Untold memories from former Vols gear us up for a new season with a new coach
In the eyes of many, the last decade of mismanagement and a succession of bad coaching hires have tarnished the Tennessee football tradition. The fan base is naturally disappointed about the long drought of big wins and national relevance. However, we still have a tradition of producing great teams and winning championships, and we have the stories to prove it. Here are a few of those stories in a salute to Coach Josh Heupel as he tries to make his mark on our football heritage.
If you believe in the tradition of Tennessee football, then you must know that the General Robert Neyland era was primarily responsible for that tradition and that Herky Payne was right smack dab in the middle of it. Herky played in the glory days of Tennessee football and was a major contributor to the 1951 National Championship. When looking for a good story about the Big Orange, there was no better person to turn to than Herky unless it might be Tim Priest or Bud Ford. I spent time with each of these VFL’ers in an attempt to learn their favorite personal recollections and stories about the Tennessee football journey that brings us to this new beginning.
A few months before his death, I had lunch with Herky Payne. At age 91, he was well fit, alert, and quite humorous. I asked him about General Neyland and what most can agree was the heyday of Tennessee football. However great our tradition might be, Harold “Herky” Payne was witness to it. He came from Pensacola High School to play for the General in 1948 and immediately established himself as a grinding type of power running back. He was a favorite of the General and always sat next to him on the bench so he could quickly be sent into the game to replace the first string tailback and Heisman candidate, Hank Lauricella, when guaranteed short yardage was needed. Herky explained that the General was a well-organized man and a strong but fair disciplinarian. Players were actually assigned seats on the bench and were expected to stay there during the game. Herky was always in his place, and when Lauricella moved the team near the goal line, Herky was sent in to power run the last two or three yards for a touchdown. In 1951, Tennessee was the National Champion, and Herky scored 14 touchdowns that year coming off the bench and became the team’s and the SEC’s leading scorer.
Herky loved to talk about General Neyland’s simple approach to offense and recalled a game where the Volunteers were not able to move the ball to the dismay of the fans. Repeatedly being stopped with runs off tackle, the crowd shouted their displeasure. Suddenly, in an inexplicable moment of silence, a lone fan cried out, “Hey, General, why don’t you run your other play.” There was laughter in the stands and a few snickers along the bench, but all players were biting their lips to keep from laughing.
At first, Herky seemed hesitant to tell me the next story, but I was pushing for untold humorous events that he had held private. He said General Neyland had been presented a new Cadillac automobile prior to the 1950 season, and early in the much-anticipated campaign the team traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, for their first conference game of the year against Mississippi State. The Vols lost 7-0, to a lesser team, a totally unexpected result. Herky told that after the game the team was seated quietly on the bus next to the stadium waiting to depart for Knoxville. Herky, as usual, was seated on the front seat next to the General when a drunk Vol fan stepped up into the bus all decked out in an orange shirt and crooked orange cap. The drunk looked straight at Neyland and pointed his finger at the General’s nose and said, “We should have never given you that damn Cadillac, you SOB.” An offended player lunged at the drunk, but the General stopped him and said, “Leave him alone, the man is right. They should have never given me that Cadillac. . .I didn’t deserve it.”
Tim Priest has been a player and longtime close observer of Tennessee football and our ups and downs on the tradition scale. Tim played for the Vols between 1967 and 1970 and served as team captain of the 1970 team. He was the colorful color analyst for the Vol Network from 1999 to 2021 and has been involved in the Vol program for over five decades.
Tim was recruited from Huntingdon High School to play quarterback at UT. He was recruited along with Joe Thompson from Savannah, Tennessee, and Bobby Scott from Rossville, Georgia, all to play as freshmen quarterbacks. Tim tells the story of his first day of practice at UT. He says the first time he saw Bobby Scott throw a pass, he and Joe went to their coach and asked to be reclassified. That’s how Tim came to hold the school record for career interceptions (18) as a cornerback and hold the career record of 305 interception return yards until a guy named Eric Berry came along. Since Thompson couldn’t tackle, he switched from quarterback to wide receiver where he was a top talent in the SEC in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Funny how things work out.
