Tennessee Vols fans believe in traditions, don't we! Traditions are a major part of Tennessee football. From running though the 'T' to Smokey, Rocky Top and then, there are those orange and white squares that many call the checkerboard.
Many Big Orange fans have heard coach General Robert Neyland’s Tennessee checkboard quotes all our life.
“Don’t stop until time runs out or until you reach the checkerboard and once you get there … get there again.”
Another popular coach Neyland quote is, “Charge the checkerboard!”
Coach Doug Dickey began the TN Vol checkerboard tradition in 1964 and was said to have been inspired by a magazine ad. The design can be found in various places around the UT campus.
Of course, us UT fans claim the design as our own; however, but it's possible that the checkerboard design didn't get its start with the Vols.
Kentucky fans claim that UT copied them instead of the other way around.
Kentucky's original football field sported a checkerboard end zone, starting in 1930. That fact was lost to the history books until recently when old photos have appeared online. Today Kentucky uses the checkerboard design on some of their their football and basketball uniforms. Perhaps that's to pay homage to their football past; others say it honors the famous triple-crown winner of 1973, Secretariat.
Whatever the reason, the checkerboard is just one aspect of the rivalry between the Tennessee Vols and Kentucky Wildcats.
Myself and many other Vols fans really don’t care who had the idea first. I mean, do you, really?
There is one thing all truthful Tennessee, Kentucky and college football fans can agree on, no matter who came up with it first ....
The goal for years of all offensive Tennessee Vols football players at Neyland stadium in Knoxville has been the checkerboard.
Countless unique traditions fill fans’ souls in colleges across the country, but the checkered end zones of Neyland Stadium truly sets Tennessee apart from every other college team in in America. Others have tried, but their attempt to copy the iconic Tennessee checkerboard falls short of the original.
If a football fan sees a checkerboard they immediately think Tennessee. Orange-and-white checkerboards pop in the end zones at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. There is not a TN. Vols fan alive that doesn’t remember the first time they set eyes on the checkerboard end zone walking into Neyland for the first time.
Being at Neyland, the gigantic home of the Volunteers for the first time is a memory many of us will never forget, and should never be taken for granted. But while the sheer size of Neyland Stadium, which now seats 102,455 fans, can blow you away, it’s those checkered end zones that take Tennessee fans away to another time and instill pride.
Those squares are the living, breathing history lessons of Tennessee football.
“Checkerboard Endzones: A Tennessee Tradition” written a few years ago, talks about former Tennessee director of sports surface management Bob Campbell telling ESPN that “he has never realized the distinctiveness of the checkerboard end zones until years ago.”
Campbell talked to a friend who worked at Iowa State who informed him of a poll done in Des Moines, Iowa about the most recognizable sports venues in America.
“There was Yankee Stadium on the list. And Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. And darn it, if our checkerboard end zones weren’t at the top of the list.
The fabled story goes back to the man Neyland Stadium was named after, General Robert Neyland. Sheild-Watkins Field was built in 1921, and originally held a grand total of 3,200 people.
That same year, Ayers Hall was completed on the Knoxville campus, and there was a “subtle” checkerboard design at the top of what would become one of the university’s most well-known buildings.
Back in those days, before what is now iconic Neyland Stadium, it was extremely tiny, and so there was a clear view of the tall, well-built Ayers Hall from the football field.
Coach Neyland connected the fire and passion of football with the fine artistry of a tall campus building, and a tradition was born.
It was a motivational tactic from the great Neyland, undoubtedly worked. Maybe someone should share this article with JP. Sorry that was not necessary, anyway, Neyland had a record of 173-31-12 during his three coaching stints in Knoxville from 1926-52, a legendary career at Tennessee broken up twice because of his military service.
As my granddad shared stories with me, it was obvious that General was brave and bold, as well as creative and motivational. He led men in the service and those in football stadiums, and he told them to aim for that checkered end zone.
The checkerboards didn’t exist there yet, of course, but he wanted to have his players pretend they were there already and not just sitting atop Ayers Hall.
All these decades later, the checkerboards are a cherished thing in Knoxville, right there along with that distinct bright orange on their jerseys, or the latest edition of Smokey patrolling the sidelines or, of course, the “Rocky Top” fight song.
As Tennessee Fans we love anything with checkerboards on it. If it has Tennessee checkerboards, I am buying it from pop sockets for my phone to my cherished Tennessee checkered overalls.
Those checkers are carefully spray-painted before games into squares and then placed into the end zone, using some 80 gallons of paint and tons of attention to detail spread across two days, sort of the Tennessee version of Notre Dame’s old tradition of spraying its golden helmets.
When Doug Dickey became the Vols’ coach in 1964, that checkerboard design at Ayers became the design in Neyland’s end zones, as the two structures were linked when Dickey introduced the checkers so players could actually run to the checkerboard for real and not as a reference to Ayers Hall off in the distance.
Dickey picked the school colors of orange and white as the checkered end zone design, a natural choice. According to Irons, he was inspired by a magazine ad.
The popularity of these new end zone creations took off for the next four years, but then the field was redone in 1968 when artificial turf was installed and the checkered wonders on each end of the field were taken away.
