John Shearer: Looking Into The Story Of Former Tennessee Football Coach Bowden Wyatt

Saturday, October 24, 2020 - by John Shearer

While living in Knoxville from 2005-17 as a curious fan of University of Tennessee sports history, I one time looked through some old city directories at the McClung Historical Collection library in downtown Knoxville to see where some of the old Vol football coaches had lived.


I found the Fox Den neighborhood address in Farragut where 1970s-era coach Bill Battle resided when a moving van was sent to his house by an anonymous fan apparently ready for a new coach. 


And I also saw where fellow head coach Bowden Wyatt lived in the Sequoyah Hills area of Knoxville while coaching from 1955 through the 1962 season.


This year, I happened to notice that his former home at 605 Arrowhead Trail SW on the western edge of this historic riverfront neighborhood somewhat similar to Chattanooga’s Riverview area was on the market for more than $600,000.


Because it was the home of coach Wyatt, the 3,000-square-foot and cottage-style residence, which was originally built in 1940, has a copious history as well.


As the coach more than a half century ago, he gave Vol fans used to up and down stretches a little of everything within his relatively short tenure.

That ranged from an undefeated regular season in 1956 led by tailback Johnny Majors, to a later drop off on the field, and a personal miscue in 1963 that cost him his job. 


The latter incident led to public whispers for years about his reported unfortunate battles with alcohol issues, comments I heard growing up as well years after he had stepped down as coach.


But through it all while at Tennessee, he resided at the BarberMcMurry-designed Arrowhead Trail home with his wife, Molly, whom he had met at UT after she arrived from Jackson, Tn., and their daughter, Missy.


Before settling in Sequoyah Hills and in his high-profile office on the UT campus, coach Wyatt was raised in the more rural and simpler community of Kingston. He later became an All-American end at Tennessee in 1938 as a senior for coach Robert Neyland.


He was the captain and occasionally tallied a touchdown on an undefeated team that had only 16 points scored on them the entire season and beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He had also lettered in 1936 and ’37.


After entering the coaching profession as a college assistant and serving in the Navy during World War II, he eventually became the head coach at Wyoming. He led the Cowboys to Skyline Conference championships in 1949 and ’50 with 9-1 and 10-0 records, respectively. He then moved to Arkansas in 1953 and led the Razorbacks to a Southwest Conference title in 1954 with an 8-3 record.


He then became the coach at Tennessee after the Vols suffered a 4-6 season under Harvey Robinson. The Vols went 6-3-1 in Wyatt’s first year, and then went 10-0 – including a memorable 6-0 win over a top 3 Georgia Tech team – during the 1956 season before losing to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.


After several key senior contributors graduated, the Vols of 1957 went 8-3, including a win over Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl, before falling to 4-6 in 1958, a season remembered for the infamous loss to the Chattanooga Mocs. Of course, from UTC’s perspective, that win in Knoxville is still likely the most famous and memorable in school history.


Even with that record of 4-6, coach Wyatt was still held in respect by his players, particularly those who played for him during his first three or four seasons back on The Hill.


Longtime Knoxville insurance salesman Bo Shafer, who lettered from 1956-58 as a lineman after attending Knoxville West High, recalled him as a great coach over the phone and said he was big on conditioning. “We ran all the time,” the 83-year-old said with a laugh. 


Mr. Shafer said he needed to be in shape, too, as he played offensive tackle and defensive guard at a time when players never went out of the game, except for injury.  


He also recalled walking down to the practice field and back from the stadium dorm – and sometimes climbing on a slow-moving train for the trip back – as well as being handed pieces of ice from kids around the field due to the lack of water breaks at that time.


Former Knoxville Bearden High football coach Jim Smelcher, who was also a tackle and was a class ahead of Mr. Shafer, also remembers the tough conditioning during practice as well as the skillful manner of coach Wyatt’s personality. 


“He was a fantastic motivator and had a bunch of coaches who knew what they wanted to do,” he recalled, adding that he, like Mr. Shafer, greatly admired the line coach, John “Skeeter” Bailey. “And anybody could talk to him.”


Mr. Shafer had similar feelings of admiration.


“I had much, much respect for him. If coach Wyatt looked at you, you put your eyes down because you had so much respect for him,” he said.


