The Bix Six champion Sooners and the Volunteers lined up to play football, and a hockey game broke out. It was "the roughest college conflict of modern times," wrote Fred Russell, the sports editor of the Nashville Banner. Fistfights broke out all over the field. On one play a flying elbow cracked one of Cifers's molars. On another play Oklahoma linebacker Earl Crowder "got knocked so hard in the head," Sooners halfback Gene Corrotto recalls, "that he didn't know if he was walking or riding."
The Volunteers' victory that day gave them a share of their first national championship and sent them racing into the 1939 season. By early September, after Germany invaded Poland, Europe was imploding. "We're going to war soon," Neyland told Coffman. "Be ready for it."
It was against this darkest of backdrops that Neyland bore down in schooling his players. He had the Vols playing like a team in close-order drill, swarming on tackles, blocking ferociously and chasing down the ball. The undefeated, unscored-upon season ended when the Volunteers, crippled by injuries to Cafego and Suffridge, were blanked 14-0 by Southern Cal in the 1940 Rose Bowl.
The three championship years from 1938 to '40, centered on that stunning string of regular-season shutouts, constitute Tennessee's greatest era as a national power. Neyland left Knoxville in '41 to serve in World War II, attaining the rank of brigadier general while moving Allied supplies through Calcutta, and then returned to Tennessee long enough to build a third national champion, in '51. He retired from coaching in '52 to become Tennessee's athletic director and died 10 years later, at age 70. Vols coaches still recite Neyland's aphorisms to the troops. His oldest surviving players, such as the 82-year-old Coffman, a farmer in Greeneville, Tenn., still quote him. One thing he used to say was, "You don't know about a player until he's played in the Alabama game."
On the eve of this Fiesta Bowl, looking to fire up the Vols, the old innovator would surely not object to a new wrinkle: "You don't know about a player until he's played for a national championship—against Florida State."
No man smiles in his grave, but a few forever speak from it.