A series on each of Tennessee's national titles as recognized by any selector...
The first post is on Zora Clevenger's 1914 SIAA Champions, the first Tennessee team to defeat Vanderbilt.
The 1914 Tennessee Volunteers were coached by Zora Clevenger, a graduate of Indiana, hired away prior to the 1911 season by Robert C. “Red” Matthews… an early 20th century version superfan and engineering professor on the Hill. Clevenger had been hired away from Nebraska-Wesleyan after three less than stellar years, but Tennessee wasn’t exactly a powerhouse at the time and had a minuscule amount of money budgeted for football.
Going into the 2nd decade of the 20th century, Tennessee was at best the 3rd strongest team in the state. Vanderbilt was the only southern team with any sort of national profile at the time, as Hall of Fame coach Dan McGugin had made it a point to venture into the Ivy League and Western Conference(future Big Ten) for at least one high profile non-conference game a year. Sewanee was on the wane, but was still consistently winning better than 75% of their games against the best teams in the south. At the time Tennessee had compiled a 1-21-1 record against Vandy and Sewanee, with the single win coming over the Purple Tigers in 1902.
The Volunteers returned all but 4 players from a team that had finished 6-3 in 1913, their best record since the turn of the previous century and added Tennessee’s very first assistant coach… Miller “Brute” Pontius from the University of Michigan. Tennessee opened their season with an 89-0 blowout of lightly regarded Carson-Newman on old Wait Field, the predecessor to Shields-Watkins Field. The next week another cupcake came into town, King College of Bristol, they would fall 55-3 in a steady downpour. The Vols were a perfect 2-0, but were facing the formidable Clemson Tigers in week three. To the surprise of the sportswriters, Tennessee shut out the vaunted Clemson offense and put up 27 points of their own. Tennessee faced Louisville the next week, but the Cardinals of our grandparents were a shadow of their current program, and the Volunteers won 66-0. The boys in orange came into the Third Saturday with a perfect record, as did the Crimson Tide. Extra seats were installed, pushing the capacity at Wait Field over 2,000 seats for the new Tennessee attendance record. After a Tennessee protest led to Alabama’s star player being declared ineligible due to playing professional baseball Tennessee scored a 17-7 victory where the final score was closer than the game itself… at least according to the homers at the Knoxville Journal. Once again, a weak team rolled into town and was smoked… this time it was Chattanooga and the score was 67-0 with 53 points scored in the second half.
The game of the season was at hand… Tennessee was heading to Nashville to face a rival they had never beaten, and far and away the most dominant team in the south. Vanderbilt was unusually weak, with losses at Michigan and North Carolina… but the Volunteer partisans certainly didn’t care.
The Grand Theater in Knoxville took out a full page ad in both local papers advertising play by play via telegraph, and the Southern Railway charged $6.75 a seat for a chartered ride from Knoxville to Nashville. I’ll quote the Knoxville Journal here… “It may be a long way to Tipperary, but the longest roads end somewhere. For twenty years Tennessee football teams have been trying to accomplish what many thought was impossible; for twenty years Volunteer teams have been marching up the hill, only to turn around and march right down again, but today they pulled the hill down with them.” Truer words were never spoken, and the Volunteers had their first win over the Commodores by a score of 16-14. Classes were canceled at Tennessee the following Monday, prompting Vanderbilt to begin their tradition of accusing Tennessee of placing too much emphasis on football. Rather ironic considering Vanderbilt had been chartering trains to play football games in the liked of Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York for two decades.
The Sewanee game ended up being rather anticlimactic, as the Volunteers picked up their second win all-time vs. the Tigers by a score of 14-7 in a game which Tennessee controlled throughout. The final game of the season was a Thanksgiving Day game vs. Kentucky in front of a new record of 3,500 fans where the Wildcats got pushed up and down the field and the Volunteers clinched their first conference title(SIAA) with a 23-6 win.
Is it a stretch to consider the 1914 team a NATIONAL champion? Illinois is listed as the official champion, with Army and Texas also being selected as champions by various systems. Southern football carried the stigma of being weak, much as the Pac-10 is by many fans, for the first half of the 20th century… and at least at the time it was probably true. In the only major inter-regional game Vanderbilt had been blasted by a Michigan team that would finish with 3 losses by 20 points… while the Illini only gave up 22 points all season versus a schedule including powerhouses Ohio State, Minnesota, and Chicago.
The verdict has to be FICTION