Alabama safety Hershel Mosley looked upfield, at all those 'Bama
bodies felled and piled like cordwood in the late-October light,
and figured he might end up the only defender standing. In the
middle of the field, with his own goal line 30 yards behind him,
he set himself and thought, What do I do? He sensed he dare not
Johnny Butler was coming straight at him, the football cradled in
his left arm, and for a moment there during the second quarter at
Shields-Watkins Field in Knoxville--before more than 40,000
throaty souls, then the largest crowd ever to have attended a
sporting event in Tennessee--Butler looked like Casper in cleats:
"a dancing, dodging, untacklable ghost," as Grantland Rice would
describe him the next day.
Mosley watched Butler's run unfold before him. "It was like
poetry," he says now, 61 years later. "It looked like it had
been choreographed." Indeed, by this afternoon of Oct. 21, 1939,
much of what the Volunteers had done of late, on both sides of
the line, had seemed flawlessly scripted. They hadn't lost a
game since Nov. 13, 1937, when Vanderbilt had beaten them 13-7.
They had won their last 16 games in a row, a streak that
embraced the entire '38 season, in which Tennessee had gone
11-0, beaten Oklahoma 17-0 in the Orange Bowl and shared the
national championship with Texas Christian.
By the 1939 game against Alabama, the Vols were also on their
way to setting two NCAA records that may never be broken: They
would hold their opponents scoreless through 17 straight
regular-season games and 71 consecutive quarters, from the
second quarter of the game against LSU on Oct. 29, 1938, to the
first quarter of the game against the Crimson Tide on Oct. 19,
1940. Tennessee was also in the midst of what could turn out to
be the last unflawed regular season in college football, a
campaign in which the Vols went undefeated, untied and unscored
upon. They won their 10 regular-season games in '39 by a
combined score of 212-0.
December 28, 1998
Of all that these Volunteers are remembered for, however,
nothing remotely approaches the drama that ensued on Oct. 21
when the 5'10", 160-pound Butler, playing tailback in
Tennessee's single-wing offense, took the snap from Norbert
Ackerman on the Tennessee 44-yard line. Butler took off left and
swept toward the corner, chasing his blocking back, Ike Peel, as
Peel dropped his shoulder and flattened Alabama end Gene
Blackwell. Butler crossed the 50, cut suddenly right and raced
across the field to the other sideline, the hands of Tide
defenders grabbing at him as he went. At the 40-yard line
defensive halfback Jimmy Nelson reached for him but missed,
whereupon Butler turned back toward the middle of the gridiron.
He feinted, stopped, swiveled and spun away from All-America
tackle Fred Davis and several other defenders. Then there was
Mosley, awaiting him near the 30. Butler sprinted straight at
him, faked right, cut left. "I leaned, and the little pissant
cut back right again!" Mosley says. "He cut twice on me! Fooled
Butler blew past Mosley, and as he got to the 20, he danced in
front of Nelson, who had raced back into the play, until Peel
reappeared and cut Nelson down. Loose at last, Butler raced the
final 20 yards to score and put the Vols ahead 6-0. He sprawled
on his back in the end zone, breathing great gulps of air, as the
Tennessee trainer rushed to his side and jubilant fans came out
of the stands and danced around the uprights.
It was officially a 56-yard gallop, but most observers believe
Butler went at least twice that far. "It must have taken the
better part of three minutes," recalls Ed Cifers, a Volunteers
end from 1938 to '40. "Everybody on the club had a shot at
knocking somebody down. It was quite a spectacle."
The demoralized Tide never got into the game, which Tennessee won
21-0. Not only had Butler instantly entered the pantheon of
Volunteers football--"Butler's run was about the greatest I've
ever seen," venerable Pitt coach Jock Sutherland, who was at
Shields-Watkins Field that day, told Rice--but he had also done so
against the Vols' bitterest rival in the most ballyhooed game of
the year. In fact, of all the games Tennessee won during its
extraordinary run, none did more to commend it to history than
the 1939 victory over Alabama. "I don't believe I ever saw a
better team in my entire coaching and playing career," Sutherland
told Rice, echoing a widely held sentiment of the day. "A team
magnificently coached and drilled."