Gene Etter, who lettered at Tennessee as a small back from 1958-60 after playing at Central for his father, E.B. “Red” Etter, remembered a non-football incident that came up, and he thought coach Wyatt handled it well. One weekend when he was just a freshman and many players had gone home, he saw a large football player take a record player from someone else’s room and into his room next door to Gene’s. Gene went into the room to ask the person about it as the player attempted to hide it from Gene’s sight.


After the much-smaller Gene left, the player started chasing him, but Gene was able to run away and hide and avoid him, although he was admittedly as scared as he has ever been.


“I called Dad and told him about this,” recalled Gene. “And he called coach Wyatt about it.  Then Dad called me and told me that Coach Wyatt said not to worry about it because he said he would talk to him about it. 


“Coach Wyatt spoke to the guy, and whatever he said, it worked, and the guy gave back the record player, and he was good all the way through his senior year.”


Among other memories of coach Wyatt, the younger coach Etter recalled that some tailbacks were practicing punts – a key skill for tailbacks in the single wing – and he joined them on his own, even though he had played wingback as a freshman.


“I was catching the ball and kicking it back to them, farther,” he said. “All at once, Coach Wyatt yelled, ‘Etter come here.’ When I got there, he said, ‘You are now a tailback, so go with them every day.’ "


And he never wavered in his decision to play Gene there, even though Mr. Etter did not have the typical size and look of a tailback. As evidence of the latter, coach Etter recalled that during the offseason about that time, coach Wyatt came to Chattanooga to speak, and Gene and his father went.  


“Someone asked him about his tailbacks for the next year, and he pointed to me and said, ‘There's one, and he looks more like he's preparing for the ministry than football,’ “ Gene recalled. “I could understand, since I was the smallest player on the squad, plus I was wearing glasses. I started wearing contact lenses later.”


Switching to tailback would later be the right move, as coach Etter would contribute much to the Vols’ success, including completing a pass to himself after it was tipped for a 75-yard touchdown in 1958 in an upset win over Ole Miss.


Coach Etter, who went on to become a longtime assistant football coach at Baylor and also the successful head baseball coach, also recalled that coach Wyatt had been a placekicker at UT and still had the skill 20 years later. He remembers an incident that definitely impressed the players.


“One day, when we were practicing placekicking on the 10-yard line, one of the players missed and said it was a bad hold by the holder,” he recalled. “Coach Wyatt heard that and took the player's place. He then told the holder to place the ball on the tee any way that he can think of. Then the holder started doing wacky things with the ball and coach Wyatt kicking, and he made 10 in a row! I had never seen anyone do that.”


In 1959, during coach Etter’s junior year, the Vols went 5-4-1 but upset defending national champion LSU and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon in Knoxville. The score was 14-13, and the key play was a two-point stop by Tennessee in the fourth quarter on a Cannon run. Some still wonder whether he actually got over the goal for the conversion, but video review was not used in those days.


Despite the controversy, coach Etter remembers there were no questions regarding what play the Tigers were going to run.


“In practice, Coach Wyatt brought the team together and said that if LSU scores late and could tie the game with an extra point, we think they would go for a 2-point play with Cannon running their favorite off-tackle play,” coach Etter recalled. “We practiced over and over and over stopping that play. 


“Amazingly, that happened! In the fourth quarter, we were ahead 14 to 7, and they scored a touchdown and ran that play. We stopped it by a couple of inches, and we wouldn't have had a chance without the practice.” 


The 1960 Tennessee team went 6-2-2 and beat rival “Bear” Bryant and Alabama, 20-7, also at home.


The 1961 team went 6-4 – somewhat mediocre compared to the high standards set by Gen. Neyland from the 1920s to the early ‘50s – and the 1962 squad under Wyatt struggled to a 4-6 year, which included three very close losses. They were also still running the seemingly antiquated single wing offense.


Needless to say, many Tennessee fans were not happy, and neither was UT President Andy Holt, who felt outside pressure. Compounding the situation was that Gen. Neyland – Wyatt’s big moral supporter – had died in 1962.


Wyatt had replaced Neyland as acting athletic director and did hire successful coaches Chuck Rohe in track and Ray Mears in men’s basketball. 


