Jerry Summers: Tennessee Football Family - The Majors

Sunday, March 1, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Little did he know while he was cutting hair as a barber or farming in Lynchburg that Shirley Majors (1913-1981) would become the patriarch of Tennessee’s most famous football family.

He started the football program in nearby Huntland and, after his first-year record of 3-5, won 70 of his teams' next 71 games.  Utilizing the talents of his 159-pound tailback son, Johnny, in its single wing offense at Huntland, Coach Majors matriculated to the University of the South where he coached for 21 years compiling a record of 93-74-5 in a Division 3 non-scholarship program.  His lifelong companion was his diminutive wife, Elizabeth, who was a school teacher and a “mother” to many Sewanee students and athletes.  She was described by her daughter as “full of energy like a piece of dynamite.” Many a Sewanee athlete and student enjoyed the warm hospitality she and her husband provided at their home.

Their union produced five sons - Johnny, Joe, Bill, Larry and Bobby and a daughter, Shirley Anne.

During his tenure at Sewanee, Coach Majors had two undefeated teams (1958 and 1963), mentored six small college All Americans and won five College Athletic Conference (CAC) championships.

Johnny graduated from Huntland and, while at Tennessee, was the 1956 SEC Most Valuable Player. He became an All-American and runner up to the Heisman Trophy winner, Paul Hornung of Notre Dame. Retired Chattanooga lawyer Hugh Garner was on the squad. 

A coach like his father, he would win a national championship at Pittsburgh in 1976 with Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.  John would return to his alma mater in Knoxville in 1977 and during his 15 years as head coach of the Volunteers posted 115 SEC victories which placed him among the top ten SEC coaches in victories.  During his coaching career at U.T. he won three SEC championships and his teams were a perennial post season bowl participant.

Brother Joe Majors would play at Florida State and had a brief career with the Houston Oilers in the National Football League.  He graduated from law school and would serve as a lobbyist in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Bill Majors was also an outstanding defensive player for the Vols and tried out with the Buffalo Bills and would be an assistant coach at Tennessee. He was killed in a car-train collision on October 18, 1965 at the age of 26 with two other assistant coaches, Charlie Rash and Bob Jones.  

Larry Majors played wingback for his father at Sewanee and graduated in 1963. He has coached and been an active member of the community since his graduation.  He was elected to the Sewanee Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 based on his athletic ability and civic activities.

The youngest male member of the Majors clan is Bobby, an All-American defensive player for the Vols in 1971 who played in the National Football League and is a businessman in Chattanooga.

Shirley Anne Majors kept up the family tradition of being an outstanding high school basketball player and a cheerleader at U.T. where she met her brother Bill’s roommate and Vol player, Tom Husband, who would later be her future husband.

In 1966 the Majors parents and athletes were inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame as a family.

Coach Shirley Major and his wife, Elizabeth, the “First Lady of Tennessee football,” could be very proud of all six of their offspring. (and they were!)

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

Shirley Majors
Shirley Majors

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