How Tennessee football, Danny White brought the V-O-L-S letters back to Neyland Stadium

·5 min read

Kevin Zurcher mastered the routine.

He spent his fall Saturdays in the early 1980s walking the Neyland Stadium aisles and selling Coca-Cola until his tray was empty. The then-16-year-old Doyle High School student marched up the ramp on the stadium’s south end to concourse 3 to find a place to settle in and watch Tennessee football play.

Zurcher remembers laying on top of a concession stand, looking up and seeing the V-O-L-S letters perched atop the south side of the stadium.

“They had an orange background when I was growing up,” said Zurcher, the associate athletics director for facilities and capital projects at UT.

The V-O-L-S letters are back at Neyland Stadium for the first time in more than a decade, a traditional element brought back as part of the renovations to the stadium this offseason.

How the idea to bring back the V-O-L-S letters started

It began with a tweet.

UT athletics director Danny White posted a picture of the most recent rendition of the letters displayed outside Neyland Stadium on Oct. 9 prior to Tennessee’s 45-20 win against South Carolina.

OPENERS: 10 Tennessee football season openers we didn't see coming | Mike Strange

PREDICTIONS: Tennessee football will break scoring record again in 2022, and other bold predictions

“I’m learning that there’s sentimental value in these letters!” White wrote on Twitter. “Thought y’all might enjoy a bit of nostalgia today - they’re outside Gate 21 if you want a picture. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that y’all want us to include the Vols letters in our Neyland renovation plans…?”

The internal conversations about bringing the beloved letters back started in a meeting a week earlier during White's first football season as the AD at UT.

“Danny brought it up to us and said, ‘What do we need to do to get this done?’ ” said Zurcher, who played wide receiver for UT under Johnny Majors in the late 1980s.

White received an overwhelming and emotional response on Twitter. Fans peppered White’s mentions with memories of the letters from their childhood and experiences at Neyland Stadium before the letters were removed prior to the 2009 season.

“I think Danny does an amazing job of listening to Vol Nation and listening to our fan base in terms of what they want to see and what they want to support,” said Mónica Lebrón, UT’s deputy athletics director for championship resources. “He heard them and acted quickly.”

The approximate cost for the letters and the installation was $750,000. In addition to White, Zurcher and Lebrón, deputy athletics director and chief operating officer Ryan Alpert was integral in the effort to restore the V-O-L-S letters.

"As the fans started getting momentum, we started getting momentum," Zurcher said.

How Tennessee chose the design and location for the letters

White’s question about getting the V-O-L-S letters back sparked more questions.

Where would UT display the letters? What would the color combination be? Was it possible?

The latter was the easiest to answer. Tennessee already had renovation projects slated at Neyland Stadium to add premium seating on the west side and overhaul the north end zone with a video board and bar-style seating.

“Every time Danny talks about modernization, he follows it up with how we are going to preserve the rich history and tradition," Lebrón said. "That is never going to go away. That is always going to be something important to him and our entire administration. There is such a rich history here at Tennessee.”

Tennessee added the letters to the scope through conversations with Cope Architecture. A handful of options were presented to the UT administrative team between the design ideas and possible locations.

UT debated between orange letters on a white background or white letters on an orange background. The original letters — displayed from 1966-76 — were orange letters with a white background. The second edition, which lasted from 1976-2009, was flipped.

Tennessee opted for white letters on an orange background for the letters, which will debut when UT opens its season next Thursday (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network) against Ball State.

UT temporarily explored putting the letters on the north end of Neyland Stadium, but it had too many structural obstacles. It decided to return the letters to the south end and have two sets instead of one.

“We settled on the southeast and southwest because it was the most visible when you are inside the stadium and when you are outside the stadium,” Zurcher said. “It is a lot more visible than we ever imagined.”

The response to the letters returning

Zurcher was nervous for the first six months of the process. But it unfolded smoothly with no major obstacles. The necessary campus offices and the state processes of approval all worked together for a clean journey.

Tennessee teased the return with an in-game video during its game against Georgia on Nov. 17. It stated, "Coming back soon." White shared a rendering on Twitter in early June showing the sets of letters.

“If there is stuff out there, bring it to our attention," Lebrón said. "This is proof we are listening to this fan base. Vol Nation means everything to us. We are going to be as great as we can be because of Vol Nation."

UT worked with The Christman Company, the contractor on the project. Allen Sign Company made the letters. The letters are 12-foot wide, 12-foot tall, and 3-foot deep. The original letters installed in the 1960s were 8-foot feet tall.

The installation started in June while the letters were installed beginning July 5, nine months after White's initial push to bring the letters back. Fans stopped by to take pictures on top of the parking garage to the south of Neyland Stadium.

“I have had countless season-ticket holders and donors come up to me and say I am emotional now that I have seen the letters again because when I was a little kid those letters were up there and that meant it was football season," Lebrón said.

Zurcher is among those with childhood stories of the letters and now has a story of their return.

“I am very proud and happy with the ones we have up now,” Zurcher said. “I am just ready for the fans to enjoy it on that Thursday night.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: How Tennessee football brought V-O-L-S letters back to Neyland Stadium