I have always been able to do more than people expect," Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors was saying last Friday night over dinner in Birmingham on the eve of the Volunteers' game with No. 1-ranked Alabama. "But at Tennessee that might not be possible."
Might not. These days Vol fans are pumped up to the bursting point about the 44-year-old Majors' already legendary coaching wizardry. After all, he coached Iowa State to winning ways, taking the Cyclones to their first-ever bowl game in 1971. Then he got State to a bowl again the next year, bringing additional joy to a state in which people had always felt that second place in a football game was pretty durned good. And at Pitt he directed the Panthers to a national championship in 1976—in a town that thought just being best in Pennsylvania ranked right up there with scrapple on the list of Good Things.
Even before he took over at Tennessee in 1977, Majors was one of the state's favorite sons. Indeed, in the mid-1950s he was an All-America—halfback and defensive back—for the Vols. Even when he fumbled a punt in the 1957 Sugar Bowl—a fumble that led to Baylor's winning touchdown and cost Tennessee an undefeated season—his mother seemingly spoke for the entire state when she said, "Well, everybody burns the biscuits once in a while."
Perhaps, but Volunteer fans don't expect any more such inattention to duty. They expect Majors to fire up and beat Auburn (he did this year, 35-17) and Alabama (yet to be done), win the Southeastern Conference championship and a national championship. Can Majors do all this?
October 29, 1979
"None of that is in my contract," he says prudently. But last Saturday, before a thunderstruck crowd of 77,665 at Legion Field in Birmingham, his young squad, 20-point underdogs, put on a performance against Alabama that served notice to the football world: Johnny Majors is going to have the Vols back up there among the Top Ten heavy hitters. Soon. Write it down. For on a gorgeous football afternoon, all Tennessee did was stun proud, albeit fumbling, Alabama (seven fumbles, four lost) by jumping off to a 17-0 lead. Then the Vols clawed and scratched and blocked and tackled before giving in to the Crimson Tide, 27-17. 'Bama Coach Bear Bryant had been asked earlier in the week, "What if you get behind?" He muttered, "Well, we're gonna try to get back ahead." Bingo, that's all there is to coaching a No. 1-ranked team.
Alabama's talent plus a soft, soft schedule—Wichita State (1-6) and Vanderbilt (0-6) have already been conquered; the likes of Virginia Tech (4-3) and Miami (3-3) are yet to come—should add up to a ninth national championship for the Tide. Bryant says, "I make no apologies for our schedule. Last year we played the toughest schedule in history and nobody congratulated us." Did too, Bear. The AP writers' poll acknowledged it by voting the Tide national champs.
Saturday's game gave Majors a fine opportunity to give the faithful a progress report on his quest to do what he has been ordered to do: make a 24-carat winner for the folks in Knoxville, who haven't seen their Big Orange go to a major bowl in eight years. It bothers him not a bit that as a coach he is responsible to an irresponsible public. His predecessor, Bill Battle, resigned under pressure. Although he had a 59-22-2 record, he was regarded as a loser. Majors arrived with a record of 57-43-2 and was hailed as a real winner. Other coaches wonder what his secret is. There's no secret. He's just the kind of guy who races his motor all day: his idea of taking it easy is to play three sets of tennis. He recruits like gang busters. When the fast-talking Majors was courting Tony Dorsett just after accepting the Pitt job, Dorsett said after one visit, "I couldn't understand a word Coach Majors said, but I sure liked the way he said it." Majors may constantly interrupt others, but he's not being rude; it's just that he has so much more to say than anybody else, and if he waits he'll never get it all in.
Linebacker Craig Puki, who was to be Saturday's leading tackier, with 13 stops, says of Majors, "He doesn't hold himself on a pedestal. He has fire in his eyes. If he were a player, you know he'd be doing it. He's always kindling the fire. He has taught us what total dedication is." Says Quarterback Jimmy Streater, explaining why the players always say "Yes, sir" to Majors, "We have respect for him because he has respect for us."