Suddenly, there was no checkerboard to charge, no checkerboard to get to again and again once you got there once.
General Neyland’s vision, brought to life by Dickey, was gone from the hearts and most importantly the passionate eyes of Knoxville. It was a long two decades before the checkers were brought back. Finally, in 1989, they were set down again in each end zone, but this time within the cookie-cutter artificial turf.
It was admittedly a cleaner look for the checkers, without all the dirt and mess of natural grass, and running back Chuck Webb gave the newest version of the checkerboard end zones quite a memorable christening, running for a school-record 294 yards on 35 carries on Nov. 18, 1989, in a 33-21 victory over Ole Miss.
Maybe it was fate that the checkers came back in ’89, just in time for such a thrilling running tandem of Webb and Cobb to run into them, again and again, on short touchdown runs and long ones like Cobb’s. The powerful duo were a pretty good publicity machine for the end zones that season, as fans at Neyland and at home were constantly seeing touchdowns and constantly being reminded that those orange and white squares were finally back.
Neyland Stadium went back to grass in 1994 after a quarter-century of artificial turf, and so the checkered end zones were once again natural, as they had been those first magical four years after being introduced under coach Dickey.
Today, the aura of the checkers is respected nationally as well as being revered in Knoxville and across the state of Tennessee. College Football Fan Index ranked the 10 best fields in college football and Alan Siegel had Neyland Stadium a mighty impressive third, only trailing the famous blue Smurf Turf at Boise State and the iconic sod at the Rose Bowl. I kinda get the Rose Bowl, but the Boise State field just hurts people’s eyes.
Then comes Neyland, ranked ahead of the fields as famous Notre Dame Stadium. We can take third, that is an accomplishment, but for Tennessee fans nothing can really come close to our orange and white checkers, can they?
“To this day, the checkerboard end zones are iconic and special to Neyland Stadium. Over the years we have watched players celebrate hundreds of touchdowns in them. The pattern can be seen on overalls, corn hole boards, socks, t-shirts, tailgating tents, you name it. … Other schools and fan bases recognize it.” Take a look at your closet and around your home, I am sure there are orange and white checkerboards everywhere if you are a member of THE BIG ORANGE NATION!
The real grass on the field, Neyland Stadium provides a canvas for Tennessee's Michelangelo, we just call him Mr. Payne. He has a little leeway when it comes to precision. "It doesn't have to be exact," Payne says, "but it better be the master piece it always has been or somebody's going to call and complain about the checkerboard not being off center. As far as setting it up, as long as you've got a tape measure, some nails and some string, you're ready to go."
Each square of the checkerboard measures 5 feet by 5 feet, leaving a 5-foot wide green band that surrounds the end zone design. The process takes approximately two hours per end zone for each color.
Mr. Payne and his colleague Greg Coram begin their masterpiece the Wednesday before each home game. It takes a 120 gallons of orange and white paint to fill both checkerboards. Premium white, a color made by the Mississippi-based company World Class, is sprayed first and allowed to dry for one day. The glossy color contains a blue tint to enhance the brightness of the paint on the field.
On Thursdays, orange is added to complete the checkerboard end zones and the midfield `T.' While the white is a company-made color, the orange used on Tennessee's gridiron is specifically-mixed to match the orange `T' on the Vols' helmets. Walking into Neyland is a master piece, a work o art.
The midfield `T' is less strenuous. But the powerful Tennessee logo was nearly the center - make that off-center – you are going to have challenges.
A Controversy brewed a couple of years ago prior to the season Mr. Payne and his staff had erected the stakes and string to paint the logo at midfield Thursday before the Vols' game against Fresno State. However, just before bright orange was sprayed on the grass, a problem was spotted - the `T' was centered on the 45-yard line.
"We had it measured out," Payne says. "But that's what happens. We were tired and it was late. We're lucky we caught it." He assures, though, that no major accident has occurred since he's been involved with painting the field.
There's more to creating one of the nation's most recognized fields, however, than just spraying some paint.
Payne and Coram, to assure the best look on Shields-Watkins Field, create their artwork with television viewers in mind. "We paint everything toward the west because that's where all the cameras shoot from," Payne says. "We'll shoot from the south so the paint overlaps, and then we'll turn and shoot toward the west for the second coat. That way, it doesn't show any type of pattern."
Planning is also part of Mr. Payne's daily routine. The normal painting schedule begins Wednesday, but weather can alter the decoration of the field. Rain pushed painting back a day prior to the Marshall game, and it has forced Payne and his staff to postpone their spraying until Saturday morning for a 7:30 p.m. game. The worst-case scenario, however, would be a total washout the week of a home game.
If rain continued until kickoff, "we'd have an ugly field," Payne says. "We couldn't paint it. We've been lucky. We've been close a time or two, but we've always made it. One of these days, mother-nature will get us.
Until that day, Payne and his staff will continue to provide color to one of the most recognizable collegiate football fields in America. There's nothing more precious to us Tennessee fans than our orange and checkerboards. For Payne, his smile comes when he sees his artwork on display for the masses each Saturday in Knoxville. "I take pride in all of it," Payne says. So does the Volunteer Nation don’t we!