Good Towns is a regular feature of Doing More Today, showcasing the people and places that make communities unique. Our latest Good Town story ties into college football season – a fitting topic considering Regions is the Official Bank of the Southeastern Conference.
When Southern Conference leaders gathered for their annual banquet in Knoxville, Tennessee, following the 1932 college football season, they were balancing success on the field with growing discontent on campus.
Tennessee capped an undefeated regular season with a 32-13 thumping of Florida for a share of the league title. Auburn and LSU also finished without a loss; thus the trio were proclaimed co-champions.
But the Southern Conference was a cumbersome, unwieldly association, stretching from Virginia to Louisiana – 23 schools in all. And it was all about to come apart.
Do you think conference realignment is new? Ninety-one years ago this month, the Southern’s 13 westernmost schools broke free, creating what would eventually become a super league – the Southeastern Conference. Ten of the charter members remain locked in arms even as the league swells to 16 members next fall with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas.
And it all began on a December day at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, maybe the most curious footnote in our latest Good Town’s deep history.
‘Football is Still the Kingpin’
Since the SEC’s inception, the University of Tennessee has been a stalwart. Everywhere you turn around the sprawling campus, you can’t escape the name of Gen. Robert Neyland. A key road is named after him, as well as the cavernous 101,000-seat football cathedral that’s been around since 1921.
And why not?
From 1926 to 1952, Neyland was the South’s most legendary football coach, preceding Bear Bryant and other greats. He won 173 games during that span, despite leaving twice to fulfill military obligations, where he rose in rank to brigadier general. Neyland’s teams were noted for their physical play, employing a single-wing offense and the nation’s best defense year in, year out.
The 1939 edition was arguably his stingiest, going 10-0 during the regular season without allowing a single point.
There’s an imposing statue of the General at the base of the stadium, which itself is located on a bluff above the Tennessee River. And it’s there we caught up with an old friend whose ties to the university run as deep as Neyland’s.
First as a student, then as the long-time sports information director, Bud Ford has seen decades of growth, change and the evolution of an athletics department that has few peers. Pat Head Summitt turned Tennessee women’s basketball into the national standard. The baseball program is now elite. And men’s basketball, under coach Rick Barnes, is a regular fixture in the madness of March that culminates in the NCAA Tournament. (They’re also favored to win the SEC this season).
But football drives the big orange bus.
“As good as basketball is, and as important as it is, football is still the kingpin.”
“The temperament of the town is determined by how the football team does,” Ford said. “As good as basketball is, and as important as it is, football is still the kingpin.”
Ford has seen it all since first joining the staff after graduating in 1965: Bill Battle’s impressive run as a wunderkind coach; integration and the arrival of Condredge Holloway, the SEC’s first African American quarterback; the resurgence under alum Johnny Majors; and the rise to the top led by Phillip Fulmer, culminating in the 1998 national title.
“Most of my career, we’ve been really good in football,” Ford said. “The biggest change we faced came after Phillip was fired. It’s taken a long time to recover, and it felt like we didn’t have a plan in place. But last year was magical, and this year we’ve built on that.”
At 79, Ford returns to campus three days a week as the official athletic historian of the university, where he’s seen the campus triple in enrollment to more than 33,000 students, and massive growth take UT to the edge of Knoxville’s bustling city center.
With nowhere else to go, the campus expanded West. Cumberland Avenue, the hub of activity, used to be four lanes. It’s now two, in an effort to create a more viable space for students. Everywhere you turn, there are new, gleaming high-rise dorms.
“The appearance has changed dramatically,” he said, pointing to elevated skywalks that deliver pedestrians to The Hill, the center of campus – a must, considering the university’s hilly terrain.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the athletic centerpiece. As he gives us a tour inside Neyland Stadium, it rekindles a sense of wonderment. It’s still and quiet as we visit on a November day, but it’s about to swell to a population that would rank seventh among the state’s metropolises when No. 1 Georgia pays a visit.
