Forty years ago this weekend, the Tennessee Volunteers’ football team capped in spectacular fashion one of the most unusual seasons in school history. On Dec. 4, 1965, at Memphis’ new (Liberty Bowl) Memorial Stadium, the squad upset Rose Bowl-bound UCLA in what has been considered one the most exciting games ever played by the Big Orange.
The win gave the team a regular season record of 7-1-2, the Vols’ best season in nine years. Had they scored two more points and defeated Ole Miss, they would have been SEC champions and probably as beloved among the longtime Vol faithful today as the Cinderella 1985 UT squad that was honored this past season.
Although the 1965 team had some great wins, it is perhaps best remembered for a tragic loss suffered off the football field. On the morning of Oct. 18, three UT assistant football coaches were killed in a train-car crash in West Knoxville. One of the coaches whose life was taken was Bill Majors, the 26-year-old younger brother of former UT coach John Majors and the son of the late former Sewanee football coach Shirley Majors.
Today, Bill Majors’ family can only speculate as to what he might have accomplished, had he lived longer. His younger brother, Larry, thinks he could have been a college head coach if he had desired.
“In my opinion, when Doug Dickey went to Florida (after the 1969 season), they would have given the job to Bill,” he said over the telephone from his home in Estill Springs, Tenn. Instead, Bill Battle, who was hired for the 1966 season to replace one of the deceased coaches, ended up becoming the head coach.
Bill Majors, who was also the brother of Chattanooga area residents Shirley Ann Husband and former UT great Bob Majors, had shown signs of greatness early. He started at Huntland, Tenn., High for four years, from 1953-56, and he held the distinction of having no losses and only one tie during that time. The coach was his father.
Larry Majors, who played on those later teams, remembers that his older brother also distinguished himself in many other areas as a youngster.
“He was probably the most popular person and the most mature high school player I’ve ever been around,” he said. “People believed in him and he knew how to approach people. Bill had great timing in anything he did. He knew when to approach you and when to leave you alone. And he read the newspaper front to back.”
In the fall of 1957, Bill Majors enrolled at UT. He went on to letter from 1958-60 as an offensive back and safety, playing with longtime Baylor baseball coach Gene Etter. “Bill was one of the best safety men I have ever seen,” said Larry.
But probably his greatest stop came off the field, when he captured the fancy of Lynnie Thompson of Kingsport, Tenn., a Kappa Delta sorority member. Lynnie Thompson Tunnell, who later remarried Lynn Tunnell and now lives in Dalton, Ga., recalled that they met when she was a freshman. He was a sophomore and had come to her dorm with some other football players.
She had actually met his brother, John, previously in Kingsport and found herself living in the same dorm with his sister, Shirley Ann, who was dating center Tommy Husband.
“He loved life and he loved football,” recalled Mrs. Tunnell, who recently had to face death again with the death of her mother. “He was just a great person.”
They were later married and had two children, Bobo and Mark. After UT, Bill tried out for the Buffalo Bills and sold insurance for a period. Before the 1964 season, when Doug Dickey became the coach, he was hired on the staff to coach defensive backs, despite being only 24.
When the 1965 season started, Bill Majors and the other coaches were hoping to improve upon the previous season’s record of 4-5-1. But perhaps none of the Vol faithful knew how successful the season would be.
Among the players on that squad were Austin Denney, Frank Emanuel, Walter Chadwick, captain Hal Wantland, Charlie Fulton, Johnny Mills, Paul Naumoff and Dewey “Swamp Rat” Warren.
The team started with a 21-0 victory over Army and a 13-13 tie with Auburn in Knoxville. They then beat South Carolina, 24-3, before traveling to Birmingham’s Legion Field to battle mighty Alabama and Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Tennessee had not beaten Alabama since 1960 and Alabama was loaded with such players as quarterbacks Steve Sloan from Cleveland, Tenn., and future pro Ken Stabler. But this Vol team seemed to have a new confidence under second-year coach Doug Dickey.
Tennessee managed to keep the game tied until Alabama appeared to be driving for a winning field goal with time about to expire. Stabler, not realizing it was fourth down, mistakenly threw the ball out of bounds as Alabama kicker David Ray was coming out to get set up for a field goal. As a result, Alabama lost possession and the two teams ended up tying.
Ties could bring a range of emotions, but for Tennessee, this one felt like a victory. That was obvious in the excited locker room afterward.
But in this season that ran the gamut of emotions, real-life despair was just around the corner. On the following Monday morning, offensive line and kicking coach Charlie Rash, 28, left his Forest Oak Drive home in Knoxville in his Volkswagen Beetle, stopped to pick up end coach Bob Jones, 30, at his Deane Hill Apartment on Gleason Drive (which today borders West Town Mall), and then headed to pick up Coach Majors at his Cessna Drive home a mile or so southwest.
As the three coaches pulled away from his small rental home toward Westland Drive, they collided with a Southern Railway train heading toward downtown Knoxville. The right rear of the VW was smashed, sending it 96 feet down the track. The train, which was traveling at a high rate of speed but had set its air brakes after seeing the car, traveled nearly a mile before stopping.
Majors and Jones, a law school graduate who had played at Baylor University, were killed instantly. Rash, a former Missouri Tiger kicker, was taken to Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in very critical condition. He would die four days later.
