By Dan Fleser
KNOXVILLE – A football upset played out in total obscurity at Neyland Stadium on a chilly November evening in 1988.
The surprise was orchestrated by Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, who typically plied his trade before a large audience. In this case, yours truly was the lone witness. I was the only one who saw him bring a routine encounter, our first, to a conclusion that I definitely didn’t see coming.
We had convened in a small room tucked under the stands in the stadium’s southeast corner. I was covering a Thursday practice before the final game of a 5-6 season that was unfolding like two seasons in one. The Vols opened with six consecutive losses before ending with five victories. I had attended one of those losses while on a recruiting visit – a 52-24 shellacking at the hands of Washington State – but committed to the Knoxville News Sentinel anyway.
I arrived in town the night before UT’s first victory, which occurred at Memphis. They hadn’t lost since then and I had helped cover two of the wins.
To lighten the mood before our interview, I introduced myself to a wary Majors by noting my undefeated record. His expression immediately lightened before asking: “Well, do you like it here? A lot of good-looking women here.”
So began my shared history with the Vols coaching legend, who died Wednesday at the age of 85. Admittedly, it wasn’t much compared to his considerable legacy. Majors’ storied playing career at Tennessee earned him induction to the College Football Hall of Fame. As a coach, he led Pittsburgh to a national championship in 1976 before returning to his alma mater and coaching the Vols to three SEC championships (1985, 1989, 1990) during a 15-year career.
Even my first encounter lost some of its luster after I shared the details with my colleagues. Turned out most everyone had Majors stories to tell that were equally humorous and, well, colorful. These tales often were told with an imitation of the coach’s distinctive cadence and punctuated by his trademark “Huh.”
Still we had our moments. The late Haywood Harris, who headed UT’s sports information department, confided to me that Majors initially struggled to remember my name, which bothered him. Perhaps that explained what happened on a warm spring day thereafter, during a chance encounter while Majors was jogging on Tom Black Track. He stopped in his tracks and loudly exclaimed, “Hello, Mr. Fleser.”
He stopped me dead in my tracks. The coach had coached himself up for that meeting.
Another time, I caught him off guard with a phone call to his office about a player who had gotten in trouble. “Hello, Mr. Fleser” digressed quickly into some broken field, verbal scrambling. He adjusted on the fly, however, calling back three times to amend his reply.
There were other moments like this, less memorable but no less enjoyable. They constituted you-had-to-be-there kind of fare and continued well into his retirement. At the risk of sounding wistful, I miss them, just like I’ll miss Majors.
For 32 years, I’ve liked it here. An upset-minded coach deserves his share of the credit.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.