Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Tennessee Football Coach Served in World Wars I, II

Nov. 17, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

By the time Robert Reese Neyland graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1916, he had made a name for himself in three sports.

A man in a West Point cadet’s uniform poses for a photo.
Academy Pose
Robert Reese Neyland poses for a photo during his time as a cadet with the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., 1912 to 1916.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 150421-O-ZZ999-002C

As a lineman for the football team, he helped the Black Knights win the Army-Navy games from 1914 to 1916.

As a baseball pitcher for the Black Knights, he authored a 35-5 record. In 1914, he fired the first no-hitter in Army history when he blanked Colgate.

In boxing, he was an undefeated, heavyweight boxing champion for his final three years at the academy.

A man in a baseball player’s uniform poses for a photo.
Military Baseball
Robert Reese Neyland wears his baseball uniform during his time as a cadet with the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., 1912 to 1916.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 150421-O-ZZ999-001C

Neyland also found time for academics, graduating near the top of his class.

Several professional baseball teams, including the New York Giants, tried to lure Neyland to their teams with big-money offers, but he decided to stay in the Army where he was deployed to Texas as an Army Corps of Engineers officer and helped erect levees along the Rio Grande River.

Neyland then served as an engineer in France during World War I.

In 1921, he returned to West Point as an aide to Army Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the academy's superintendent. While there, he also assisted in coaching football, baseball and boxing.

A man in a military uniform poses for a photo.
West Point Work
Robert Reese Neyland poses for a photo during his time at the U.S. Military Academy when he served as an aide to Army Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was the academy's superintendent, West Point, N.Y., 1921.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210421-O-ZZ999-002C

In 1925, Neyland became the head football coach at the University of Tennessee while continuing his military duties as an ROTC instructor. 

Neyland's coaching career was disrupted twice — when he was recalled to active duty in 1934 and deployed to Panama and again in May 1941 just before the start of World War II.

In 1942, Neyland was appointed head coach of the Eastern All-Army team that took on National Football League clubs to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief fund. The team played three games, defeating the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers before losing to the defending NFL champion Chicago Bears.

A man talks to football players during a game.
Football Talk
Robert Reese Neyland, right, talks to football players during his time as head football coach at the University of Tennessee, beginning in 1925.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 250421-O-ZZ999-003C
A man talks to football players.
Football Team
Robert Reese Neyland (left, holding football) poses for a team photo during his time as head football coach at the University of Tennessee, beginning in 1925.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 250421-O-ZZ999-004C
A man poses for a photo.
Robert Reese Neyland
Robert Reese Neyland served as head football coach at the University of Tennessee beginning in 1925.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 250421-O-ZZ999-002C

Neyland then served in China, Burma and India, supervising the transport of Allied war supplies across the Himalayan Mountains. He left the Army as a brigadier general in 1946.

In 1946, Neyland resumed coaching at UT, where he earned the nickname "the General."

In 1952, he quit his job as coach and became the UT athletic director for a decade. During that time, he helped to design UT's stadium.

A man talks to football players.
Head Coach
Robert Reese Neyland (right) poses for a photo during his time as head football coach at the University of Tennessee, beginning in 1925.
Photo By: Courtesy of the University of Tennessee
VIRIN: 250421-O-ZZ999-005C

During his legendary coaching career in Knoxville, Tennessee, he compiled an overall record of 173-31-12, winning four national championships and seven conference titles.

Neyland died in 1962. Today, the University of Tennessee football stadium is named in his honor and there's also a statue of him there.

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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903