Why are Tennessee Football Players and Fans Called the Volunteers?

Adam Parish
3 min readSep 26, 2019

Last weekend I took my son to Gainesville, Florida to watch the University of Tennessee Volunteers play football against the University of Florida Gators.

Nathaniel and me in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida

Our seats for the game were located in the Florida student section. So we spent several hours surrounded by Gator fans. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice almost everyone was.

At one point during the game, as I was shouting, “Go Vols”, the college age man next to me asked, “Why is Tennessee called the Volunteers?” I was taken back a bit. I grew up in Tennessee, and my home-state's volunteer story is imprinted on me.

Our view from Section 34

This young college football fan posed a good question, because so many other college teams have less serious names. For example, the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks are named after animals that are significant to their state.

So, why does Tennessee and the Knoxville campus of my state university use the name Volunteers or Vols for short to describe ourselves?

The answer and story begins with the sixth governor of Tennessee. His name was Sam Houston. Because of personal issues, Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee and eventually found himself in the Mexican territory of Texas.

Americans like Sam Houston that settled in Texas lead a successful revolt, and Sam Houston became the first President of the Republic of Texas and eventually the seventh Governor of Texas.

However, some could argue that Texas, as we know it today, would not exist if it were not for a cohort of volunteers from Tennessee.

Painting of Davy Crockett by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk [Public domain]

Of the small group of volunteers at the Battle of the Alamo, we find a former Congressman from Tennessee, Davy Crockett, following the lead of Sam Houston. With speculation that Texas might move toward independence from Mexico, Davy Crockett and a band of thirty traveled to Arkansas and into Texas.

Once in Texas, Davy took an oath before a judge to the Provisional Government of Texas.

“I have taken the oath of government and have enrolled my name as a volunteer and will set out for the Rio Grande in a few days with the volunteers from the United States.”

Davy Crockett and his band of volunteers eventually took up a post at the Alamo near San Antonio. While outnumbered and lacking supplies, they defended the Alamo for thirteen days. The Alamo was eventually overwhelmed by a much larger Mexican force.

At the age of 49, the Tennessee statesmen and soldier, David Crockett, died at the Alamo. Of Crockett’s many legacies, one is the word ‘volunteer’ being etched into Tennessee lore.

I’m afraid that not many college sports fans, like the young Florida fan next to me late into September 2019, realize the historical significance of of the rally cray, “GO VOLS!”

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Adam Parish

I work in product management. I’m curious in a broad range of topics. Digitally enabled by Android, Brave, Signal and Windows.