Mr. CFB: Memories of Coach Majors

Photo Courtesy of Knoxville News-Sentinel

Tony Barnhart

It’s been a tough week. On Monday we lost an SEC football icon in Coach Pat Dye, who won four SEC championships at Auburn in just 12 seasons (1981-1992).

On Wednesday it happened again as John Majors, a former great Tennessee player and coach, passed away at the age of 85.

I heard from a number of people about Majors, the 1956 runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, who built successful football programs at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee. Here are just a few snapshots that came from those interviews:

HE COULD BE A TOUGH GUY TO WORK FOR

Majors was known to be impatient with his staff when things weren’t going well. In 1988, his 12th season at Tennessee, Tennessee started 0-5, which included a 52-24 loss to Washington State in Knoxville. Tennessee would have a week off before playing Alabama and so Majors decided to act.

He shook up his entire defensive coaching staff, removing highly-respected defensive coordinator Ken Donahue and replacing him with running backs coach Doug Mathews. Mathews and Donahue were close friends.

“That was tough but it’s the nature of the business,” said Mathews, who today lives outside of Nashville.

The following week Tennessee lost to Alabama 28-20 in Knoxville but was very competitive. Tennessee went on to win its final five games to finish 5-6.

In 1989, with Mathews still at defensive coordinator and a new offensive coordinator in Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee went 11-1 and shared the SEC championship. He shared it again in 1990 and was 9-3 in 1991. He was nudged out the door in favor of Fulmer in 1992.

MAJORS SPOKE WITH JACKIE SHERRILL SUNDAY NIGHT

Sherrill, the former head coach at Washington State, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State, says he owes his career to Majors. The two were on the staff at Arkansas together and when Majors got the head coaching job at Iowa State, Sherrill went with him. Then it was on to Pittsburgh. When Majors left for Tennessee in 1977, Sherrill was named the head coach at Pitt.

“He moved me up the ladder quickly,” said Sherrill from his home in Wimberly, Texas. “I got the jobs I got because of him. He was always like a father figure to me.”

Sherrill said the two men spoke for an hour on Sunday night. There was no indication that by Wednesday Majors would be gone.

“He kept saying that he needed to see me. I was hoping to do that later this year,” he said.

MAJORS ONE OF FOUR VOLS TO FINISH SECOND FOR THE HEISMAN

In 1956 Majors was easily the most versatile college football player in the country as he ran, passed, and returned kicks for Tennessee, leading the Vols to a 10-0 record before losing to Baylor (13-7) in the Sugar Bowl.

But the Heisman Trophy went to Paul Hornung, the golden boy on Notre Dame’s 2-8 team. Majors became the second of four Tennessee players to finish second for the Heisman Trophy: Hank Lauricella (1951), Majors (1956), Heath Shuler (1993), Peyton Manning (1997).

Over the years Majors was asked WHO SHOULD have won the Heisman in 1956.

His response?

“Jim Brown.”

The Syracuse running back finished fifth in the Heisman Voting that season.

AT PITT, MAJORS/DORSETT PLAYED GEORGIA THREE TIMES IN FOUR YEARS

Because of a quirk in the schedule, Majors only played Georgia and Vince Dooley three times (1980, 1981, 1988) in 16 seasons at Tennessee. But when Majors did his first stint at Pittsburgh (1973-76), he faced Georgia three out of four seasons.

In 1973, with freshman running back Tony Dorsett playing in his first college game, Pittsburgh went to Athens and tied the Bulldogs 7-7.

“That was the game where we knew we could be successful at Pitt,” Sherrill. “For our young program to go to Athens and almost win was huge.”

Two years later Pitt came back to Sanford Stadium and beat Georgia 19-9.

In 1976 Georgia won the SEC championship and was ranked No. 4 when it played No. 1 Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl. Dorsett was the Heisman Trophy winner and Matt Cavanaugh was the quarterback. Pitt cruised 27-3 and won the national championship. Then Majors would leave for Tennessee.

HE SHOULD NOT HAVE GONE BACK TO PITTSBURGH, PART I

Majors was so upset after what he believed was disloyal treatment from his alma mater, that he turned down a job from the university went back to Pittsburgh hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again. But this time Majors would not be able to sign 70-plus players in his first year, like he did in 1973. His teams went 3-8, 3-8, 2-9, 4-7.

After a 63-21 loss to Virginia Tech he went into the post-game news conference.

“Do you have any questions?”

Crickets.

“Do you have any answers?”

HE SHOULD NOT HAVE GONE BACK TO PITTSBURGH, PART II

Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987. Only four men in history have been named to the Hall of Fame as both a player and coach (Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bowden Wyatt, Bobby Dodd, and Steve Spurrier.)

Going back to Pittsburgh may keep Majors from being the fifth.

According to the selection criteria, to reach the Hall of Fame, a coach must have been a head coach for a minimum of 100 games with a winning percentage of no less than 60 percent.

Had Majors retired after being pushed out at Tennessee in 1992, he would have finished his career with a record of 173-105-10, a winning percentage of 62.3.

His 12-32 record in his final four years at Pitt left Majors with a record of 185-137-10 for a winning percentage of 57.45.

“Coach Majors deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as a coach, period,” said Sherrill.

Comments

Tony Barnhart

FEATURED
COMMUNITY