Tennessee Football: Power Ranking All the Coaches in Volunteers History
The University of Tennessee hosts one of the most prestigious and storied programs in college football history. With outstanding traditions such as the Vol Walk, running through the T, the checkerboard-patterned end zones and the infamous song "Rocky Top," Tennessee’s program takes a back seat to nobody.
The historically deep-rooted program boasts six national championships, 16 conference championships, 38 consensus All-Americans and one of the biggest and tradition-rich stadiums in the entire country.
However, the Vols dominance did not happen over night. It was the hard work and dedication of over a century of football that makes Tennessee the ninth-winningest program in the NCAA.
Tennessee has appointed several different men to steer the reins of this outstanding program.
Some have done phenomenal jobs and their names will forever be engraved within the University. Others had forgettable tenures that most fans prefer not to reminisce about.
Here is a look at the rankings of all 22 coaches who have held the title as University of Tennessee’s head football coach.
22. J.D. Depree
Holding the statistic that nobody wants, Depree posted the lowest win percentage in Tennessee football history.
The Depree-led Vols went 4-11-3 in the two years he was at the helm. The Vols only recorded one win his second year in 1906 and got blown out by rivals Alabama, Clemson and Kentucky that same year.
Facing a warm-up team that Tennessee had beaten 104-0 in 1905, Tennessee barely beat and then tied American Temperance in 1906. This, coupled with the big losses to their main rivals, was enough for Depree to get the can after his second season.
Sorry J.D., but Tennessee was not the place for you.
21. Andrew Stone
Andrew Stone was another coach lost in the shuffle in the early 1900s for Tennessee.
He coached the Volunteers to a mediocre 3-5-1 record in one year as head man in Knoxville.
His team lost to their rival opponents Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt by a combined 58 points. Those types of losses will get you fired very easily in a then-blossoming football city.
20. S.D. Crawford
S.D. Crawford was the fourth coach in six years for the upstart Tennessee program. Unfortunately, he could not leave the legacy behind that many hoped for.
The 1904 Volunteers went 3-5-1 with notable losses to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Clemson and Cincinnati.
While he may have lost ugly games to those new rivals, Crawford was able to lead Tennessee to one historic win.
On Nov. 24, 1904 the Volunteers won their first-ever game over big-time rival Alabama. Tennessee escaped the game by a narrow score of 5-0.
It would be the last game S.D. Crawford ever coached for the Vols.
19. W.H. Britton
William Hamilton Britton may be one of the most forgotten coaches in Tennessee football history. Britton was given the nearly impossible task of taking over as head coach after Robert Neyland had been called back to the armed services.
We cannot blame Britton all the way though, as he was currently the head basketball coach in 1935 as well.
Britton's coaching capabilities were not ready to capitalize on the talent that Neyland had left over.
Tennessee had gone 8-2 in 1934 with key victories over North Carolina, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Louisiana State.
Britton was only able to beat rival Auburn and Mississippi in his one year at the helm. The team posted a record of 4-5 that year before Robert Neyland would come back from service in 1936.
Unfortunately for Britton, 1935 would be his last year coaching basketball or football at the University of Tennessee. So yes, Britton would find out the hard way that following a legend is an extremely difficult thing to do.
18. George Kelley
Another coach that served a short one-year tenure at Tennessee, George Kelley can easily get lost in the shuffle.
But the second head coach in Tennessee football history had some things to be proud of.
Kelley guided the young Vols to wins over Georgetown and Kentucky in 1901. He also tied powerhouses Clemson and Alabama that same year.
Unluckily for Kelley, ties aren't good enough at Tennessee. The school decided to let go of Kelley after that one year and a record of 3-3-2.
17. Jim McDonald
If all of the coaches in Tennessee history had to draw straws, Jim McDonald got the shortest one.
Sandwiched in between the two legendary coaches in Bowden Wyatt and Doug Dickey, McDonald wasn't given much of an opportunity.
He took over the team in 1963 after being an assistant under Wyatt for years. Like many in-house coaching hires or those who get the "interim" tag, McDonald did not last.