Authorities later cited the time of the crash at 6:53 a.m. after finding Jones’ watch from the 1957 Sugar Bowl between Baylor and Tennessee, when he was an assistant with the Bears while going to law school.
Exactly why the coaches were unable to avoid the train remains a mystery to this day.
News of the horrific crash spread quickly throughout Knoxville. UT President Andy Holt, who referred to the day as “very gloomy,” went to visit the wives and sons of the victims along with Coach Dickey and the other coaches. Fellow assistant and former UT star George Cafego, who was light-heartedly nicknamed “Bad News” in his playing days, unfortunately did have to deliver the bad news to Bill’s father and brother, John, who was then an assistant at Arkansas.
A number of players gathered at the hospital to keep vigil on Coach Rash’s behalf until the coaches encouraged them to go back to the dorm. All UT athletic practices were canceled that day.
A service was held the next day at Church Street United Methodist Church near the campus. “The whole football team was in the back with (blazer) uniforms,” recalled Mrs. Tunnell, choking back emotion all these years later. “It was really moving.”
The week was a whirlwind of activity for Coach Dickey, as he had to help with out of town burial services. After deciding to continue with the season, the staff realigned itself. Former coach Jim McDonald came back from administration, and additional duties were given to the remaining coaches.
The team also decided to wear black crosses over the “T’s” on the helmets as memorial tributes for the rest of the season.
At the Houston game the following Saturday, a memorial prayer was delivered before the game and the entire stadium of 35,000 sang the hymn, “Abide With Me.” A telegram from the wives of the three coaches was read to the players.
But the Vols were obviously still distracted. They were unable to score until late in the third quarter, but did go on to defeat the Cougars, 17-8. They had survived the week with a victory, and now had two weeks to rest.
They then defeated Georgia Tech, 21-7, before losing to Ole Miss, 14-13, in Memphis. Had they won that game, they would have gone to the Sugar Bowl as the SEC champion. But the game did have a bright spot. It brought the debut of Dewey Warren at quarterback after Charlie Fulton was injured.
The squad then came back to defeat Kentucky, 19-3, and Vanderbilt, 21-3, before meeting UCLA in the same Memphis stadium where they had lost three weeks earlier. The Bruins, coached by Tommy Prothro, were headed for the Rose Bowl and were led by future Heisman Trophy winner and sophomore Gary Beban and running back Mel Farr.
In a thrilling game that was not televised, the lead went back and forth. UCLA scored late and appeared ready for victory. But Tennessee received the ball back and slowly began working it down the field, with Johnny Mills making key catches before getting injured.
With time about to run out, the Vols had the ball fourth down on the one Would they be stopped and end the Cinderella season on a bad note?
Not hardly. Quarterback Warren took the snap, rolled around left end and, with much determination, barely put the ball in the endzone to go ahead.
But the Vols still had to kick off. On the last play of the game, however, Vol defensive back Bob Petrella intercepted the pass to ensure the win by a score of 37-34. The game was over, but not the dramatics. As he was knocked out of bounds on the UCLA sideline, UCLA players piled on him. He emerged shaken and with bad cuts around his eyes.
And in the locker room, Coach Prothro, was uncharacteristically upset. He criticized a pass interference call, claimed that the clock had been wrongly stopped twice on Tennessee’s winning drive, and said that a dropped pass was a lateral and a fumble. The native Memphian went so far as to say, “For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be a Southerner.”
But for the Vol faithful, it was the win of a lifetime. “This was the most spectacular victory in all of the grand history of Tennessee football, this 37-34 conquest of UCLA,” wrote Tom Siler of the Knoxville News-Sentinel in the next day’s paper.
Back at the Knoxville airport, between 3,000 and 4,000 wildly enthusiastic fans agreed, as some waited as long as two hours in cold temperatures to welcome the team back home.
UT football was back as well, as the season would signal nearly 10 years of outstanding success for Tennessee. The team went on to beat Tulsa and future pro receiving great Howard Twilley in the 1965 Bluebonnet Bowl by a score of 27-6.
Forty autumns have now passed since that heart-warming time when the Vols went from tragedy to triumph, but for the Majors family, the healing continues.
To help in this end, family members and friends held a 40th anniversary memorial service this past Oct. 15 at the Lynchburg, Tn., cemetery where he is buried. The gathering had been initiated by Shirley Ann Husband in part to let the younger members of the Majors families learn more about him, Larry Majors said.
Bill Majors’ oldest son, Bobo, who played football at Dalton High for Bill Chappell and was the leading tackler for Austin Peay for two years before settling in Tullahoma, Tn., has been on a personal quest in recent years to learn more about his father. A small child at home at the time of the accident who remembers nothing about it or the funeral, he has tried to piece together information about his father and the tragic crash. He even visited the crash site in recent years. “My mother kept all that secret,” he said
Bobo Majors has also unsuccessfully tried to locate fellow soulmates of the tragedy -- all the sons of the other two coaches. Mrs. Tunnell said she recently saw the wife of Charlie Rash in Destin, Fla., but has lost touch with the wife of Bob Jones.
The family recently did receive a small dose of closure when youngest son, Mark, and his wife, who live in Dalton, had twins born on the same day as Bill Majors’ birthday.
As a result, his legacy continues, just as he did back in 1965, when the tragic deaths refused to derail a Vol football express but made the players more determined than ever to succeed.
“I think that the Tennessee players responded to the tragedy and it made them closer and brought them together as a team,” said Larry Majors.