Loran Smith’s Sports Column: Gen. Neyland

Published 1:38 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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When Georgia opened the season versus Alabama between the

hedges in 1959, one of the press box luminaries in attendance was

Tennessee’s Gen. Robert Neyland.

That caused quite a stir. In the first quarter (???) Bill Godfrey burst

through the line of scrimmage and dashed 40 yards for a touchdown. After

the game, Dan Magill, Georgia’s preeminent publicist, came with a Neyland

quote that added a lot of gloss to the Bulldog victory. “The blocking was as

perfect as it could be,” the General said.

It was said of Neyland that he could tell you after a play what every

lineman on the line of scrimmage had done. Bill Hartman said that

Georgia’s Wallace Butts also had that ability. Matt Stinchcomb said the

same thing about Kirby Smart when the former spoke to the Athens

Touchdown Club in the last fortnight.

Neyland was old school and never changed his principles which

essentially were to run off tackle, underscore defense and give the kicking

game the ultimate priority.


He won many games by a touchdown or less. There were one-point

games, a lot of 6-0 victories and 14-7 scores in close games. Believe it or

not he went an entire season, 1939, in which the opposition did not score a

single point. The result, all games: Tennessee, 212; Opponents, 0.

One of his long-standing preachments was that all close games are

lost by the losers, not won by the winners. Neyland finished his career with

an .829 winning percentage which is the best in history of the storied

Southeastern Conference. The record of Alabama’s Bear Bryant is next.

His career winning percentage was .780. The Bear never defeated the


For comparison, Nick Saban’s career win percentage is 79.1 while

Kirby Smart’s is 85.6.

There is a big difference in today’s game than in yesteryear, during

the times of Neyland and Bryant. Their era was a low scoring era and

while defense is important—very important for Kirby Smart—he believes in

scoring. His view is that ultimately the best offenses will get the better of

the best defenses.

Neyland was an innovator. He was the first coach to sequester his

team at a motel the night before home games where his teams ate and


slept football the entire weekend. He was the first to use telephones from

the press box to the field, the first to use tearaway jerseys, low top shoes,

and lightweight hip pads to enhance speed.

In Neyland’s day, cotton was king in the South, and all farmers tuned

into the weather forecasters, based in Memphis. They were the experts,

and Neyland got to know them and talked to them each week in the fall.


During his military days, he was sent to M.I.T. following WW I, where

he earned an engineering degree which he utilized to design the stadium

which now bears his name.

Tennessee players through the ages are familiar with the term

“Oskiwowwow.” That was a Neyland signal for the defense if they gained

possession of the football—an interception, for example—that the

defenders were suddenly on offense. They were blockers. Neyland

learned about “Oskiwowwow,” from Indian lore.

His maxims have gained notoriety for decades. Coaches everywhere

know Neyland’s maxims even if they never set foot on the Volunteer


1) The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.


2) Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way,


3) If at first, the game, or the breaks, go against you—don’t let up;

put on more steam.

4) Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead, and our ball game.

5) Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang

tackle….for this is the winning edge.

6) Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.

7) Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

Over the years, especially on trips to Knoxville, I have reviewed files

with Neylan vignettes and lore, and while the game has changed, the

fundamentals of the Neyland philosophy remain apropos for coaching


I see a lot of the crusty old General’s approach to fundamental

football in Kirby Smart. As it was with Neyland, Kirby’s teams rarely beat