McDonald led the Vols to a sub-par 5-5 record. The team would pick up victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, but was torched by other rival SEC foes.
Alabama whopped Tennessee 35-0, and Mississippi crushed the Vols 20-0 just a few weeks later.
McDonald's run as head coach ended after that season. Although he was no longer coaching, he kept his love for the school and remained at Tennessee as an assistant athletic director.
16. Lane Kiffin
Yikes. If this article was about the most-hated coaches in Tennessee history, Kiffin would easily top this list.
Never in recent history has a school been so played and used like what Kiffin did to Tennessee.
After just one year where he made the news in almost every thinkable way, he left the Vols abruptly overnight. He would go on to replace legendary Pete Carroll and the baggage he left behind at USC.
Kiffin made noise at Tennessee by calling out Urban Meyer, guaranteeing victories (that never happened), recruiting relentlessly, and by convincing his dad, Monte Kiffin, to join him in the college ranks.
While Volunteer fans only want to remember the bad things Kiffin did to Tennessee, it wasn't all that terrible.
He landed one of the most heralded recruiting classes for the Vols in 2009. Kiffin also beat rivals Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt by a combined 65 points.
Sorry Volunteer fans, this one will sting for a while.
15. H.F. Fisher
H.F. Fisher was named the third head coach in Tennessee history in 1902. Fisher was coincidentally the third head coach in three years for the Vols and they were certainly looking for a coach to build the program behind.
Unfortunately for Fisher, he wasn't that guy.
In his first year he showed great promise as a coach, guiding them to a school-record six wins in one season.
But the following year in 1903, things didn't go as planned. Fishers' Vols went 4-5, including an abysmal record of 1-4 in conference.
Like other coaches that had similar fates, Fishers' team was crushed by Alabama the final week of the season, causing Fisher to lose his job.
He would finish his career with a 10-7 record, good enough for 15th on this list.
14. Harvey Robinson
It has long been known that being "the guy" to come in after a legend is a very hard thing to do. Unluckily for Harvey Robinson, he was "that guy."
Fresh off of a Cotton Bowl appearance in 1952, hopes were high for the now powerhouse program.
Hand-picked by Robert Neyland after his retirement to lead Tennessee, Robinson was in for a tall order.
The season, and Robinson's career, started off on the wrong foot. The Top 25 Volunteers got upset by Mississippi State the first week of the season, 26-0.
Things didn't get much better.
The team finished the season 6-4-1, followed by a 4-6 record in 1954. It was apparent that Robinson was not fit for the job and after losing the last four games of 1954, he was fired.
Athletic director Robert Neyland called the firing "the hardest thing he's ever had to do."
13. George Levene
There is one major question surrounding George Levene's coaching career at Tennessee. What happened?
After going 7-2-1 in 1907, Levene followed with an almost identical record of 7-2 in 1908. Then, something went terribly wrong.
The Vols started off 1909 a horrendous 0-6-2, leaving Volunteer faithful scratching their heads. They would finish the season with a lone win over lowly Transylvania University.
Levene's third-season collapse was enough for him to get the boot from Tennessee, finishing with a record of 15-10-3.
12. Derek Dooley (for Now)
After the sudden departure of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley was tabbed as the 22nd head coach in Tennessee history.
At first, many Tennessee fans were very wary of the hire. To be honest, many are still skeptical after the 6-7 season Dooley led the team to.
But, recently in the SEC, another "questionable" hire was made that worked out just fine.
Just a few seasons ago, Gene Chizik was hired at Auburn after sub-par seasons at Iowa State. Auburn fans were not happy about the hire to say the least.
After winning the national championship this year, Auburn fans have learned not to judge a coach by what he has done on paper.
Tennessee fans should follow suit.
Although 6-7 doesn't look good on the eyes, there are plenty of good things to take away from the 2010 season to build on.
Tennessee finished the last five games of the season 4-1, only losing to North Carolina in a highly controversial Music City Bowl game.
Dooley has already put together a top 20 recruiting class for next year, proving he can hang with the recruiting geniuses in the SEC. The second-year coach has landed "college ready" players, like JUCO standout defensive tackle Maurice Couch, who is sure to be on the depth chart from day one.