The university remains one of the region’s biggest economic drivers. But, in terms of history, it’s a relative newcomer thanks to Knoxville’s role on the early American frontier.
The Room Where It Happened
With apologies to Alexander Hamilton, we’re in the room where it happened – the office of William Blount on the grounds of the Blount Mansion. A few blocks from Neyland Stadium, this is where Knoxville and Tennessee initially took shape.
Blount was a signer of the U.S. Constitution who settled on what was then the North Carolina frontier. The Tennessee River was key.
“This was a strategic place for trade and travel,” explained Jennifer Lee, director of development for the Blount Mansion Association. “It was a great midpoint for getting resources to the west.”
With sawn lumber, nails from North Carolina and glass from Richmond, Virginia, the Blount Mansion was erected in 1792 overlooking the sprawling body of water. While housing the growing family, it also became the territorial capital for the budding regions. And when Tennessee became a state, Blount was elected one of two U.S. senators to represent this American newbie.
“This is the room where it happened,” Lee said as she showed off Blount’s detached office. “It’s where Tennessee earned its statehood, and there’s the desk where the state constitution was drafted.”
Just a carriage ride away you can find Market Square, which first rose prior to the Civil War, then became the economic center of downtown Knoxville in the years that followed.
Today, it’s a hip hub of Knoxville, providing a vibrancy through unique restaurants and shops and hundreds of daily visitors who come for the food, the Farmers Market or to mingle. As we visit, workers begin to erect an ice-skating rink for winter’s arrival.
Market Square ties the original downtown that spreads in all directions. The Tennessee Theatre has been refurbished and thrives, Nearby, the site of the 1982 World’s Fair continues to lure tourists. Leading over to Old City, new restaurants seem to pop up monthly and a downtown baseball stadium is under construction.
From his office downtown, historian Jack Neely shows off a map that details Knoxville’s history, block by block.
“Knoxville was an industrial city in the 19th Century,” explained Neely, the executive director of the Knoxville History Project. “It was called Marble City for the world-class marble produced here, but there were also textile mills and iron works.”
But as UT grew and the Tennessee Valley Authority provided growth opportunity to the surrounding region, Knoxville became, according to Neely, “the one American city that has the pieces of all American history – the good, the bad and the ugly.
“Today, many people think of Knoxville as mainly UT, Oak Ridge, TVA and the Smokies. Though we still have several factories, it’s a very different city from the one built in the 19th century on the iron, coal, marble and textile industries.”
Knoxville: A Bookworm’s Treasure, Unparalleled Outdoor Adventure
Around the corner from the Knoxville Historical Project office is a bona fide treasure trove, Addison’s Books, where Brian Worley has a potpourri of book titles dating back to the 16th Century and modern fare for any book lover.
Upstairs you can find first-edition copies of “David Copperfield” (1850) and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852). In search of an incredibly old family recipe? There’s a cookbook copyrighted 1812.
“I’ve always collected books,” Worley said. “When I retired a year and a half ago, I started buying books for the store.”
Thankfully for us, he’s willing to share his incredible discoveries in a converted office he used as a data lab in his previous career.
The collection is eclectic, with prices ranging from $5 to in the thousands, covering any topic you can imagine.
“My favorite books are anything with historical fiction,” Worley said. “My personal favorite is ‘West the Night’ by Beryl Markham, the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West.”
To fuel the mind for a trip into Addison’s Books, you have to first feed the body. And nothing makes Good Town Knoxville more attractive for the action-minded than the various hiking and biking trails this city offers.
We found our way to Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, south of downtown across the mighty Tennessee, where you can zipline, hike, bike or take a riverwalk trail along the river. You can spend an hour or a day there – maybe even a week – thanks to 60 miles of trails and greenways within the city limits.
It’s the perfect ending to a day filled with football lore and history, and the last stop before returning to Market Square for a sumptuous feast.