John Shearer: Memories Of Coach Johnny Majors

Friday, September 28, 2012 - by John Shearer

Johnny Majors’ name conjures up many memories to University of Tennessee football fans.

Most of them are positive, including being runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956 as a standout Volunteer and leading the Vols to numerous outstanding seasons as coach, including the heart-warming 1985 SEC championship season.

He is also remembered for the situation in which he was forced out in 1992 by athletic director Doug Dickey and replaced by Phillip Fulmer.

Coach Majors, now 77, was again recently in the news for a positive reason when UT officials announced before the Florida game on Sept. 15 that his No. 45 jersey would be retired.

Shortly before that occurred, Coach Majors looked back on his career in a telephone interview, discussing the challenging early days when he was able to recruit a few good players, including James Berry, father of Eric Berry.

But perhaps his biggest recruiting coup was when he married his wife, the former Mary Lynn Barnwell of Chattanooga.

“I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth from Chattanooga,” he recalled with a warm memory.

Coach Majors said he had met the 1957 Girls Preparatory School graduate during her freshman year, after his UT playing career was over and he was back as a student coach after a season as a player in the Canadian Football League.

He remembers seeing his future wife at the campus’ still-in-use University Center and becoming enamored with her.

“I saw her several times, found out what her name was and called her for a blind date,” he said. “She was the only girl I ever went steady with.” 

One of Coach Majors’ maxims over the years was to tell his players to “marry up,” and he always proudly used himself as an example.

They were married in 1959 while he continued to serve on the UT freshman team staff, but in 1960 they left for Mississippi State, where he began a stint as a varsity assistant.

He eventually worked his way up to head coach of Iowa State and then Pittsburgh, where Coach Majors recruited a freshman in 1973 named Tony Dorsett. As a senior in 1976, Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy and led Coach Majors’ Panthers to a national championship.

By coincidence, just as Coach Majors’ was enjoying such success as coach, his alma mater was struggling in football.

Although Coach Bill Battle had enjoyed some good seasons during his early years, his teams later began struggling and he resigned at the end of the 1976 season. Coach Majors was hired as the coach, but did not begin work until after leading his Panthers to a convincing victory over SEC champion Georgia and former Rossville player Dicky Clark in the Sugar Bowl to cement the national championship.

Perhaps unknown to Tennessee fans at the time, Coach Majors actually struggled with his decision, saying he would not have gone to another tradition-rich school like Southern Cal. But he decided to return home to Tennessee.

“At that time I was certainly more interested in staying than going,” he said. “I loved Pittsburgh as a town. I wanted to stay but I wanted to go. I would have had a better record if I had stayed. But I accepted the challenge and the opportunity to go back to my home school.”

The popular Civil War-era song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” became a catchword phrase as Vol fans hoped he would lead them back among the elite teams in the SEC. But Coach Majors likely felt more like singing the blues when he saw the facilities that needed updating.

“Our facilities were big, but they were old,” he said. “The locker rooms were old. They had probably not been updated since the 1920s.”

Coach Majors also was busy trying to recruit better talent back into Knoxville and improve the discipline and focus of the team.

“I was going day and night for several months and several years,” Coach Majors said. “I had to fight for a lot of things a lot of coaches don’t have to fight for.”

Because of the struggles of Coach Battle’s last two years, Vol fans were unusually patient with Coach Majors, as the team finished 4-7 in 1977 and 5-5-1 in 1978.

The coaches, in turn, were patient with the players and grew to love those who wore the orange during those early rebuilding years.

“There’s no way I can measure how significant that first group was to go through the tough times,” Coach Majors said. “They were getting used to a new program. We ran a tough, hard-nosed program and the majority of them hung in there. They laid the foundation.”

But hope slowly began to appear more frequently, including with in an inspiring win over a competitive Kentucky team on Thanksgiving weekend at Neyland Stadium in 1978.

And in 1979, the team dominated Notre Dame, 40-18.

But a few stumbles continued to occur. The Vols, for example, narrowly lost to two future Heisman Trophy winners – Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Southern Cal’s Marcus Allen – in the first two games of the 1980 season.

But Coach Majors and the Vols kept plugging away and finally beat Alabama and Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for the first time in 12 years in 1982.

And then came the memorable 1985 season, when an unexpected Tennessee team won the SEC championship and upset Miami, 35-7, in the Sugar Bowl.

Coach Majors continued to build a more solid program, but it took its toll on his health, as he had to have heart surgery before the 1992 season. Phillip Fulmer filled in as interim coach, leading the Vols to big wins against Georgia and Florida.

But when Coach Majors returned later in the season, the team seemed to struggle more. As a result, athletic director Doug Dickey replaced Coach Majors with Fulmer after Coach Majors coached one final game against what was then Memphis State.

Coach Majors – who then went back to coach Pittsburgh and later worked in a special university position there before moving back to Knoxville -- still remains publicly bitter over the way he was treated in 1992.

But he still loves the Tennessee program as a whole and is proud of what he was able to accomplish as coach.

“I had a lot of excitement and a lot of rewards,” he said. “I had a lot of exciting times at Tennessee.”

“We left the program in a lot better shape when we left than when we got there.”

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 


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