Sit back and enjoy the ride Volunteer fans, Dooley is ready to move up this list quick.
11. J.A. Pierce
Every program has one, and every program loves them. The first head coach for a school is special in so many ways.
J.A. Pierce was the first-ever head coach in a long, storied tradition of Tennessee football. He took over as head coach in 1899 after the team had been instructed by students for five years.
In Tennessee's first-ever game with an official head coach, the Pierce-led Volunteers beat King College 11-5 in Knoxville.
The team would finish with a promising record of 6-2 in 1899, including winning their last four games.
The 1900 season did not go as planned. Tennessee lost to Auburn and North Carolina by a combined 40 points, while also posting the school's first ever tie.
Even though Pierce had no assistant coaches, he was fired following the 1900 season. He finished his career at Tennessee with a 9-4-1 record.
The school eventually hired George Kelley (refer back seven slides to see how wildly unsuccessful that hiring was).
10. M.B. Banks
Ah, finally. The top 10 coaches in Tennessee history. The No. 10 spot belongs to coach M.B. Banks.
Banks was an all-around coach, literally. From 1921-1925 he was the head coach at University of Tennessee for football, basketball and baseball.
How many times in history have we seen a guy be head coach for three major sports at one school at once? Yeah, didn't think so.
M.B. Banks saw success right off the bat in his first year as head football coach. He led the team to a 6-2-1 record in 1921 followed by an impressive 8-2 record in 1922. Unfortunately for Banks, those would easily be his best years at Tennessee.
From 1923-1925 his teams' combined record was 13-11-2, which at Tennessee, means change is coming.
For Volunteer fans, they would make the best change they have made in the history of the program in 1926.
9. Zora G. Clevenger
Zora's start at Tennessee was one that was mediocre at best. But when Zora got things going, he got things going.
Believe it or not, Zora coached all three major sports at Tennessee just like M.B. Banks did (sense a theme?).
In Clevenger's first two years in 1911 and 1912, his team put up an underwhelming 7-8-2 combined record. Now, at Tennessee, those wins and losses will usually get you the boot. But the administration was very smart in letting Zora stick around.
Clevenger's 1913 squad showed a lot of promise by going 6-3, including very close loses that further illustrated the potential this team had.
In 1914 Zora had his troops ready. Tennessee went 9-0 that year beating teams like Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Clemson. But it's not just the fact that they beat them, it's how badly they did it.
The undefeated team absolutely crushed opponents that year, outscoring them by a total of 337 points!
This was the first undefeated team Tennessee had ever seen. While they weren't officially recognized as national champions, (although who was going to challenge that team?) they were outright winners of their conference.
Unfortunately, in 1915 the team couldn't piece together the same success. They posted a 4-4 record, but went 0-4 inside the conference, good enough to get Clevenger fired after just five years of service.
8. John R. Bender
John R. Bender is my sleeper pick as one of the most under-appreciated coaches in Volunteer history. Hired in 1916 to come over from Kansas State, Bender was spectacular in his first year.
The Volunteers went undefeated in 1916, but did not win every game they played. The one smudge mark on the schedule came in the final week of the season, when the Vols tied Kentucky 0-0.
If it wasn't for this final misstep, Tennessee would have finished the season a perfect 9-0.
Following 1916, the football program at Tennessee was canceled for two years because of World War I.
When football at Tennessee resumed in 1919 Bender was given the tall order of reestablishing this once-heralded program.
The team had a rebuilding year of sorts in 1919 posting a 3-3-3 record. Since the program was canceled for two years, this was thought of as a respectable record.
In 1920, the team got back to national prominence by going 7-2. Bender was credited with being the head coach when Tennessee won its 100th game in school history that year.
For some reason, Bender would not return after the 1920 season and left to become a PE teacher at the University of Houston. Without a doubt, John R. Bender had a distinguished career at Tennessee and set them up for future success
7. Bowden Wyatt
Bowden Wyatt was coach at Tennessee from 1955-1962. He amassed an impressive record of 49-29-4 in eight full seasons as head coach.
