I don’t know Lane Kiffin or much about him, but since he has become the football coach at the University of Tennessee I, along with millions of others who relish Saturday afternoons in the fall, have studied him with more than a passing interest.
Thus far he’s said some dumb things, recruited some fabulous players and added a delicious blend of spice to the SEC stew. Mind you, he has yet to take his players through the weekly gauntlet of a season, to barely lick one Saturday’s wounds before facing an even bigger giant the next, but I think he has promise and I’m increasingly excited about him.
That said, none of it mattered a bit one day last week when he walked towards a spring practice with a special man at his side. Had I been there I would have probably cried. Kiffin, in his finest moment since he told Oakland’s Al Davis he was nuts, has brought Johnny Majors back home.
When John walked onto the practice field, it was the first time in 17 years he had stepped foot on the same soil where he was once its most heralded player. But in one of sports’ most brutal and bitter coup d'etats, he was later ousted after 16 years as a head coach.
Today isn’t the time to go into all of that, but it is important that you know I was there during the whole, awful tragedy. I’ve often said the blackest day in the 35 years I wrote sports was when, one Friday morning, Johnny called me from Memphis and, in a choking voice, “They got me. I’m through. Tomorrow will be my last game … “
It wasn’t just that he was fired in the very worst way, it was as though a puzzling crowd of Judases had literally cut his recently-repaired heart out of his body and, I’ll admit, it put a saddening tint on the Big Orange for me. It was exactly as John often used to quote, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
In the years that have followed, a lot more things have happened, some of them to me. Phillip Fulmer and I talked a lot about it and it was with more deep sadness that I watched him flounder and flail this past year. I met Phillip when he played for UT, but we didn’t become friends until he was once an assistant at Vanderbilt, of all places.
I still try to explain to people that I adore Tennessee football. Back when I started covering the SEC, the newspaper had a brilliant writer named Austin White who zealously guarded his territory so I was left with everybody else. At the time, this long before Internet and talk radio, guys like Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan and Vince Dooley welcomed me with open arms.
But Johnny was special because I had fallen in love with his daddy when John was still an assistant somewhere. Shirley Majors coached at Sewanee, just up Highway 41, and I would not only go talk football but about bird dogs and mountain apples. I would go out to the house where Mrs. Majors would hold forth and soon I knew all the boys – Johnny, Joe, Bill, Larry, Bobby and, of course, Shirley Anne.
Are you getting the picture here? This fast friendship has gone on for over 40 years so I can only imagine what Thursday was like for John as he walked down the drive to what they now call Haslam practice field. If I am flooded with memories, what on earth went through Johnny’s head as he heard the whistles, the shouts and planted his feet on such hallowed ground?
The Knoxville News-Sentinel had a wonderful story about Kiffin getting Majors’ stamp of approval, but the best part was that during the practice, Majors slipped up behind UT’s All-American safety, Eric Berry, and said in his never-to-be-forgotten practice voice, “Son, where did you learn to play football like you play football? Your daddy, your mother or your grandmother?”
Eric, whose dad James played for Majors, whirled with a huge grin and said to the legend he’d never met before, “Hello coach!”
Later Berry would tell writer Dave Hooker, “It was kind of a shock. It was good meeting him and seeing what kind of person he is. It felt pretty good, just seeing a legend in Tennessee history be at practice and to have a conversation with him. I’ve heard a lot of great stories from my dad about him. It was a pleasure finally meeting him.”
How do you think John felt? Oh, my goodness! After the practice, Kiffin took Majors to his staff meeting, wallowing in delight as Majors enthused about the tempo and intensity he’d just witnessed. “I wanted my staff to hear that. We’ve welcomed him and love having him around, him and his family, and it’s been great.”
Great, indeed. I am so excited about Lane Kiffin right now I can hardly stand it. He might not have won his first game, but when he won Johnny’s heart, he went a long way towards winning mine, too. I’m telling you, it’s just like Shirley Majors once would smile slightly as he used to muse, “That boy shows promise.”