The Volunteers had four All-Americas that year: tailback George
(Bad News) Cafego and guards Ed Molinsky and Bob Suffridge, all
three of whom are in the College Football Hall of Fame, and
tackle Abe Shires. Tennessee also had unheralded 187-pound
fullback-linebacker Len Coffman, regarded by surviving members
of the team as its finest player, pound for pound. "The toughest
mortal you've ever seen," Peel says. Coffman once ripped the
helmet off a ballcarrier so hard, spectators worried that the
runner's head was still in it.
The 187-pound Molinski and the 186-pound Suffridge, quick and
strong, constituted the nation's best guard tandem. "They played
shoulder to shoulder like tractors," recalls 'Bama fullback James
Helm. "They'd pull together and lead the blocking for Cafego.
They ran up and down the field on us like a window shade."
The architect of this precision drill was Tennessee's legendary
coach, Robert Neyland, a West Point graduate who ran his offense
like the First Engineers major that he'd been in World War I,
usually with a single-wing simplicity founded on grinding,
double-team blocking. He was an innovative master--he was the
first coach, for instance, to use film to evaluate games--and he
was more comfortable without the ball. He liked to say, "There
are more ways to score on defense than on offense." Neyland was,
in fact, the most respected defensive strategist of his time.
During his 21 years at Tennessee he coached 216 games, and in
nearly half of them (106) the Vols' opponents didn't score. "If
he had 10 points on you," Cifers says, "he'd quick-kick on first
down just to give you the ball back, hoping you would make a
mistake." Neyland deployed a six-man line and a zone pass
defense and taught his players to worry less about tackles than
about feeling out a play. Rather than crash into the enemy
backfield, the Vols linemen pressed until the offense committed
itself and then shifted with the play.
Neyland had seven maxims, which he recited to his players before
each game. The first was, "The team that makes the fewest
mistakes will win." Fumblers were punished like Hester Prynne.
"If a player fumbled in a game," says Dink Eldridge, the Vols'
manager in 1939, "he had to carry a football around for a week,
everywhere he went. He even had to sleep with it."
Neyland believed in gang-tackling, Scotch whisky and the bloody
nose. Players were forbidden to lift weights, on the grounds
that they would become musclebound. Neyland believed that
perfection grows from discipline and repetition. In 1938 he
began spring practice on Jan. 9. He drilled his players like a
dentist. "Sometimes we did plays 500 times," Coffman says. "The
practices ran like clockwork."
Neyland was the commandant, and the players were the grunts. He
didn't get close to any of them. Like any military leader, he
believed in the strict observance of the regulations. One weekend
Coffman violated the coach's rule against leaving Knoxville
during the season by visiting his girlfriend in Greeneville,
Tenn., and when Neyland found out about it he asked Coffman, "How
far is it to Greeneville?"
"About 72 miles," Coffman replied.
"You'll take 72 laps around the quarter-mile track," Neyland said.
Nonetheless, the players admired and respected Neyland like a
father. In the late 1930s the U.S. was still sunk in the Great
Depression, and Ackerman estimates that 90% of the players on
Tennessee's championship teams couldn't have gone to college had
Neyland not given them scholarships. Coffman had been fatherless
since he was nine. "I didn't have anything," he says. "I was a
pauper." Peel's father, Ike Sr., had a little grocery store on
the banks of the Mississippi in western Tennessee, and on the day
in '38 when Ike went off to Knoxville to play football, his dad
handed him a $20 bill and told him, "I scraped to get this
together. Do the best you can."
"We got room, board, tuition, books, laundry, dry cleaning and a
$10-a-month stipend," Ackerman says. "The theaters in town gave
us free tickets, and you could buy 32 ounces of beer for 10
cents." The scholarship was the players' slow ride out of
poverty, their lifeline to the future.
