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Go in the Graduate Knoxville hotel, where Peyton Manning helped design the Vols theme

Brenna McDermott
Knoxville News Sentinel

Published 8:39 AM EDT Aug 13, 2020

Each of the 112 guest rooms in the Graduate Knoxville includes a framed 1997 photo of Peyton Manning and Phillip Fulmer rocking cowboy hats and ’90s-era blue jeans. 

The NFL and University of Tennessee football icon and his then-coach, now UT’s athletics director, have just scaled Rocky Top on horseback in the photo, taken for a fundraiser promotion.

“We rode up like cowboys,” Manning said in an exclusive interview with Knox News. 

It’s an example of the quirky nostalgia Vols fans will experience at the Graduate, which opens Thursday. The hotel features many photos, artifacts and memorabilia honoring Vols athletics, and Manning, the hotel’s muse.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Peyton Manning on his Saloon 16’s collection of Tennessee Vols glory

The project is an “authentic love letter” to Knoxville, said Graduate CEO and founder Ben Weprin, who is a UT alumnus.

Vols fans will be treated to the custom Smokey wallpaper in each bathroom, in which UT’s mascot holds a Sunsphere toy in his mouth.

The front desk is fashioned as a Vol Navy boat, and the key cards recreate student IDs of Manning, Fulmer, Tamika Catchings and other Vols legends. 

Manning is an investor in the brand and was a creative collaborator with Weprin for the hotel and its signature bar, Saloon 16.

“Peyton is just so committed and dedicated. He is no halfway anything. He was all in on this,” Weprin said, who worked on every detail of the hotel himself.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Peyton Manning on his Saloon 16’s collection of Tennessee Vols glory

Manning played a creative role in hotel

The hotel at 1706 Cumberland Ave. was a Days Inn when Weprin attended UT. 

Weprin is CEO and founder of AJ Capital Partners, which owns the Graduate brand. He is longtime friends with Eli Manning and Cooper Manning, Peyton’s brothers.

Weprin was a freshman during Manning’s senior year, after the Vols’ star quarterback decided to return for a final season at UT instead of heading to the NFL. Manning’s decision resonated with Weprin, who once served as Manning’s caddie for a round of golf with Tiger Woods. 

“When you go through (creating the hotel) with him on such a personal level, you totally understand why he came back to school,” Weprin said. “He just knew how special this place was and how much he loved being part of it.” 

Manning worked hand-in-hand with the Graduate team on the vision for the hotel, down to choosing which athletes would appear on the guest key cards and lending photos and memorabilia. 

“My deal is, when I sign up for something, I’m kinda all in,” Manning said. “I’m going to be a part of it. I’m not just going to be a token.” 

Weprin hopes when guests enter the lobby they feel like they’re entering Manning’s living room.

There’s a homey, upscale cabin feel, thanks to plaids and depictions of the Great Smoky Mountains. There are Southern touches, too, like the “Sweet as Soda Pop” embroidered pillows on the beds. 

And of course there are many references to UT traditions. 

An art installation in the lobby spells out “Football Time” with small clocks. Guests can spot more than 50 custom Vols drawings from cartoonist and UT alumnus Marshall Ramsey.

In the lobby, there’s an enlarged copy of Reggie White’s original student ID and stylized Sports Illustrated covers featuring legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. Outside, there’s a massive Knoxville-themed mural featuring Manning as “The Sheriff.”

Saloon 16, which opens Thursday, is a play off that nickname and Manning’s UT football jersey number. 

Branded as a “high-end watering hole,” the Western-themed joint includes entire walls of never-before-seen memorabilia, letters and photos, along with odes to the people and experiences that most influenced Manning’s Knoxville years. 

“At first we were going to make it just kind of a cool saloon, just a cool place,” Manning said. “Then Ben sort of convinced me, I think people are going to want to see something behind the scenes.”

Graduates in college towns everywhere

Founded in 2014, Graduate has 24 locations and another 10 in the pipeline, each a one-of-a-kind design centered on, in many cases, college town identity. The Nashville Graduate, which opened this summer, includes a Dolly Parton-themed rooftop bar.

“Our whole thing is super nostalgic. That’s what we do in all these markets, is celebrate the best years of your life,” Weprin said. 

The Knoxville hotel was announced in May 2019, when the hotel was a Hilton Garden Inn. It operated as an independent property — The Volunteer Hotel — during the renovations and brand transition.

Weprin has been anxious to build a Knoxville location since Graduate launched and waited for the right spot to open up on The Strip. He spent many days in college walking Cumberland trying to sell telephone book ads.

Working with Manning on this project challenged Weprin to up his game, he said. Each aspect of the hotel had to pass Manning’s most important test: Is it authentic Knoxville?

“That was the criteria for anything that went into the property,” Weprin said. “And whether it’s his journey through college, his passion for school … we really tried to celebrate everything.” 

Brenna McDermott is a business reporter. Follow her on Twitter @_BrennaMcD.

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