Tim recalls that in 1967 P. W. “Bear” Underwood was hired by Doug Dickey to coach linebackers. “Bear” was a big, heavy man and played guard at Southern Mississippi in the mid-1950’s. One day during practice, “Bear” was having difficulty teaching a young linebacker how to play the position and fight off a charging offensive guard. Finally, in disgust, he stopped practice and pulled the linebacker out of position and assumed his place to demonstrate the technique. The practice stopped and the players gathered round as “Bear” instructed the guard to charge full speed and try to block him. “But, Coach,” the young guard said, “I have full pads on.” “I don’t care,” replied the coach, “Now, give me your best—now FIRE OUT!” The guard rushed forward and knocked the rotund coach six feet flat on his back. The team groaned, then fell silent. The dazed coach raised his head and said to the linebacker, “See, son, you’ve screwed this position up so bad nobody can play it.”
Harris D. “Bud” Ford is the historian of the UT Athletic Department after serving in Sports Information and Media Relations for the program for over 45 years. Bud is a member of the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Writers Hall of Fame, and the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. This well-recognized hall of famer has spent his entire adult life in support of Tennessee athletics from a front row seat.
In the summer of 2019, about a year before his death, Coach Johnny Majors wanted to go to Lynchburg, Tennessee, to pick up some football memorabilia he had stored there, and Bud agreed to drive him. Along with Barry Rice, the Vol videographer, Bud drove the coach to Lynchburg. As they prepared to return to Knoxville, Coach Majors asked Bud if he would mind driving over to Huntland, a few miles away, so he could once again see his old high school stadium where his father coached and he played as a teenager.
In route to Huntland, Coach Majors directed Bud to take a shortcut, and a 20-minute drive turned into an hour drive. When it was obvious that they were lost, Coach Majors told Bud to take a right, but in Bud’s best judgment he took a left, causing Coach Majors to fall silent in the back seat. They eventually found the stadium and Majors spoke not a word and pouted all the way back to Knoxville. When Bud pulled up in front of the Majors’ home, he knew the coach was mad that he had ignored his directions during the “shortcut.” Without saying a word, Majors got out of the car and started walking to the house, then suddenly turned and walked back to the car and a smiling Majors said, “Bud, we’d been home 30 minutes earlier if you had turned right when I told you to.”
Not only is Bud a reservoir of tall tales from his own experiences behind the Athletic Department orange curtain, he has inherited the many recollections of Gus Manning and Haywood Harris, both trailblazers in the sports information business. Bud loves the story about Lindsey Nelson advocating for a statewide radio broadcast of the football games. Nelson was one of the first play-by-play radio announcers for the Tennessee games, but only on local Knoxville radio, and he worked under the exclusive direction of General Neyland.
One day in 1949, Nelson took his idea to the General emphasizing that a statewide network would allow the games to be heard from Bristol to Memphis. The General was interested in the cost of going statewide, and Nelson reassured him that it would be no more than $1,500. “Lindsey, do you know how many ice cream flavors Howard Johnson’s has?” the General asked. Nelson replied, “Twenty-eight, I believe, Coach.” After the General explained that the number one flavor was vanilla, he said, “Lindsey, that’s how I want my games broadcast, vanilla.” As they discussed the possible name for the statewide network, Nelson suggested “the Volunteer Network,” but the General said, “No, that won’t work—let’s name it the Vol Network—the Vol Network it will be.”
That was the first use of the term “Vol” associated with Tennessee athletics, and the broadcasts that followed were anything but vanilla in the hands of John Ward and Bill Anderson followed by Bob Kesling and Tim Priest.
I hope you enjoyed the stories. Now, let’s play ball. GO VOLS!