The Mount Rushmore of Tennessee Volunteers Football

As part of its ongoing look at college football greats throughout the country, Last Word on Sports discusses the University of Tennessee. The Volunteers have one of the most storied college football programs in the country. From legendary coaches to legendary players, it’s a list that goes on and on. There’s so many players and coaches that could make this “Mount Rushmore” of Tennessee football but only four will be able to make the cut.

Tennessee Volunteers Football Mount Rushmore

Robert Neyland

Robert Reese Neyland, better known to Tennessee fans as “The General” definitely makes the list here. Neyland was hired in 1926 as head coach of Tennessee and in his first nine years on the job, Neyland had five undefeated seasons, in the years 1927, 1928, 1929, 1931 and 1932. Tennessee had a 33-game winning streak and a 28-game winning streak throughout that time frame. He is often referred to as “The General” because he was called to the Army after his ninth year coaching to go to Panama for duty. He would subsequently return to UT and continue the dominance. In 1938, Tennessee was awarded the National Championship, the first in school history with an 11-0 record and defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl 17-0. The 1938 team allowed just 16 points all season, and that great defense would be even better the next year. In 1939, Tennessee shutout all of their opponents in the regular season, the last team to do so, but ironically they would get shut out by USC in the Rose Bowl at the end of the year 14-0. From November 5th, 1938, to December 9th, 1939, Tennessee capped off 17 straight shutouts. In 1940, Tennessee would end up going undefeated again during the regular season and was awarded the National Championship by a couple of different polls. Neyland was called back to military service in 1941 for World War II and would not return to coach again until 1946. After Tennessee had a couple of mediocre seasons in the late 1940’s, UT would pick up steam yet again on the college football landscape, winning National Championships in 1950 and 1951. The 1951 team however, was the first “undisputed” championship for the school. Neyland’s last season as coach was 1952, but he would be the school’s athletic director until his death in 1962. That season the stadium was be renamed “Neyland Stadium” in his honor. Neyland actually had some drawings for expansion for the stadium shortly before his death. The first year Neyland came to Tennessee, the stadium’s capacity was 3,200 and when he retired, the stadium’s capacity was 46,000. Neyland’s drawings and ideas were so far ahead of their times, they have been used for every expansion since, making “Neyland Stadium” what it is today. Neyland is most certainly Tennessee football.

Peyton Manning

This one probably isn’t a surprise to the average football fan. Peyton Manning is one of the most legendary football players of all time, and Tennessee was lucky enough to have him from 1994-1997. He was the fourth quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 11,000 yards and throw for more than 300 yards in 18 games. He finished his Volunteer career with 11,201 yards, also winning an SEC championship for Tennessee in 1997 with a 30-29 win over Auburn. However, Peyton Manning in his freshman year was initially a backup quarterback, but going into the season opener at UCLA, the UT starter was injured, opening the door for Peyton. While Peyton’s freshman year in 1994 was an average 8-4 campaign, his sophomore season in 1995 was where the legend of Manning was born. After an early loss to Florida, Tennessee would rack up 8 straight wins, only losing one game all year. The game at Alabama that year was arguably the highlight of the season. Tennessee had not beaten Alabama since 1985, and came oh so close in 1993, but tied with Bama that year. The first pass Peyton Manning ever had at Alabama was a long touchdown pass to Joey Kent, that opened the flood gates to a 41-14 pounding of Bama at Legion Field. Peyton would end up being runner-up to Charles Woodson for the Heisman, even though many say Peyton should’ve won that year. Manning didn’t win a National Championship at UT, but the Volunteers would take home the trophy a year after he left in 1998. Many credit Peyton for developing the offense well enough to win that championship. Peyton Manning is one of, if not the greatest, ambassador for the University of Tennessee. He continues to come to games when he can, supporting Tennessee football, giving back to the University and being a proud alum of The University of Tennessee.

Johnny Majors

Johnny Majors is one of the legendary players and coaches for the University. He played as a tailback at UT from 1953-1956. He collected 1,622 yards rushing and also threw 1,135 yards, scoring 16 touchdowns in his Tennessee career. Not only did he run and pass, but he also punted 83 times and had a 39.1-yard average. He would also return punts 36 times for 438 yards as well as returned kickoffs 15 times for 344 yards. Majors would become an All-American in 1956, in addition to being runner-up to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in the Heisman trophy race. Although, Notre Dame finished 2-8 that year, while Tennessee finished 10-1 and were SEC champions that season. Many say it was the most controversial Heisman winner in history. Not only did Johnny Majors play at Tennessee, but he also was the head coach at Tennessee from 1977-1992. Tennessee went through a rough time in the mid-to-late 1970’s, and it was Johnny Majors who was able to slowly but surely get the Tennessee football program back to national prominence. While he wouldn’t win a national championship, he would win three SEC championships in 1985, 1989 and 1990. The 1985 team would finish 9-1-2, with a shocking Sugar Bowl win over Miami 35-7. You have to remember Miami was creating a dynasty at that time, and Tennessee was a very heavy underdog going into the game. That game was one of the more memorable games for Johnny. The 1989 team would be 11-1 and won the Cotton Bowl over Arkansas 31-27. What makes that season memorable is the fact that the year before, in 1988, they finished 5-6. The 1988 team would actually start the season 0-6 before racking off 5 straight wins, giving the 1989 season tremendous momentum. The 1990 team was 9-2-2, one of those tie games being to the ensuing National Champions, Colorado. They would win the Sugar Bowl that year over Virginia 23-22. Johnny Majors is certainly a legend that will never be forgotten at UT.

George Cafego

George Cafego was a two-time All-American at Tennessee, his career spanning from 1937 to 1939, playing on the legendary 1938 and 1939 teams under General Neyland. He would play tailback but also played safety and quarterback. On special teams, he would return punts and kicks as well. Cafego would rush for 1,589 yards and throw for 550 yards in his career, and was also a Heisman finalist. In 1938, the team that won the school’s first national title with an 11-0 record, Cafego was named SEC Player of the Year. Cafego’s nicknamed was George “Bad News” Cafego due to his elusiveness as a player.

There were many substantial choices for the most noteworthy players and coaches for the University of Tennessee football program. Narrowing it down to four was difficult, but all four of these men are very deserving of a Mount Rushmore type status due to the impact they had on Volunteer football.

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