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THE GENERAL: Is Robert Neyland the best defensive coach in college football history?

By: John Dunn

Founder, Managing Director, Senior Editor, Host

The All Vol Call in Show

20230815

Statue of General Robert Neyland | Tennessee Athletics

General Robert Neyland is widely regarded as one of the greatest football coaches of all time. You can't mention the likes of Nick Saban and Bear Bryant without mentioning The General. Bryant was even famously quoted saying, "people think I'm the greatest damn coach in the world, but Neyland taught me everything I know." Those are big words from a man widely regarded as the "greatest to ever do it."

In 2023, there is a new name at the top of that list. Many consider Nick Saban to be the greatest college football coach in history, and it's honestly hard to argue that, given the sustained success he has had at Alabama. However, in the discussion of the "greatest of all time," I feel like General Neyland doesn't get the respect he is due, especially considering how incredible his defenses were. He is also one of only two college football coaches to have won national titles in two non-consecutive tenures at the same school.


"Neyland is often referred to as one of the best, if not the best, defensive football coaches ever. Sports Illustrated named Neyland as the defensive coordinator of its all-century college football team in its "Best of the 20th Century" edition. 112 of his victories came via shutout. In 1938 and 1939, Neyland's Vols set NCAA records when they shut out 17 straight regular season opponents for 71 consecutive shutout quarters. His 1939 squad is the last NCAA team in history to hold every regular season opponent scoreless."


"Neyland was named head coach and athletic director at the university by school president Nathan W. Dougherty in 1926. He coached the team for nine years before being called to active duty by the Army for one year in Panama. During that first nine-year stint with the Vols, Neyland had five undefeated seasons, all within a six-year period (1927, 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1932). The Vols reeled off undefeated streaks of 33 and 28 straight games." A feat that has never been matched.


"Neyland's 1938 team went undefeated and was proclaimed national champion by several minor outlets. His 1939 squad is notable for being the last college football team to go an entire regular season unscored upon, shutting out every opponent; his team was then shut out by USC in the Rose Bowl. From November 5, 1938, to December 9, 1939, the Vols ran off 17 straight shutouts and 71 consecutive shutout quarters—records that have never been seriously threatened. Neyland completed another undefeated regular season in 1940."


Then, WWII came. He was recalled to military service again in 1941. "In World War II, Neyland served in the China-Burma-India Theater, supervising the transportation of material through monsoons and across the Himalayas to the troops commanded by General "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell. During his military career he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit and made a member of the Order of the British Empire. He retired from military service a second time, in 1946, with the rank of brigadier general, and again returned to the Vols as coach through 1952."


"His 1950 team was crowned national champion by several minor outlets, while his 1951 team won the school's first undisputed national championship, the first year the Volunteers ended a season ranked first in either the AP or UPI poll. He remained as athletic director at the university until his death in New Orleans on March 28, 1962"


Neyland finished his career as Tennessee's head coach with an incredible record of 173-31-12 (83% winning percentage). While many contend that he has no argument in the "greatest of all time" discussion due to coaching so long ago, my rebuttal is this: "then why hasn't it been replicated?" If the game has changed that much and it's "not that impressive that he did it against plumbers and farmers," why hasn't it been done again? Not just his entire body of work, but nothing that Neyland did during his time as a head coach, especially defensively, has ever, nor will ever, be replicated again.


Is The General the greatest defensive coach of all time? Yes -- yes he is; and quite frankly it isn't even close.



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