released by UT at the end of the year, and Neyland was promoted to head coach.
Neyland’s appointment as ROTC instructor was for two years. After two years he became commandant of ROTC, an appointment that extended his stay another two years. After four years he would have been reassigned, but President Morgan and trustee Paul Kruesi petitioned Major General Edgar Jadwin for a two-year extension of his appointment as commandant on the grounds that Neyland had been extremely effective and that a building program was underway that might result in a large auditorium that could be used for military training and physical education. A two-year extension was granted. UT, primarily in the form of Nathan Dougherty, began almost immediately to press for his next extension. Neyland was next appointed to head an engineering group in Chattanooga and could take military leave to coach football in the fall. At the end of that two-year tour, he was transferred to the Corps of Engineers in Nashville, with the same coaching arrangement.
In 1935 Neyland was ordered to Panama for a three-year term. Coach Britton lost all the big games following Neyland’s departure, and UT cabled Neyland an offer of $12,000 per year to return. Edwin Cole quotes Neyland (in Football’s Greatest Coaches) as saying, “My family was in ill health. I missed football terribly. The salary offered me was miles in excess of anything I could have made in service. So I turned in my saber and signed a five-year contract at Tennessee.” He coached and served as director of athletics from 1936 until he was recalled to active duty in 1941. He returned after World War II (1946) as football coach until 1952. In 1951, when he informed the Athletics Board that he was seriously considering accepting the head coaching job at the University of Southern California, the Athletics Board told Neyland that if he stayed at UT he would be guaranteed a lifetime job, either as coach or athletics director. In 1952 Neyland became director of athletics. He retired from coaching in 1954. In February 1962 the board of trustees reaffirmed the commitment to a lifetime job, and Neyland died in office as athletics director in 1962.
He was the first coach in the South to use press box telephones to the field, game films for evaluation, tear-away jerseys, and low-top shoes. He initiated the quarterback position as it is used today, the balanced single-wing offense, and a statewide radio network. He was an avid bridge player, enjoyed fishing and puttering with shrubbery. He played golf but quit it because, as Edwin Cole quotes him as explaining, “You can’t make a par play your game. . . . There’s no man-to-man conflict . . . nobody to outwit. You can’t outthink a ball.” He read Western novels with a passion. He was frightened of public speaking and never appeared on radio talk shows. He avoided public occasions upon which he might be asked to speak.
He attracted considerable attention because of his superstitions, e.g., he wore the same suit to games; he refused to have his picture made before games; he disapproved of anyone’s mentioning that his teams had no injuries, for fear that might bring about some; and he attributed his baseball losses at West Point to the fact that he had put on his right shoe before he put on his left shoe on the morning of one of the losses.
While at Tennessee, he won four national championships (1951, 1950, 1940, 1938); coached nine overall unbeaten seasons; lost only one home game in 21 years; never coached a losing season; and never lost to Alabama and Bear Bryant. In 1939 his Tennessee team was both unbeaten and unscored upon—the last unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon record in college football.
Several months before his death, he had approached President Holt with a proposition to raise an endowment from supporters of athletics that would provide academic merit scholarships. The Neyland Scholars program was begun shortly after his death.
He was elected to the College Football of Fame in 1953, named the Football Writers’ Man of the Year in 1954, and received the A. A. Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 1957.