Bowden was a dominant player at Tennessee under Robert Neyland and was eventually hired by him to coach the team. Once given the opportunity to coach at his alma mater, Wyatt made the most of it.
In his second season as head coach, Wyatt proved why he was the man for the job. His team went undefeated in dominating fashion all throughout the regular season.
Unfortunately the team couldn't cap off the season with a Sugar Bowl win, falling to Baylor 13-7 in that final game.
The following season in 1957, Wyatt's team went 8-3 finishing the season with a Gator Bowl win over Texas A&M.
After the 1957 season, Wyatt's resume at Tennessee was filled with mediocrity. From 1958-1962, Bowden's Volunteers went a middling 25-22-3.
Following Wyatt's brilliant start at Tennessee, he was let go after the 1962 season.
Wyatt died just a few years later in 1969 at the young age of 51. He was later elected to the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
6. Bill Battle
Bill Battle inherited a great situation when he came to Tennessee. The team had seen major success in the preceding years and was definitely developing a very strong identity as a powerhouse.
In Battle's first season, he picked up on the momentum the team had been gaining over past seasons. After starting 1-1, the team rattled off 10 straight wins including a Sugar Bowl win over Air Force.
The next two seasons were more of the same for Battle and the Vols.
Tennessee posted identical records of 10-2 in 1971 and 1972. They also won both of their bowl games those years, putting Battle at 3-0 in bowl games in three years.
However, Battle's fortunes would soon be reversed.
1973 sparked the downturn of Battle's run at Tennessee. The Volunteers went 8-4 that year, ending the season on a disappointing bowl game loss to Texas Tech.
From 1974-1976, Tennessee played below the level they were expected to.
The teams went a combined 20-13-2, routinely getting torched by rival Alabama.
Battle was subsequently forced out after 1976, ending his tenure at Tennessee with a very respectable record of 59-22-2. Bill Battle deserves the sixth position of all-time Tennessee football coaches.
5. John Barnhill
John Barnhill was another guy whose time at Tennessee was very undervalued. While some Volunteer fans might argue he doesn't belong this high on the list, but his career accomplishments say otherwise.
Remember, this article is about the power ranking of Tennessee's head coaches, and Barnhill fits in this spot.
Barnhill went a dominant 32-5-2 in his four years as head man. Do the math, and that's an 84.6 win percentage, good enough for best in Tennessee history. Now that's saying something.
Barnhill never lost more than two games in his four years as head coach, and those two losses occurred his first year in 1941.
The Volunteers showed their dominance under Barnhill in his second year. Tennessee went 9-1-1, ending the season with a Sugar Bowl win over Tulsa.
The 1943 season was canceled due to World War II, but Barnhill picked up where he left off in the following years.
Tennessee went 15-2-1 the next two seasons, finishing in the Top 25 both years.
Barnhill was not retained after the 1945 season, and went on to become a legendary coach at the University of Arkansas.
4. Doug Dickey
Doug Dickey is best known at Tennessee for starting three famous traditions. Dickey put the "Power T" on the helmets, installed the checkerboard-patterned end zones and came up with the "T" that the band would form before games.
These traditions were so popular with the school, they still exist at Tennessee today.
However, Dickey did far more at Tennessee than come up with phenomenal traditions. His on-field success is very notable.
Doug Dickey was named head coach in 1964. His first season started off rocky, going 4-5-1.
But after 1964, it was back to prominence for the Volunteers.
He led Tennessee to five straight bowl game appearances and finished in the Top 25 every year.
From 1965-1969, Tennessee never won fewer than eight games. The Volunteers won their conference twice, and finished in the Top 10 in polls in 1967 and 1968.
Dickey had many other significant accomplishments while at Tennessee. He offered the first-ever black player in Tennessee history a scholarship—running back Albert Davis. Davis was never admitted to the school, but Dickey persevered in his pursuit of black players, signing wide receiver Lester McClain.
The 1967 season was one of the finest in Tennessee history. They went 9-2, eventually losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Even though the Vols lost in the Orange Bowl that year, they were recognized as national champions in 1967.
