Neyland Stadium still has rooms to grow

During it's first 76 years of existence Neyland Stadium has seen its seating capacity expanded 14 times out of necessity, but any future additions to The House that Bob Built will be out of luxury.

Maxed out at 104,079, Neyland Stadium currently stands as the nation's third largest college stadium behind Michigan Stadium (107,501) in Ann Arbor and Beaver Stadium (106,500) at Penn State.Completely double decked in 1996, the Home of the Vols remained at 102,854 until the sky boxes were added atop the east side upper deck in 2000, pushing the seating capacity to its current level.

There aren't any existing plans for further expansion at this point, but there's room for four more sky boxes. Each two-story sky box is 300-feet long and contains 76 suites with a capacity of 16 seats per unit. If all four boxes were constructed, Neyland's capacity would go over 109,000 and attendance would pass the 113,000-person mark.

"The only thing we can do now is add more boxes," said Bob Davis UT's associate athletic director in charge of facilities. "Of course that would be done in phases, but there's room to do it especially on the northwest corner. You could do that because there's room for the superstructure to go all the way out."

Any further construction will based on demand for luxury accommodations and Davis wouldn't be surprised to see demand exceed supply in the near future. A center on Tennessee's 1951 national championship team, he played during a time when fans were still buzzing about the new south end zone which added 15,000 seats in 1948 creating a horseshoe shape and upping Neyland's capacity to the 46,390 level.

During an 11-year stretch (1965-1976) when Davis served as head coach of Tennessee's freshman team, he saw the stadium expanded four times including the upper deck in the south stands. Those boom years brought Neyland's total to just under 80,000.

In his current capacity, Davis has witnessed the completion of the upper deck, the addition a prodigious press box and phase one of the luxury box era. It's difficult for him to imagine demand for another 304 luxury suites leased at $160,000 per five-year contract, but he admits to being surprised before by the phenomenal growth of Tennessee football.

"We didn't think there would be this kind of demand before," he said. "We had 100 on a waiting list when we sold out the last luxury boxes. They were willing to pay $32,000 a year for a suite and they still have to buy their game tickets."

Another consideration to making any stadium additions is parking. A lot of plans have been proposed to handle the flow of fans on game day. One of the most intriguing was the use of a monorail train which would lend a futuristic focal point to football Saturday's. Besides flights of fancy, there are down-to-earth plans to help relieve parking and traffic problems caused by the huge crowds that support the Vols. A parking garage is slated for construction on Lot 9 which is directly across the street from the stadium and long-range plans call for most parking on campus to be underground.

"In the 25-year plan there will be no surface parking on campus," Davis said. "Everything will be underground."

According to Davis, there was once consideration to taking Neyland Stadium underground in order to gain more seating space. Unfortunately, studies showed the limestone foundation and water tables wouldn't make it feasible.

"One time we talked about digging the field up and dropping the floor of the stadium about 20 feet," he said. "But if you dig that deep everybody would have to go down to the bridge and watch the game go by."

There was also serious discussion during the late 60s about covering the south end zone in order to play basketball games before crowds of 20,000 or better. Later Thompson-Boling Arena was approved and the idea was abandoned.

"At that time we had outgrown Stokley and talked about putting a roof over the south end zone and putting a basketball floor down there," Davis explained. "It would have given us over 20,000 seats, but that's the only talk we've had about adding a roof."

Although Neyland's expansion remains in a holding pattern right now, ongoing improvements to the facilities are taking place. A 5,000 square-foot hospitality room under the north end zone stands is scheduled to be completed next month.

""We're building a hospitality room under the north end for our prospects," Davis said. "We're supposed to be done by August. It will be nice for the recruits and their families. It will be carpeted and have televisions and food service. There will be couches and tables. It has room for about 200 people. It's not just going to be for football. It's going to be available to the other departments when it's not football weekend."

Neyland Stadium has come a long way from it's humble beginnings of 3200 seats on the west side of Shield-Watkins field in 1921. Those concrete stands are still a part of the structure that has hosted Tennessee football for 81 years. Interestingly, the first competition held on the field was a UT baseball game in the spring of that year. Neyland also hosted the ice follies in 1949 after the south end zone stands were added.

Over the last half century, Davis has watched Neyland Stadium literally grow up and his connection goes back to the man who started it all — General Robert R. Neyland. Davis considers that experience an honor, but he admits the General was a tough taskmaster.

"I don't know how much of a treat it was," he said. "I believe the General could have taught (Vince) Lombardi a few tricks. I told Doug I was so glad when we won that national championship (1998). I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to win another one."

The members of the 1951 national title team remain in close contact, according to Davis, and the bond that was created on the playing field five decades ago still endures today.

"We had our 50th reunion last September and we had 54 guys come back," Davis proudly stated. "That's pretty good with about 65 on the squad. There's a lot a chemistry with that team. A lot of the guys live around here. You kind of network around and ask how everybody is doing."

While Davis is proud of the all the improvements that have been made to Tennessee's athletic facilities during his tenure, there is one practice from the past that he would like to see brought back. He believes it would help eliminate parking problems and become a tradition that could equal the Vol Navy.

"We used to travel by train to games," said Davis. "We went to the Rose Bowl that way. I've said for years they need to keep on running that special train from Chattanooga picking people up everywhere, and you pull up right behind the stadium and unload it. It would be heck of a party train, I suspect."

As far as having the largest stadium in college football, Davis said that's something other schools can worry about. The objective at Tennessee is to create the best atmosphere and assure demand for tickets exceeds supply.

"We let Michigan and Ohio State and everybody worry about that," he said. "And our fans. They say: ‘We could be No. 1" well Michigan added 5,0000 cantilever seats to the end of their stadium. You don't want to have 120,000 seats when you're only selling 100,000 of them either. You kind of want to make a ticket tough to get. I'd rather be No. 1 in the polls than No. 1 in the stadium."

The debate about stadiums is likely to intensify as other schools push the 100,000 mark through expansion, but Davis is convinced Tennessee fans are second to none when it comes to supporting their team. In fact, back in 1971 when he was coaching the freshmen team over 40,000 Big Orange faithful turned out to watch the Vols freshmen play Notre Dame. The crowd was so large UT officials had to open the upper deck to accommodate the turnout. The main attraction for Vol fans was a freshman phenom quarterback named Condredge Holloway. Another freshman of notoriety was Notre Dame's Gerry DiNardo who later became head coach at Vanderbilt and LSU.

"About the fourth play we ran Condredge ran for a touchdown," Davis recalled. "We ran the veer and Condredge dived at the 5 yard-line He went in the air seven yards, turned a flip and hit on his feet. He got the breath knocked out of him, but he ran over toward the sidelines because he didn't want them to know they hurt him. The first words he managed to get out were: ‘I can't breath.'"

Tennessee football in the gridiron cathedral known as Neyland Stadium has left untold Vol fans breathless over the years, too.

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