Nov. 9, 2012
By Brian Rice
It stands as one of the great cathedrals in American sports. Seven times a year, Volunteer fans fill it 100,000-strong to make Neyland Stadium on of the loudest and most intimidating venues in college football.
The stadium had modest beginning as 3,200-seat Shields-Watkins Field, a replacement for the uneven and occasionally rocky Wait Field located two blocks north where the Walters Life Sciences Building now stands.
Named for Knoxville banker William A. Shields and his wife, Alice Watkins Shields, who helped fund the project after a seven-year effort to raise the capital for the field. UT President Dr. H.A. Morgan declared a student holiday on March 16, 1922 so the student body could pitch in to complete the stadium. Three days later, Shields-Watkins Field hosted its first event, a Vol baseball game against Cincinnati.
Ninety years and 17 expansions later, Neyland Stadium seats nearly 100,000 more fans than it did in its original configuration. The largest crowd to squeeze into Neyland Stadium was 109,061 for a primetime matchup with the Florida Gators on Sept. 18, 2004.
The facility is named after the legendary Volunteer head coach, but not just for his accomplishments leading the Vols to victories and championships on the field. As coach and athletic director, General Robert Neyland spearheaded expansion plans that made the stadium the standard for facilities of its kind around the country. The stadium was re-christened in his honor as Neyland Stadium in 1962, upon the opening of an expansion that included a new press box and raised capacity to 52,227. Neyland himself didn't live to see the first game played in the newly-named stadium, he passed away in March of 1962.
The idea for a 100,000-seat stadium dated back to the General, and the plans that he originally drew up for expansion were later used as a guide for additions that made his dream into a Big Orange reality. Four expansions from 1966-1976 boosted capacity to 80,250. Enclosure of the lower level from the traditional "horseshoe" layout that faced The Hill into a full bowl in 1980 added nearly 11,000 more seats. An upper deck was added to that same north endzone in 1996, which added another 10,000+ seats and made for a new record crowd for the home opener against UNLV in 1996 as part of the stadium's 75th birthday celebration.
In more recent years, the task has been updating the stadium, rather than increasing its size. Sweeping renovations in 2009 and 2010 changed the face of the stadium, adding brick facades on the north and west sides, as well as a new entry plaza at gate 21. Inside, concourses on both sides were completely gutted and expanded to add wider concourses and ramps, new fan amenities, upgraded concessions and a new retail store. Future plans will add similar features to the south and east sides of the stadium to ensure that Neyland Stadium is the showplace that it has been for the last 90 years for decades to come.