Following the 1969 season, Dickey returned to his alma mater Florida where he coached for nine years.
3. Johnny Majors
Johnny Majors might have been as good of a player at Tennessee as he was a coach. In 1956, Majors was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
In 1976, Majors won the national championship as head coach of the University of Pittsburgh. The following year he returned to his alma mater, this time as head coach.
Majors racked up a laundry list of accomplishments while coaching at Tennessee.
He claimed SEC Coach of the Year in 1985 after upsetting Miami the final game of the season. The Volunteers also won the SEC three times under Majors.
Tennessee won eight or more games seven times with Majors on the sidelines, proving his consistency.
Tennessee also went to 11 bowl games in 16 years. Adding to the program's prestige, Majors teams finished in the Top 10 in the polls three times.
But things never came easy for Majors at Tennessee. His first four years the team never won more than seven games and had a cumulative record of 21-23-1.
Johnny had significant success over the next 12 years, although never able to capture a national title.
His teams saw good victories into the 1990s, where controversy started. After having heart surgery during the 1992 season, Majors' longtime assistant Phillip Fulmer took over on an interim basis.
Majors' return was very unfortunate. The team lost three straight games after he came back, prompting the school to force him to resign.
Frustrated with Tennessee, he left and returned to Pittsburgh as head coach. Unfortunately, he could never get the ball rolling again and retired from coaching in 1996.
2. Phillip Fulmer
Taking over for his predecessor Johnny Majors, Phillip Fulmer had one heck of a run at Tennessee.
He wasted no time showing what type of coach he was once given the head position in 1992.
Tennessee stormed out of the gates in Fulmer's first year, winning 10 games and reaching the Citrus Bowl. The ball was only starting to roll at this point.
Tennessee won all three bowl games from 1994-1996, including double-digit-win seasons in two of those years.
Then in 1997, quarterback Peyton Manning returned for his senior season. Manning and Fulmer had one thing on their minds for that season—a national title.
Unfortunately University of Florida hindered those hopes in the third week of the season, defeating Tennessee 33-20. The team rattled off nine straight wins over tough opponents, still giving them an outside chance of being national champions if they won their bowl game and Michigan lost theirs.
While the national title was their main concern, they also captured an SEC title, which was Fulmer's first as head coach.
Tennessee was paired with powerhouse Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, and lost in an emotional last game for Manning.
Manning would leave Tennessee with just about every award a quarterback could ask for. The one award he didn't get, the Heisman Trophy, was awarded to standout defensive back Charles Woodson of Michigan.
One would think that Tennessee would have a down year following the departure of Manning, but Fulmer had different ideas.
Tennessee was returning enough players in Fulmer's mind to do serious damage, including Jamal Lewis, Peerless Price, Shaun Ellis, Tee Martin, and Travis Henry.
The Volunteers quickly showed their dominance in 1998 beating eight bowl teams, four Top 10 teams and three BCS-bound teams.
They went undefeated through this rigorous regular season, finding themselves in the first-ever BCS National Title Game against powerhouse Florida State in 1999.
Leading up to the game, many speculated whether Tennessee would be able to stop big-time prospect Peter Warrick of the Seminoles.
In a close battle, Tennessee and Fulmer won their sixth national championship, beating Florida State 23-16.
While Fulmer saw good success over the next 10 years, he was never able to get back in the national title picture completely.
Tennessee won their division of the SEC four times from 1999 on, but couldn't win the SEC title game in any of those tries.
The real turning point for Fulmer and Tennessee was in 2007. The team went a solid 10-4 on its way to an Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin.
After the season was over, Fulmer lost many longtime assistants including David Cutcliffe, who took the head-coaching job at Ole Miss.
Cutcliffe took several key assistants with him, which really hurt Tennessee and Fulmer from a coaching and recruiting aspect.
In 2008, the Vols went an unheard of 5-7. The team also had many unwanted run-ins with the law, forcing Tennessee faithful to lose trust in Fulmer.
After the disappointing season, Fulmer announced he was stepping down as head man in Knoxville. He retired from Tennessee with an outstanding overall record of 152-52, permanently putting his stamp on the storied program.
