The architect of this precision drill was Tennessee's legendary coach, Robert Neyland, a West Point graduate who ran his offense like the First Engineers major that he'd been in World War I, usually with a single-wing simplicity founded on grinding, double-team blocking. He was an innovative master—he was the first coach, for instance, to use film to evaluate games—and he was more comfortable without the ball. He liked to say, "There are more ways to score on defense than on offense." Neyland was, in fact, the most respected defensive strategist of his time. During his 21 years at Tennessee he coached 216 games, and in nearly half of them (106) the Vols' opponents didn't score. "If he had 10 points on you," Cifers says, "he'd quick-kick on first down just to give you the ball back, hoping you would make a mistake." Neyland deployed a six-man line and a zone pass defense and taught his players to worry less about tackles than about feeling out a play. Rather than crash into the enemy backfield, the Vols linemen pressed until the offense committed itself and then shifted with the play.
Neyland had seven maxims, which he recited to his players before each game. The first was, "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win." Fumblers were punished like Hester Prynne. "If a player fumbled in a game," says Dink Eldridge, the Vols' manager in 1939, "he had to carry a football around for a week, everywhere he went. He even had to sleep with it."
Neyland believed in gang-tackling, Scotch whisky and the bloody nose. Players were forbidden to lift weights, on the grounds that they would become muscle-bound. Neyland believed that perfection grows from discipline and repetition. In 1938 he began spring practice on Jan. 9. He drilled his players like a dentist. "Sometimes we did plays 500 times," Coffman says. "The practices ran like clockwork."
Neyland was the commandant, and the players were the grunts. He didn't get close to any of them. Like any military leader, he believed in the strict observance of the regulations. One weekend Coffman violated the coach's rule against leaving Knoxville during the season by visiting his girlfriend in Greeneville, Tenn., and when Neyland found out about it he asked Coffman, "How far is it to Greeneville?"
"About 72 miles," Coffman replied.
"You'll take 72 laps around the quarter-mile track," Neyland said.
Nonetheless, the players admired and respected Neyland like a father. In the late 1930s the U.S. was still sunk in the Great Depression, and Ackerman estimates that 90% of the players on Tennessee's championship teams couldn't have gone to college had Neyland not given them scholarships. Coffman had been fatherless since he was nine. "I didn't have anything," he says. "I was a pauper." Peel's father, Ike Sr., had a little grocery store on the banks of the Mississippi in western Tennessee, and on the day in '38 when Ike went off to Knoxville to play football, his dad handed him a $20 bill and told him, "I scraped to get this together. Do the best you can."
"We got room, board, tuition, books, laundry, dry cleaning and a $10-a-month stipend," Ackerman says. "The theaters in town gave us free tickets, and you could buy 32 ounces of beer for 10 cents." The scholarship was the players' slow ride out of poverty, their lifeline to the future.
These young men had come of age in a world buffeted by economic turmoil and the looming hydra of world war. On Oct. 1, 1938, the Nazis marched into the Sudetenland. Two weeks later Neyland marched his Volunteers into Birmingham, where he unveiled his latest football invention. In practice he'd repeatedly had Coffman make two-yard dives over Ackerman and blocking dummies. Twice against Alabama, with the ball inside the Tide one-yard line, Coffman vaulted over sprawling linemen to score. Tennessee won 13-0.
At the end of 1938 the Vols had gone 10-0 and won the first of what would be three straight SEC titles, and Neyland had come under attack for using another offensive weapon: Tennessee's schedule. The perennial toughies (Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Vanderbilt) were there, but Tennessee's '38 slate had been spotted with softies—Sewanee, The Citadel and Chattanooga—and in '39 a fourth cream puff would be added: Mercer. When the Vols showed up for the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 1939, they faced, in the eyes of many observers, their day of reckoning.