Gave them ringing eardrums, too. Majors is forever clapping his hands—which can be startling in a small room. One day last week he chortled, "I love living and coaching. There ain't a damn soul more enthusiastic than me. When I was born. I hit the ground running."
Case in point. Before the Alabama game, he barged into a meeting room where his assistants were fretting and discussed a play: "They might stuff us, but then, we might make four yards, and if we make four yards, we might break the tackle. Right?" He left without waiting for an answer.
Later, watching a Vol' practice, Majors was slightly subdued. "Today can't be all bad," he said. "I'm alive, the sun's shining and I have a job. Now, by Saturday night, it might be a different story."
In the stillness of the locker room before the game, Majors reminded his obviously apprehensive team, "Don't underestimate yourself. You're young and you're moving. You have a good football team. Just think to yourselves, 'If it's to be, it's up to me.' "
Less than five minutes into the game, Puki, a senior, took Majors at his word and jolted 'Bama Quarterback Steadman Shealy with a crushing hit. Shealy fumbled, and Tennessee's Bill Bates pounced on the ball on the Alabama 48. But the Vols could do nothing. Then, just over a minute later, Shealy fumbled a center snap, and Middle Guard Carlton Gunn recovered for the Vols on the Alabama 15. Three plays later Streater threw a rollout to Wingback Phil Ingram for a touchdown. Late in the first quarter Tennessee marched from its own 37 as Fullback Hubert Simpson and Streater took turns confounding Alabama with their running and passing. Streater went over from the three to cap an 11-play drive. Moments later, early in the second quarter, Alan Duncan booted a 45-yard field goal, and so the scoreboard looked as if it had been rigged by a fantasist for a Tennessee recruiting movie: Vols 17, Alabama 0. Confessed Majors later, "At this point. I thought we were gonna win."
But Alabama, a team that doesn't often face adversity but nevertheless knows how to handle it, reared up to spoil the final reels. The turning point came in the second quarter when a Streater pass was deflected by Nose Guard Warren Lyles and caught by Linebacker Robbie Jones. Lamented Streater, "When I released the ball, I felt like there was nobody there. Suddenly it seemed like there were 15,000 hands." On the next play Shealy threw to Tight End Tim Travis for 33 yards and the first 'Bama score.
In the third quarter the Tide turned it on. On the second play from scrimmage, Shealy's pass was intercepted by the Vols' Danny Martin, who returned it 28 yards to the Alabama 32. But on the next play. Tennessee Fullback Terry Daniels fumbled, and the Tide's Randy Scott recovered. After another interception of a Streater pass. Running Back Major Ogilvie—who ultimately gained 109 yards—got the Tide a touchdown with a 16-yard run and a one-yard plunge. Score 17-14.
With only five seconds left in the quarter, Don Jacobs, spelling Shealy at quarterback, made a last-second pitch to Ogilvie, who went six yards to put 'Bama ahead, 21-17. It was all over when Jacobs got loose up the middle for 13 yards and another TD with 5:58 left in the game. Said Jacobs of all the fumbles. "Maybe it's mental, but Tennessee was no slouch in the hitting department."
Ultimately, Alabama made 26 first downs to Tennessee's 13 and 396 yards of total offense to the Vols' 220. Said Bryant, "I think Alabama is a champion now."
But how good is this team compared with your others?
"Aw, that's like comparing the old girl with the new girl."
Asked the same question about his bunch, Majors said, "We'll be a whole lot better in the future." Tennessee people were deflated—after all, it was the ninth straight loss to those fat cats from Tuscaloosa—but not destroyed. "We had our chances," said Majors, whose team is now 4-2. "We just gave some Christmas presents we couldn't afford. But we grew up and played shoe to shoe with the No. 1 team in the country.
"Football is not going to drive me crazy. It means an awful lot to me, but I am not going to get to the point where I can't smell the roses." Or be bothered by the occasional odor of burning biscuits.