These young men had come of age in a world buffeted by economic
turmoil and the looming hydra of world war. On Oct. 1, 1938, the
Nazis marched into the Sudetenland. Two weeks later Neyland
marched his Volunteers into Birmingham, where he unveiled his
latest football invention. In practice he'd repeatedly had
Coffman make two-yard dives over Ackerman and blocking dummies.
Twice against Alabama, with the ball inside the Tide one-yard
line, Coffman vaulted over sprawling linemen to score. Tennessee
At the end of 1938 the Vols had gone 10-0 and won the first of
what would be three straight SEC titles, and Neyland had come
under attack for using another offensive weapon: Tennessee's
schedule. The perennial toughies (Alabama, Auburn, LSU and
Vanderbilt) were there, but Tennessee's '38 slate had been
spotted with softies--Sewanee, The Citadel and Chattanooga--and in
'39 a fourth cream puff would be added: Mercer. When the Vols
showed up for the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 1939,
they faced, in the eyes of many observers, their day of
The Bix Six champion Sooners and the Volunteers lined up to play
football, and a hockey game broke out. It was "the roughest
college conflict of modern times," wrote Fred Russell, the sports
editor of the Nashville Banner. Fistfights broke out all over the
field. On one play a flying elbow cracked one of Cifers's molars.
On another play Oklahoma linebacker Earl Crowder "got knocked so
hard in the head," Sooners halfback Gene Corrotto recalls, "that
he didn't know if he was walking or riding."
The Volunteers' victory that day gave them a share of their first
national championship and sent them racing into the 1939 season.
By early September, after Germany invaded Poland, Europe was
imploding. "We're going to war soon," Neyland told Coffman. "Be
ready for it."
It was against this darkest of backdrops that Neyland bore down
in schooling his players. He had the Vols playing like a team in
close-order drill, swarming on tackles, blocking ferociously and
chasing down the ball. The undefeated, unscored-upon season ended
when the Volunteers, crippled by injuries to Cafego and
Suffridge, were blanked 14-0 by Southern Cal in the 1940 Rose
The three championship years from 1938 to '40, centered on that
stunning string of regular-season shutouts, constitute
Tennessee's greatest era as a national power. Neyland left
Knoxville in '41 to serve in World War II, attaining the rank of
brigadier general while moving Allied supplies through Calcutta,
and then returned to Tennessee long enough to build a third
national champion, in '51. He retired from coaching in '52 to
become Tennessee's athletic director and died 10 years later, at
age 70. Vols coaches still recite Neyland's aphorisms to the
troops. His oldest surviving players, such as the 82-year-old
Coffman, a farmer in Greeneville, Tenn., still quote him. One
thing he used to say was, "You don't know about a player until
he's played in the Alabama game."
On the eve of this Fiesta Bowl, looking to fire up the Vols, the
old innovator would surely not object to a new wrinkle: "You
don't know about a player until he's played for a national
championship--against Florida State."
No man smiles in his grave, but a few forever speak from it.
POINTS BLANK Neyland (above, center, at the 1940 Rose Bowl)
guided the '39 Volunteers to the last unscored-upon regular
season. Remarkably, the year before, Duke also didn't give up a
point in going 9-0 before losing in the Rose Bowl to USC. Here
are the five teams since '39 that have allowed the fewest
TEAM YEAR RECORD SCORED ALLOWED HOW SEASON ENDED
Mississippi 1959 9-1 329 21 Ranked No. 2; beat
LSU in Sugar Bowl 21-0
Alabama 1961 10-0 287 22 No. 1; beat Arkansas
in Sugar Bowl 10-3
Duquesne 1941 8-0 143 23 No. 8; denied bowl bid
due to weak schedule
Notre Dame 1946 8-0-1 271 24 No. 1; no bowl game*
Penn State 1947 9-0 319 25 No. 4; tied SMU in
Cotton Bowl 13-13
*Did not accept bowl bids between 1926 and 1969
The young men on Neyland's teams had come of age in a world
buffeted by economic turmoil and the looming hydra of world war.