In looking back, coach Etter – the son of a smart offensive coach in Red Etter and one who enjoyed coming up with strategy as a Baylor defensive and offensive coach himself -- realized coach Wyatt could have been a little more imaginative with his x’s and o’s. 


“The offense and defense were both the same as coach Neyland’s, and I don’t think anyone else used them,” he recalled, adding that coach Wyatt would also always write Gen. Neyland’s game maxims on the chalkboard in the locker room before a game and have the players recite them.


“Since he played those, he wouldn’t be able to play something else. However, he could have done some things, like splitting the end and/or the wingback. Also, he could have had more routes in passing.”


But the scrutiny of his coaching skills and strategy after the program hit a down cycle following much success early on soon became a moot point.


In late May 1963, at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Ocala, Fla., the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Tom Siler reported that Wyatt expressed belligerent behavior by pushing Birmingham sports writer Alf Van Hoose into a pool and causing other disruptions. 


The other incidents at the time, according to Mr. Siler’s article of long ago, included having a heated argument with Nashville Banner sports writer Fred Russell, referring to another sports writer who was not there as gutless, and slapping or punching Chattanooga Mocs coach A.C. “Scrappy” Moore, although coach Moore just called it a friendly scuffle.


He also broke up the athletic directors’ meeting with “bellicose and meaningless interruptions,” the story said.


At the encouragement of his coaching friends, he soon left and checked himself for several weeks into the St. Alban’s Sanitarium in Radford, Va., where his wife was already staying, the News Sentinel reported.


Both Mr. Shafer and Mr. Smelcher said they were aware of his reported problems and struggles with alcohol. “It’s a shame he got to drinking too much,” remembered Mr. Smelcher.


Coach Etter also became aware while playing.


“In the practice of the offense, with the defense of the week, he would call the plays for us in the huddle. Being that close, you could smell the alcohol, and sometimes slurring the talk,” Mr. Etter recalled.


He did remember, however, that coach Wyatt still wanted to put on a positive front, remembering him telling a top player on a return flight home from a game to not let on to the cheerleaders also aboard that the player drank alcohol.  


While the level of coach Wyatt’s struggles related to alcohol are not known all these years later, alcoholism is treated much more today as a disease and looked at with more empathy than in those days when hard drinking was a part of the lifestyle for some college football coaches.


And more treatment centers are available, even though it and other substance abuse issues are still often lifelong struggles for recovering alcoholics.


As someone who tries to support all people, I can only hope and pray he was able to overcome in his later life any personal demons related to alcohol he might have had.


Unfortunately for coach Wyatt, though, the incidents in Ocala did cost him his job at UT, despite his efforts to recover in Virginia. 


On June 19, 1963, Mr. Siler reported in the News Sentinel that Holt and the trustees were going to approve longtime Wyatt assistant and former Navy friend Jim McDonald as the new coach, and Florida athletics director and Vol alum Bob Woodruff as the new UT AD. Coach Wyatt was given termination pay lasting through 1964.


“It was an unfortunate end to a Hall of Fame career at Tennessee,” said longtime former UT media relations director Bud Ford.


Coach Wyatt was able to go on and coach as an assistant under former Bear Bryant aide Phil Cutchin at Oklahoma State for about two years before returning back to the simpler life of the Blue Springs area around Kingston and doing some business-related work in Knoxville. 


He ended up dying of pneumonia/viral flu-like complications in January 1969 at the age of only 51.


He was buried at Roane Memorial Gardens in Rockwood. His wife, who would go on to do altruistic work helping those with alcohol-related problems and in later life regularly attended UT football practices, died in 1993. Their only child, Mary “Missy,” who married the now-late Jeff Goodson from the JFG coffee and foods family, also died in 1993. Like her father, she was only 51.


Despite the sad ending to coach Wyatt’s UT career, his wife and daughter would live to see him inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1972. And in 1997, he was inducted into the Hall as a coach, marking a rare double feat few have achieved.


His high points on the field, instead of his one stumble off it, are how he is most remembered by the longtime Vol faithful today.


“I really admired him,” said coach Smelcher.


So did writer Russ Bebb, who praised the coach in his 1973 Tennessee football history, “The Big Orange,” writing, “If ever a man appeared cut out for the role of a great head coach, it was Bowden Wyatt. His intelligence and leadership could not be denied.”

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