It was not the first time I had seen Spanish moss streaming down from a tree, but I know it was the first time it had caught my eye in such an impressionable way that scorching July day in the summer of 1988. The big majestic cypress trees which framed the picturesque Louisiana State University campus were full of the stuff, and in a way it reminded me of days past when I had seen the oaks on Toomers Corner streaming with toilet paper after an Auburn victory.
It had always been one of my favorite things as a child to witness the transformation of the corner across from Toomers Drugstore into a winter wonderland of white, the bigger the Auburn win the more massive the wonder.
As I put the two images together on that hot summer day back in 1988, I realized that other than a few simple visits to a coach at UTC, I really hadn’t spent much time on a college campus other than for a sporting event.
I had started working at the Chattanooga News-Free Press my senior year in a high school and started working fulltime the moment I walked across the stage in 1981. For an 18-year-old, I had reached the mountain top and going to college served no purpose for me. What is it they say, youth is wasted on the youth?
But that summer of ’88, I hopped in a car with my boss Roy Exum and took off on a trip of a lifetime, sitting shotgun as he made his annual “Writer’s Tour” of the SEC to fill up page after page of newsprint with only the type of insights Roy could gather from his friends. By the end of the trek with notebooks full of quotes and tidbits and hours in front of a typewriter still ahead, Roy even put me on a plane to Florida State where I did my best to make him proud of all he taught me on the trip as I dined with Bobby Bowden and asked Roy-like questions.
You see, Roy was adored by college coaches and sports information directors across the South and he did his darndest to teach me the madness of his ways. Just mentioning you worked for Roy Exum was like flashing a backstage pass to a concert and you were welcomed with open arms. It got to be where I had ridden that coattail for so long, I stopped having to tell people I worked for Roy when I showed up at places.
When former Auburn coach Pat Dye passed away early this week as I shared stories of Coach Dye with folks, it made me realize that of all the cool things I’ve been blessed to do and the people I’ve done them with, how many of them were a direct reflection of the people who adored Roy. Simply put, riding that coat tail has been the ride of a lifetime.
Johnny Majors was different, though.
I mentioned the trip to LSU for a reason because as Roy and I walked about the campus with LSU coach Mike Archer that day and I looked upon the beautiful spread before me, I realized what I had missed out on in the seven years since I had graduated from Tyner High School. I mentioned such to Roy later that night on the drive, and before I knew it, he had me talked into going back to school. By the time I got back from Florida State a week or so later, he had already been on the phone with Coach Majors and had a bunch of stuff for me to fill out. When the football season kicked off in 1988, I was covering the University of Tennessee and was a freshman majoring in public relations.
Coach Majors had taken care of everything. I got my classes from the same folks who set up the athlete’s classes, was staying in a dorm room for upperclassmen, and had a front row seat to everything UT.
Now I say, Coach Majors was different than all the others I had been linked to through Roy Exum because he became so much more than an acquaintance. He was my guardian angel, and through the years I came to love him.
Back in the good ol’ days writers attended practice, so I used to go to football practice every day after a long day in class. Once you have seen a few weeks of practice they all look the same. For me, those afternoons in the heat soon became a good time to find an unused tackling dummy, find a shady spot, and take a nap before getting daily quotes at practice’s end. That routine went swimmingly for about two days until Coach Majors spotted the unsuspecting prey while perusing the practice field from his high tower.
By the time the third day rolled around, Majors had carried a bag of footballs to the top of the tower with him and waited for my afternoon siesta. No more than 10 minutes into nap time, I was awakened by the unmistakable thump of football leather to head and Majors told me later on with a sense of pride in his voice “it only took me two tosses. How far of a throw do you think that was?”
Majors always got a kick out of getting a laugh at my expense, and what a laugh he had. That same gravelly voice that used to scream “attack, attack, attack” at his defense or “oskie wow wow” on tipped passes could somehow transform into the most welcoming laugh in a Santa sort of way.
He was under the impression he always got the best of me until the day I finally told him I had pulled one over on him years ago and he never knew it. It was at the SEC Media Days in Birmingham and the UT crew of Majors and two players showed up the night before being scheduled to speak and we all had dinner. I had a car and the two players wanted to go out afterwards and as fate would have it, one of them met a young lady, and the next thing I know I’m giving up my room at the hotel and sleeping in a twin bed next to Charles Davis. Majors came around for bed check and I nuzzled up with two pillows under the sheets and pretended to be asleep while Davis confirmed to Majors his “teammate” was indeed asleep in the bed next to him. Of course, he laughed when I told him the story.
He knew I was an Auburn fan from our talks about my mother and her time on the Plains, and he gave me a hard time about my allegiance, especially during Auburn week. He would walk by me at practice and wait until he was right next to me before screaming at his orange warriors “going to get us some Tiger tail this week, boys” and then he would laugh.
He shared stories about Auburn games past and the friendship he had formed with Coach Dye, but he also talked about his son John and his daughter Mary. He knew that I loved being at Tennessee despite my background, especially the Tennessee players, many who I shared classrooms with as well, just as he loved Pittsburgh where he had won a national title. He noticed the guys I was close with like Andy Kelly, Greg Amsler, Mark Adams, Shazzon Bradley, Chuck Webb and Reggie Cobb.
In fact, he was so keenly aware of the guys I hung out with that he knew Cobb always parked off campus and rode with me because I had a parking space next to Thompson-Boiling Arena and we shared our first class together. So much so, that on the day he kicked Cobb off the team for a failed drug test one of managers was waiting for us at my parking space to tell Reggie coach needed to see him right away. The manager even said “Coach Majors told me to tell you to go to class” because he knew I would skip it and walk up to his office with Reggie.
Coach Majors, despite all he had going on with work, kept tabs on me just as he did all the players he loved. That is the kind of person he was.
I had a great relationship with Phil Fulmer, but the day Majors was fired, I cried, and I was angry, and I knew that coach felt somewhat betrayed by Fulmer. Years later when Haywood Harris, the great sports information director at UT died, Majors showed up to the funeral and sat beside me despite the fact we were on the row behind Fulmer.
After he was fired, and went to serve Pittsburgh as its coach and athletic director, he used to bring prominent boosters to Chattanooga because he loved playing golf at the Honors Course and he was especially fond of our city where Mary Lynn, his wife of 62 years, had been raised. I always got a call because he needed someone he could trust with things that were spoken to help caddy the guys around. We played the Honors Course in the morning and then the Farm in Dalton in the afternoon before dinner and drinks. It was a time I always cherished because I got to hear him laugh again.
He sent me a note on the day I was married apologizing for not being able to make the wedding but included the kind of wisdom in it that helped carry him through 62 years of marriage. Again, he was always looking out for me.
Yes, Coach Majors was different than all my other Roy acquaintances even though he did indeed become my friend because of Roy. He was my friend because he chose to be my friend, and he was a friend I loved dearly.
Rest in peace, my friend.
(James Beach can be reached at email@example.com)