After being around for more than two centuries, UT has established many meaningful symbols and beloved traditions. Some are distinguished, and some are just plain fun.
The state received the "Volunteer" moniker in the nineteenth century thanks to Tennesseans’ willingness to serve their country in the military. References to the Tennessee Volunteers began during the War of 1812 when Tennesseans volunteered en masse in response to President James Madison's call for service. Then during the Mexican War, when the secretary of state asked for 2,800 Tennessee volunteers he got 30,000 respondents, clinching the state's nickname as the Volunteer State. The Atlanta Constitution was the first to call UT athletes "Volunteers," after a Tennessee–Georgia Tech football game in 1902.
The Volunteer Statue—more commonly known as the Torchbearer—originated from a student contest held by the classes of 1928 through 1932. It was adopted as the official symbol of the university in 1932, but the Great Depression and World War II delayed the statue being cast and displayed until 1968. It bears the words of inspiration: “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others”
Walk through campus and you'll see a giant, ninety-eight-ton, Knox dolomite rock serving as a communication hub and palette of expression for the UT community. Unearthed in the 1960s, the Rock is a geological message board of every color. It changes often with hellos and goodbyes, birthday wishes, sports championships, marriage proposals, and political endorsements. Pretty much anything goes. It is so iconic, even the independent campus radio station, WUTK-FM, shares its namesake. It's called 90.3 The Rock, and it plays—what else?—rock music.
The ritual of Torch Night began in 1925 and continues every fall with each new freshman class. Every fall, the chancellor and administration assemble to officially declare the new students part of the student body. Candles are lit to symbolize the "Torch of Preparation" being provided to the new Volunteers. The first ceremony began with a bugler summoning freshmen toward Ayres Hall. As the class walked up the Hill, they stopped to give a yell for the sophomores and for the juniors, ultimately meeting the seniors at the top, where the underclassmen took an oath of loyalty to the university.
The Hill is symbolic of higher education in the state. UT, founded in downtown Knoxville in 1794 as Blount College, moved to the Hill in 1828 and quickly grew around it. The main part of UT's old campus stands on this rising bank above the north shore of the Tennessee River.
UT’s distinctive orange color was inspired by a small cluster of orange and white daisies on the Hill. In 1889, UT athletics association president Charles Moore spotted the flowers and chose the school’s colors in homage. The colors soon appeared on athletic uniforms and they have since appeared on nearly every item in East Tennessee, from clothing to cars.
UT’s official alma mater is "On a Hallowed Hill," but its unofficial theme song is the ever-popular "Rocky Top," written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967, who wrote hits such as the Everly Brothers' "Wake up, Little Susie" and "Bye, Bye Love." First played by the UT Pride of the Southland Band in 1972, “Rocky Top” quickly became a staple at UT games and was named one of the state’s official songs in 1982.
The Pep Club held a contest in 1953 to select a coonhound, a native breed of the state, as the school's mascot. Announcements of the contest in local newspapers read, "This can't be an ordinary hound. He must be a 'Houn' Dog' in the best sense of the word." Rev. Bill Brooks entered his prize-winning blue tick coon hound Brooks' Blue Smokey in the contest. At halftime of the Mississippi State game, the dogs were lined up on the old cheerleaders' ramp at Shields-Watkins Field. Each dog was introduced over the loudspeaker and the student body cheered for their favorite, with Brooks' Blue Smokey being the last hound introduced. When his name was called, he barked. The students cheered, and Smokey threw his head back and barked again. This kept going until the stadium was in an uproar, and UT had found its mascot.
Smokey is famous for leading the Vols on the run through the T before each home football game.
A costumed version of Smokey emerged in the 1970s and was redesigned in 1982 to look more like the dog of today. Known to sport a tuxedo, overalls, or a Big Orange jersey, he’s a top collegiate mascot and a star on and off the field.
The Vol Walk fuels an already charged day in Big Orange Country. About two hours before kickoff, the football team, dressed in suits, walks down Peyton Manning Pass and Phillip Fulmer Way into Neyland Stadium, allowing thousands of fans to see, cheer, and even high-five them. The team is trailed by the Pride of the Southland Band adding pep to the steps of the players and fans. The first Vol Walk was an unofficial one in 1989, but it was so popular with fans, it was made official the following year during the Alabama game under the helm of head coach Johnny Majors.
Neyland Stadium is the third-largest non-racing stadium in the United States. It's been ranked as the best college football stadium by The Sporting News and as part of the best college football weekend experiences by Sports Illustrated. The area where the stadium stands had humble beginnings, though. In 1921, it was completed as simply a field with just the Western stands. The university ran out of money, and students and faculty were recruited to finish the project. The playing surface, Watkins-Shields Field, is named after the original donors, Andrew Poyar, Colonel W.S. Shields, and Alice Watkins-Shields. The stadium is named after UT's most winning coach, General Robert Neyland, who not only coached from 1926 to 1952, but also spearheaded the stadium's first major expansion. His forward-thinking plans have been included in every expansion since. Today, a nine-foot, nearly 1,500-pound bronze statue of General Neyland kneels between gates 15A and 17 in the general's honor.