Appreciating Johnny Majors, a true Vol for Life
Big Orange Country is in mourning.
Johnny Majors, who became a Tennessee legend as a player and head coach, passed away Wednesday morning. He was 85.
It’s hard to find a figure who meant more to Tennessee’s football program than Majors.
He was a 2-time SEC player of the year at tailback and an All-American in 1956, the year he should have won the Heisman Trophy. Instead, he was the runner up to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung, despite the Fighting Irish only winning 2 games that season. Majors, who also punted and played safety for UT, ran for more yards, and even threw more touchdown passes while leading the Vols to a 10-1 record, an SEC title and a No. 2 national ranking. Hornung over Majors pained Tennessee fans of that generation just as much if not more than the 1997 Charles Woodson over Peyton Manning vote. Tennessee, of course, still has yet to have a player win the Heisman Trophy.
Decades later, when Hornung was at Tennessee interviewing Majors for a television program, Hornung tried to needle Majors, asking him who should have won the Heisman Trophy that year. Without skipping a beat, Majors simply said, “Jim Brown.” The Syracuse running back finished 5th in the voting, and is a consensus choice as one of the best football players of all time.
Dynamic on the field.
Fierce on the sidelines.
We mourn the loss of legendary player and coach Johnny Majors—a man who left an indelible mark on Tennessee Football. pic.twitter.com/0ImKAKrclK
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) June 3, 2020
As a coach, Majors reached the pinnacle of his profession in 1976, when his Pittsburgh Panthers won the national championship. Keep in mind, this was a Panthers program that hadn’t had a winning season in the 11 years before Majors arrived, and in 4 years Majors had them at the top of the mountain. But instead of enjoying that success, he chose to take on the challenge returning home to rebuild his alma mater.
It wasn’t easy. The Vols went 21-23 in his first 4 seasons on Rocky Top, with only a Bluebonnet Bowl loss to show fans and boosters who expected a level of success like he had at Pittsburgh. But things began to turn around in 1981, when the Vols began a run of 11 bowl games in 12 years under Majors. I was actually at the 1981 Garden State Bowl for the Vols’ victory over Wisconsin. I was 8 years old and all I remember was seeing a lot of orange and white pom poms. Oh, and Willie Gault returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
Majors won 3 SEC titles over the next decade. His 1985 team finished the season ranked 4th in the country following a 35-7 shellacking of heavy favorite Miami in the Sugar Bowl. That Vols team remains one of the most popular squads in Tennessee history.
Majors’ 1989-1991 was an incredible 3-year run. The Vols went 29-6-2, with 2 SEC titles and victories in the Sugar and Cotton Bowls. Majors had done what he was brought to Tennessee to do … turn the Vols back into a national powerhouse.
Heading into 1992, Vols fans were anticipating another big season. But Majors had quintuple bypass surgery, and offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer took over on an interim basis. The good times kept rolling under Fulmer, with wins over Georgia and Florida. Majors returned in October, and the Vols lost 3 close games, costing them a berth in the first SEC Championship Game.
Some feel what happened next was a coup d’etat, as Majors was bought out of the final 2 years of his contract, with Fulmer getting promoted to head coach. Majors held a grudge against Fulmer that lasted for decades. After the regular-season finale, a win at Vanderbilt (his 116th victory at Tennessee), Majors said, “I want to thank the athletic department staff, the UT faculty and school officials who’ve been so helpful. And of course, I want to thank all my assistants, the loyal ones.”
Majors chose to retire in Knoxville, but his firing stuck with him for years. He had limited connections to the program until 2009, when he struck up an unexpected yet memorable friendship with new coach Lane Kiffin, who replaced Fulmer. He stayed connected, even after Kiffin left. Kiffin invited Majors to his first practice, and in 2018 tweet that Majors was “the greatest Tennessee coach ever.” During the coaching search debacle of 2017, Majors said that Kiffin would win if he came back to Tennessee.
I thought of Majors often during Tennessee’s time in the college football wilderness following the dismissal of Fulmer. Despite their differences, Majors and Fulmer had one thing in common: The Tennessee job was the one they wanted over any other.
The Vols had Majors and Fulmer for more than 30 years, then went through Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, 3 guys who were never invested in the program. Pruitt appears to have the Vols on the right track, but that’s another topic for another day. He’s still chasing what Majors helped to rebuild.
Majors left a national championship program at Pittsburgh, a program that at the time was obviously rolling, to come back to the flagship campus in his home state, where he starred on the field. And while the Vols never won a national title under Majors, he laid the foundation for what would be a memorable stretch in the mid to late 1990s.
My personal interactions with Majors were limited. He could be found on area golf courses in his later years when he played in charity events. It was always nice to see him, a true original at a time when most are afraid to ruffle any feathers.
Majors will be sorely missed.
Rest in Peace, King Johnny …
Cover photo via Twitter @Vol_Football