Neyland and the Last Single Wing Tailback


After receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, Robert Reese Neyland (pronounced “knee-land”) starred as an end for the Army football team from 1913-16. In his spare time, he pitched for the baseball team and won the academy’s boxing championship. After his graduation, Neyland was commissioned as an officer and, during World War I, served with an engineering division in France. Upon his return to the states, he earned a graduate degree in engineering at MIT and then became an aide to General Douglas MacArthur at West Point. In 1925, he was hired as Professor of Military Science at Tennessee. That fall, Neyland began his football coaching career as an assistant for the Volunteers. His talents were obvious. The following year, University President Harcourt Morgan named him head coach with the directive to “beat Vanderbilt,” a school which fielded a dominant team in the early years of college football. And Neyland and his teams did just that, while also defeating just about everyone else on the schedule from 1926 to 1952. His tenure coaching the Vols was interrupted twice by virtue of his military responsibilities and, during World War II, when he was promoted to general. While emphasizing the importance of team defense in his time at Tennessee, he had installed his signature single wing offense wherein the tailback position included running, passing, punting, returning punts and kicks. If those duties were not enough, in this two-way era for all players, the tailback also played in the team’s defensive backfield.

While Neyland’s stellar defenses dominated in his three terms as head coach for the gridiron Vols, his offense featured the tailbacks like All-Americans Beattie Feathers, Gene McEver, George Cafego, and Hank Lauricella. When “the General” retired after the 1952 season, he had recorded national championships in 1938, 1940, 1950, and 1951 and compiled an enviable overall record of 173-31-12. Further, his 1939 team was the last NCAA team in history to go undefeated and unscored on during a regular season. Years later, in its edition recognizing its All-20th Century team, Sports Illustrated named Neyland as the premier defensive coordinator for the sport’s first one-hundred years.

His departure signaled a brief decline for the Vols. After mediocre seasons in ’53 and ’54 under Harvey Robinson, Neyland, in his role as athletic director, hired his former All-American end, Bowden Wyatt, as the Vol’s new head coach. Wyatt, originally from Sweetwater, had coached conference championship teams at both Wyoming and Arkansas before “coming home.” Choosing to continue with Neyland’s single wing offense, Wyatt duplicated that feat in 1956 at Tennessee. Led by his single wing, “triple threat” All-American tailback Johnny Majors, who was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year for the second straight season, Tennessee finished 10-0, losing to Oklahoma in a close vote for the national championship.

In Wyatt’s last five-years, however, the Vols were 25-22-3, nowhere near the standard Neyland had set during his four decades at the helm. Vol fans typically blamed the antiquated single wing. In this period, tailbacks like Bobby Gordon, Bill Majors, Gene Etter, George Canale, and Glenn Glass continued to lead the Vol offense, just as quarterbacks do today, but, apart from Gordon, the only one to gain a measure of distinction for the Vols was Mallon Faircloth of Cordele, Georgia. After being coached by then assistant Johnny Majors while on the freshman squad (first year students were not eligible for varsity play in the 1960s), tailback Faircloth was named Sophomore of the Year in the SEC at the conclusion of the 1961 season, leading his team in rushing and passing and just about every other meaningful individual statistic.

Neyland died in the following spring, ending a remarkable era of leadership. Wyatt, who had continued to coach his mentor’s traditional single wing, was fired later that year after a dismal 4-6 ’62 season. He was replaced by his eight-year assistant, Jim McDonald, a former Ohio State running back.

Fans speculated that Tennessee would change to the popular T-formation for the ’63 season. It did not happen. Perhaps the coaches and players on hand had come to Knoxville committed to the single wing, or maybe Neyland’s influence extended beyond his death. As for Faircloth, despite the losing ’62 season under Wyatt, he was once again to be the Vols’ best offensive threat in his junior year. And, like many of his predecessors at the tailback position, he was the team’s best at rushing, passing, and punting. Finally, much like many of his predecessors at the tailback position, he was solid in the defensive backfield, compiling five interceptions in his career while also returning punts and kickoffs.

In McDonald’s only year, the team finished the season with a 5-5 record, winning only three conference games. The season ended on a high note, however, with shutout wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Led by Faircloth in his final game, the Vols defeated a competitive Commodore squad, 14-0. By then, however, the single wing offense was an endangered species across the nation. Few high schools, even in Tennessee, continued to use the formation. That affected recruiting. Home-grown quarterbacks went to other schools. In these years, for example, Steve Sloan of Bradley County chose Alabama, and, of course, Steve Spurrier of Johnson City won a Heisman Trophy at Florida in 1966. Both these T-formation quarterbacks had careers in the NFL and later became successful head coaches in the collegiate ranks. Meanwhile, at the end of his last season, Faircloth was chosen to play in the post ’63 season Blue-Gray all-star game, an annual charitable event in those days which served as an opportunity for college players to display their talents for NFL scouts. Until that final game, he had never played in a T-formation as a collegiate athlete. Triple threat tailbacks were largely extinct.

Doug Dickey, a former college quarterback at Florida and an assistant at Arkansas, was named the new head coach at Tennessee for the ’64 season. His implementation of the more modern T-formation signaled the end of the single wing era. Thus, General Neyland never saw his orange-clad Volunteers in anything other than the single wing offense.

As a postscript, after a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys in the pre-season tryouts, Faircloth returned to Knoxville to enroll at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Good move. Upon graduation, he returned to his hometown, where he engaged in the private practice for 13 years before taking over as the Superior Court Judge in his district of the state. He served four terms in that office, never having been challenged in an election. Afterward, Faircloth, well-known for his knowledge and patience as a jurist, became the United States Magistrate for the federal courts in Columbus. He retired in 2010. As an avocation, he had become an accomplished distance runner for a time and also contributed columns to a Georgia-based magazine for runners. He has written two books so far and, at 85, is working on yet another. Still a season ticket holder for Vol home games, Judge Faircloth stands as the last single wing tailback in the 37-year history of the formation at Tennessee. Mindful of current trends, he recently pointed out that today’s imaginative offenses like the shotgun can look a lot like the old single wing. As for Robert Reese Neyland, his nine-foot statue kneels at the portals of the stadium named in his honor.

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