The Wildcats vs. The Vols

Posted by | November 28, 2016

Perhaps you thought the UK Wildcats-UT Vols football rivalry is a recent phenomenon? This photo from the Abe Thompson photograph album, circa 1920-1923, in the University of Kentucky’s archives, suggests otherwise!

The handwritten caption below the photo reads “KY vs Univ. of Tennessee at Knoxville.” Note the lack of any enclosed stadium; Neyland Stadium, though first proposed as an idea in 1919, didn’t assume a form anything close to what we know until 1962, when it was dedicated with that name. Today, with a seating capacity of 102,455, it’s the largest football stadium in the South, the third-largest college stadium in the country.

An early 1920s game between the Univ of KY Wildcats and the Univ of TN Vols.

An early 1920s game between the Univ of KY Wildcats and the Univ of TN Vols.


At the far right of this photo you see basic bleacher-style stands. These are the West stands, built in March 1921, which seated 3,200, and which today are the lower level of Neyland Stadium’s West Stands.

General Robert Neyland is the foundation of the Tennessee Legacy, and it’s his name that graces the stadium. Under his command, the University’s football program started to blossom. Neyland was the head coach at Tennessee from 1926 until 1952. He later was athletic director for ten years until his death in 1962. But he wasn’t yet a factor when the game pictured was being played.

Col. W.S. Shields, president of Knoxville’s City National Bank and a University of Tennessee trustee, provided the initial capital to prepare and equip an athletic field. Thus, when the original stadium was completed it was called Shields-Watkins Field in honor of the donor and his wife, Alice Watkins-Shields.

The first game played on the new field was September 24, 1921. The east stands were added five years later, in 1926, to increase capacity to 6,800. The west stands were increased from 17 rows to 42 rows in 1929, increasing capacity to 17,860. From 1921 to the end of the 1967 season the field surface was natural grass.

By the time the two teams shown in this photo took to the field, football was solidly established at both the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee.

Kentucky football got its start on Nov. 12, 1881. Kentucky, known in those days as A&M College, Kentucky State College and/or State University of Kentucky, defeated Kentucky University by the clumsy score of 7 1/4 to 1. The game of football resembled more of a rugby form and the scoring procedure is still unclear.

Though football came to Kentucky in 1881, it quickly vanished after the three-game season. UK finished 1-2 in the inaugural campaign, but the lid was shut on UK football for the next nine seasons.

Football returned to the University of Kentucky in 1891, when UK defeated Georgetown College, 8-2, on April 10, 1891.

The seed of the University of Tennessee dynasty was planted coincidently that same year of 1891. But UT didn’t win its first game until the following year, on October 15, 1892 against right-down-the-road rivals Maryville College. They final score was Tennessee 25, Maryville 0. A pretty solid victory for a team without a coach. That’s right, no coach. Tennessee competed in their first five seasons without the benefit of having a head coach.

The first known head football coach at Kentucky was Professor A.M. Miller, who the students asked to coach despite his admitted limited knowledge of the game. Miller began the 1892 season, then graciously stepped aside later in the year for John A. Thompson, who had more experience with the sport.

And the team names? Tennessee acquired the name “The Volunteer State” during the War of 1812. At the request of President James Madison, Gen. Andrew Jackson, who later became President himself, mustered 1,500 from his home state to fight at the Battle of New Orleans.

The name became even more prominent in the Mexican War when Gov. Aaron V. Brown issued a call for 2,800 men to battle Santa Ana and some 30,000 Tennesseans volunteered. Tennessee’s color guard still wears dragoon uniforms of that era at all athletic events.

The term “Volunteer State,” as noted through these two events, recognizes the long-standing tradition of Tennesseans to go above and beyond the call of duty when their country calls. Hence the name “Volunteers” is often shortened to “Vols” in describing Tennessee’s athletic teams.

The Kentucky Wildcats football team got its name “Wildcats” after a 6-2 road win over Illinois on October 9th, 1909. During a chapel service, after the game, the head of the military department, at the time, stated that the team “fought like Wildcats.” Soon after, the majority of sports writers, fans, and eventually the University embraced the name. Records indicate that the first wild animal, named “Tom,” was given to the University in 1921. Other live mascots followed, including “TNT, ” “Whiskers,” “Hot Tamale” and “Colonel.”


2 Responses

  • […] Here is the earliest photo of a game featuring the Vols I have found in my admittedly quick search. Appalachian History The Wildcats vs. The Vols […]

  • RG says:

    Great picture with remarkable clarity. However, I don’t think those are the West stands which was/is a more substantial concrete structure. These seem to be merely wooden risers on the east side of Shields-Watkins Field. In addition, the camera appears to be pointing northeast towards the Hill. I believe the building with the steeple is the Old Science Hall. Ayres Hall was built in 1921 and should be off camera just to the left of the Old Science Hall. The Vols appear to be wearing orange jerseys which they first wore in 1922. UT played Kentucky at home on Thanksgiving in 1922, 1924, 1926, etc. The concrete East stands were not added until 1926. I looked at the old UT yearbooks from those years for game pictures. Unfortunately, there are no game photos from the 1922 game. This could be the 1922 or 1924 game. However, if the album this picture came from really does date from 1920 to 1923, this should be the 1922 game which the Vols won 14-7.

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