The name Volunteer has become synonymous with UT. It can be found on T-shirts, billboards, and bumper stickers. And the phrase “Go Vols” can be heard just as often off campus as in the stands of Neyland Stadium on Saturdays in the fall.
Though UT’s athletics teams were given the moniker 120 years ago, according to the Tennessee Historical Society, the state of Tennessee first earned the nickname the Volunteer State during the War of 1812. The nickname was reinforced when prominent Tennesseans Sam Houston and Davy Crockett took part in the Texas Revolution and then solidified in 1848, during the Mexican–American War, when Tennessee’s governor called for 2,600 volunteers and the state sent more than 30,000 including students and alumni of the university.
A resurgence of the Volunteer nickname came in 1898 during the Spanish–American War, right as UT’s football program was gaining prominence. The team played its first game in 1891, and by the turn of the century the program had gained significance across the state.
In 1902, UT was wrapping up its football season with a game against Georgia Tech. In the final five minutes of the game, T. B. Green scored a touchdown to give Tennessee a 10–6 victory. The next morning, the Atlanta Constitution referred to Tennessee’s team as the Volunteers, sparking the nickname. Before they were dubbed the Volunteers, UT was referred to mainly as the Tennesseans or the Varsity.
It wasn’t until 1905 that Knoxville’s local newspapers, the Journal and Tribune and the Sentinel, caught on and began using the nickname regularly. UT fully adopted the nickname in the early 20th century and never looked back.
The nickname Volunteer is unique among other colleges and universities. Rather than adopting the name of an animal like a tiger or bulldog, UT chose to adopt a nickname that represents the spirit of the people of the state. There is a sense of pride when it comes to being a Vol. Whether you are an athlete, student, or alum, being a Volunteer is special.
While UT is represented by the Volunteer, its physical mascots are Smokey, the bluetick coonhound that can be seen on the sidelines on game days, and Davy Crockett, who embodies the Volunteer spirit. Crockett was a native of East Tennessee, a soldier who served in the Tennessee General Assembly and then US House of Representatives before losing his life in the Battle of the Alamo. The mascot Crockett can be seen running onto the field holding the Tennessee flag as the Vols run through the T.
Some people have tried to justify the use of the black alternate uniforms as “well, that is what the Vols wore back in the day.” If they like the early uniforms then the Vols should wear the uniforms in the picture accompanying this article. The recent black uniforms have nothing to do with the history of the Vols or their uniforms.
Thank you, Marshall! There is no reason for having UT uniforms be anything other than orange and white. The home uniforms, as they were when I graduated in 1969, have always been orange jerseys and white pants. The away uniforms, also in my experience, always were all white with orange numbers and certain orange highlights. Having the black uniforms with orange numbers and highlights is, as you noted, not to be found in the history of our team apparel. Thank you for offering your opinion, with which I agree completely. I expect that the idea of black uniforms was an attempt to be “unique” among the rest of the collegiate teams, but I find them simply to be pedestrian and tacky.
Volunteers are definitely a significant part of the makeup of the TN spirit
Love Tennessee’s history! Keep sharing!
Born Raised in East Tennessee and so proud to have Orange blood running thru my vaines.no place on earth like East Tennessee and those beautiful mountains.welcome to GODS Country. JGB
Luv this team .I was born in Jasper tenn .and have been a vol.s screaming fan from the first time I saw the team play in 1960
Thank you for this wonderful story.I am blessed to be a proud & thankful Tennessee Volunteer. I knew the nickname originated from the Volunteers responding to the call to arms during the Spanish -American war, but didn’t know the complete story of how the University adopted the nickname. Now I know thanks to this great article. 🧡🍊🏈
Proud of our great University for the education it offers as well as our sports programs!! Go.Vol’s!!
1979 alum here (Communications). I’m so proud of what the team has accomplished so far, and look forward to continuing success.
Awesome bit of history