Phillip Fulmer will forever be one of the best coaches in Tennessee history.
1. Robert Neyland
The mecca, pride, boss, image and most importantly, the General.
Robert Neyland has accomplishments at Tennessee that go on for days and days.
Robert Neyland has accomplishments at Tennessee that coaches can only dream of.
Robert Neyland is Tennessee football.
The magic started in 1926. Tennessee football made the best decision they will ever make, hiring Robert Neyland as head coach of their team.
Robert Neyland can claim to so many football achievements it's almost crazy to think of. Let's get started on this long list of feats.
Robert "The General" Neyland coached at Tennessee for 21 years, separated into three different stints.
In his first stint from 1926-1934, Neyland quickly showed the college football world who's boss. In his first seven seasons he lost two games. Yes, that's right, he only lost two games in his first seven years. How many did he win? He won 61. Get used to his coaching stats being this lopsided.
Still on his stint from 1926-1934, he had five undefeated seasons. They won their conference twice in those nine years, solidifying their dominance.
A true army general, Neyland was a very tough coach. He was known for demanding his players to run the plays to absolute perfection, and wasn't satisfied until they did. Neyland also got a reputation for putting his players through grueling workouts so they would be in peak physical condition.
After the 1934 season, Neyland was called into service for the first time. But he couldn't stay away for long.
He returned in 1936 and picked up right where he left off. In his second stint with the Volunteers, he coached college football legends like George Cafego, Bowden Wyatt and Babe Wood.
In Neyland's second turn at Tennessee, the Volunteers absolutely dominated. From 1938-1940, the team went 31-2 on the way to three consecutive SEC championships.
The Neyland-led Volunteers won the first national championship in school history in 1938. Wanting a bigger taste of excellence, the squad won another national title in 1940. By this point, Tennessee's stubborn defense had allowed only 42 points in its last 50 games.
An interesting fact about the 1939 Volunteers is that they went the entire season without letting up a single point. Yes, they are the only team to ever do that.
After 1940, Neyland was called back into service with the United States entering World War II.
He would return in 1946, and still being Robert Neyland, he picked up where he left off. The team went 9-2 in his first year back, winning the SEC conference.
After 1946, Neyland hit the only rut in his almost-perfect resume. The 1947 and 1948 Volunteers went 5-5 and 4-4-2 respectively. Neyland couldn't stand it.
His team was back in the national spotlight for the rest of his time at Tennessee.
1950 marked a landmark year for Neyland and Vols. They were slated to match up against Kentucky and legendary coach Bear Bryant.
Not only did Tennessee beat Bear Bryant and highly ranked Kentucky, they went on to win another national championship in 1950.
Neyland wasn't done with dominating college football. In 1951, Tennessee had their ninth undefeated regular season under Neyland. Riding Heisman Trophy runner-up Hank Lauricella, the Vols won their second national title in as many seasons.
1952 would be Neyland's last year as head man in Knoxville. The team went 8-2-1, ending the season, and Neyland's coaching career, on a disappointing Cotton Bowl loss.
After stepping down as head coach, Robert Neyland stuck around as athletic director at Tennessee.
He finished his career with tons of accomplishments. Neyland's achievements consist of six undefeated seasons, seven conference championships, and four national championships. His teams also posted undefeated streaks of 33, 28, 23, 19 and 14 games.
His teams' stifling defenses recorded 112 shutouts, and 17 of those came in a row.
He also produced 40 all-conference players, including 21 All-Americans.
Neyland can also be credited with changing football in the SEC forever. The way he preferred speed over strength completely altered the way coaches had to coach.
All of these achievements resulted in a career record of 173-31-12 as head coach. He was elected into the Football Hall of Fame in 1953, putting the icing on the cake of his amazing career.
Robert Neyland is without a doubt a legend in Tennessee. The football stadium where the Vols play, is appropriately named Neyland Stadium. Just a few months ago, the administration at Tennessee put a huge bronze statue of Neyland outside of the stadium.
What else can be said? Robert Neyland is Tennessee football.