It’s hard to believe it, but there was a time when what is now Neyland Stadium was just a teensy dirt football field with a single set of concrete stands. It took 50,000 yards of fill dirt, and 2,000 University students and faculty members volunteering two days of work to prepare the then Shields-Watkins Field for its first football game. The stadium was named for Col. W.S. Shields and his wife, Alice Watkins-Shields. Shields was a University trustee and bank president who donated the initial capital for the project. The field hosted its first sporting event on September 21 of that year, when the Volunteers defeated Emory & Henry by a score of 27-0.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity of Knoxville or college football knows that things have grown since that September. Today the stadium is called Neyland, after General Robert R. Neyland, who served as head coach from 1926-1952 (minus two interruptions for military service).
The sports complex can still be found on the eastern edge of the University of Tennessee campus, adjacent to the Tennessee River, where it continues to serve as the home of the Tennessee Volunteers (though it also occasionally hosts conventions and NFL exhibition games). But today, after 17 expansion projects, it seats a whole lot more than its original capacity of 3,200.
In fact, at 102,037 seats, Neyland Stadium is the largest football stadium in the South, the third-largest in the country, and, some claim, the seventh largest in the world. The stadium routinely draws crowds in the six figures. More than 25 million fans have visited since 1946, and a record 109,061 watched Tennessee defeat Florida on September 18, 2004 (yes, that’s several thousand more people than the maximum seating capacity at the time; apparently a lot of people were on laps that day).
Neyland Stadium offers a consummate college football experience. The Volunteers are almost always competitive in the Southeastern Conference. Add to that the Pride of the Southland Band playing “Rocky Top,” the Volunteer Navy, the hound-dog mascot Smokey, the famous checkered orange and white end zone, and enough tailgating to tempt a Baptist preacher, and you’ve got a Saturday to remember. Little surprise that “The Sporting News” ranked Neyland as the nation’s No. 1 college football stadium in a 2001 poll, or that “Sports Illustrated” called it the country’s “best college football weekend experience” in 2004.
Neyland Stadium is at 1600 Phillip Fulmer Way. Visit here www.knoxville.com/movingtoknoxville for more information about game day parking and traffic patterns. Visit www.utsports.com for football schedules, ticket information and more about University of Tennessee sports.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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