Shields-Watkins Field: Our Favorite Gridiron’s 95th Anniversary

In Knoxville History by Knoxville History Projectleave a COMMENT

The business part of Neyland Stadium has hosted football since the Harding administration. Football first arrived in Knoxville soon after the electric light, around 1890. However, it was not a sport Knoxvillians paid much attention to until much later. For 30 years, the University of Tennessee’s football team played on several different fields, on and off campus, including a field at Chilhowee Park, a field on Dale Avenue, and Wait Field, a rectangle on Cumberland Avenue, at the foot of UT’s Hill. Wait was rocky and not completely flat, a corner of it sloping upward. UT’s campus was limited to the immediate vicinity of the notably steep Hill, so building a football field would require purchasing more land.


Just after World War I, Knoxville was getting acquainted with radio and planning its first airport. Thanks in part to the urging of Prof. Charles Ferris, dean of the College of Engineering, the University of Tennessee was getting its first regulation football field, at the current location of Neyland Stadium.

The new field, in a formerly residential area closer to the river, would be UT’s first field built to specifications. It would be called Shields-Watkins Field, in honor of its primary donors. William Simpson Shields (1853-1933) was a prominent banker known since the 1880s for making loans to working people without proven reputations. The name Watkins was in honor of his wife, Alice Watkins Shields. Neither were UT alumni, but Mr. Shields was a UT trustee, and, living on Melrose Place, the couple were neighbors to the expanding campus.

The Shields family was large, and the donor had three brothers who had been involved in wholesale businesses on Jackson Avenue, in the modern Old City. At the time of the establishment of the football field, Shields was sometimes helping as a campaign manager for his younger brother, John Knight Shields (1858-1934), a conservative Democratic U.S. senator who helped defeat President Wilson’s League of Nations proposal.


In charge of designing and grading the field was an engineering teacher named Nathan Dougherty (1886-1977), who had a special interest in making a place for football on campus. A guard for the team from 1906 to 1909, he had been one of the Vols’ early stars. He was later dean of the College of Engineering. Today, UT’s engineering building on the Hill is named for him.

The first stands were bleachers built on the west side, with a capacity of 3,200. At the time, UT’s enrollment was only about 1,000, and the stands’ size indicates a growing interest in college sports from the community at large.

It was originally an all-purpose athletic field. In fact, the first game ever played on Shields-Watkins Field, in early 1921, was baseball. The Vols lost to Cincinnati. The field was also used for track meets—not just for UT, but for area high-school competitions.


The first football game on Shields-Watkins Field was on Sept. 24, 1921, exactly 95 years ago this Saturday. The Vols beat Emory & Henry 27 to nothing. The coach was Mark Beal Banks, originally from New York, and a former athletic star at his alma mater, Syracuse. At the time, the Vols wore black jerseys.


Banks had a winning record during his five seasons with Tennessee, but the field would become more associated with the next coach, a West Point grad and Army officer from Texas whose name was Robert Neyland. He began his career as coach in 1926, the year the seating at Shields-Watkins Field more than doubled, with the addition of more bleachers on the east side, for a total capacity of 6,800.

In Neyland’s first game as coach—on Sept. 25, 1926, 90 years ago this Sunday—the Vols beat Carson-Newman, 13-0.

As the years went by, the stands got bigger and bigger. Eventually Neyland Stadium, as it was named, became one of the largest football stadiums in America. But the playing surface itself is still known as Shields-Watkins Field.

Featured Photo: Major Robert Neyland’s Vols practice at Shields-Watkins Field in October, 1934. Photo courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.

Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project

The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city. You can reach director Jack Neely at

Share this Post