By ordinary standards it might be best described as one of life’s worst 1-2 punches, a pair of hard, personal blows that drop you to your knees. True, each devastating blow was uncommonly back to back. But, no, when I learned Wednesday morning that college football icon Johnny Majors had died just some 48 hours after another legend, Auburn’s Pat Dye, it was as though I’d been hit by Ali himself in the center of my face. In my 36 years behind a sports typewriter, I dare say I collected more friends across the country than any man alive. That being such a broad standard, how’s this to narrow it: Johnny and Pat were firmly entrenched in my deeply personal and very cherished Top Five in the best 36 years of my life.
I’ve told several times how my deal unfolded.
At the News-Free Press in the late ‘60s, Austin White was the Tennessee writer and Allen Morris handled the Mocs. Our other three writers were high school writers and our sports section was awful. I would rarely read it myself.
I had a good feel for the extended Chattanooga community and realized we have many loyalties; the thousands of Georgia and Alabama fans, a huge Vanderbilt base and the ever-loyal Auburn family. These people had nothing to read, much less the Ole Miss crowd, UNC and all the rest. So, from business 101: “Find a void and fill it.”
At age 20, I called “The King,” Coach Bryant at Alabama, explained what I felt was a need, and he granted me a 30-minute audience. Over four spell-binding hours later, I got out of my chair and Coach called around the league to the other coaches. Two years later I had every private number of the coaches, as well as many of their assistants who, in the years to follow, would become head coaches. It was a huge hit. Remember, this was before the Internet and I was the first total SEC writer. Today almost every newspaper has a guy who follows all the teams in the Southeastern Conference, not just one.
Coach Bryant was quite profound I stayed true. If I shared any juicy morsel about Team A with Team B on the week they played, my validity and trust would be gone. Every coach understood that, so they’d load me up with “fun facts” about every team but their own. I’d pass along jokes and quips and then the unthinkable occurred; I developed deep, strong, and undeniable friendships. Pat Dye and I became friends when he was an assistant coaching Alabama’s linebackers.
Johnny was different. In the years he was coaching at Iowa State and winning a National Championship at Pitt, I grew to adore his Daddy, Shirley, who coached at Sewanee. Every time John would come home, his mom, “Miss Elizabeth,” would add a plate at the lunch table, and I knew all of the boys and their sister, Shirley Anne, in a “family way.” When Tennessee hired Johnny in 1977, we were already as deep as brothers.
That’s how it started. I was a disciple of “the IBM rule,” the computer giant requiring its salesmen to “look as good or better than anyone they would meet in the course of a day.” It was a rarity among writers that I wore a coat and tie all the time, and later made any writer I sent to a college game dress the same. Soon my guys asked what I’d done to make each of them be treated “so special” whenever they would walk in a press box from the News-Free Press. I told them it was because they were “special” but the real reason we were held high was because we looked better than the rest, we wrote more thank you notes than the rest, and we literally practiced far-better manners than the rest.
One time a gaggle of Tennessee writers asked Johnny why they had rules that the media must abide “but Roy can walk out in the middle of the field, camp out in the locker room talking to players, barge in coaching meetings, do anything he wants. Why, they said, “because that’s not fair?” Johnny reportedly said, “He’s Roy Exum. You ought to try to be more like him.” I damn near cried when I heard that.
That set the stage for the late ‘70s, the 80s, and the early 90’s and it was right about then SEC football became a 12-month sport. It was all anybody wanted to talk about in every month of the year, and the funny stuff was low-hanging fruit, believe you me.
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JOHNNY’S LEGENDARY TURN-AROUND
“When Johnny came marching home again” in time for the 1997 season, at first, he couldn’t get his Vols to gel. He recruited with a passion and won eight games in 1981, and nine in 1983, when the Vols really got their stride back as an annual contender. Tennessee went 7-4 in 1984, which paved the way for his first SEC championship in ’86 when a 9-1-2 team led by Doug Dickey’s son Daryl absolutely crushed No. 2 Miami in a signature win, 35-7.
UT’s ’87 team lost only twice – beating lightly-regarded Indiana by a measly 5 points in the Peach Bowl -- but was haunted by a tie with Auburn. But in 1988 came Johnny’s great disappointment and his greatest achievement in the same dose of syrup. I was there every step of the way and, while I was bleeding inside, knowing with most SEC coaches the UT team was far better than that. Just before the fist-bath against Alabama Tennessee hosted a yawner against Washington State in the fifth game of the season and the football gods were so angry Washington State piled up 618 yards of total offense against UT – the most in program history at the time -- and the Cougars waltzed away with a 52-24 hijacking.
The off-week before facing Alabama in Knoxville, Majors fired legendary defensive coordinator “Ken-O” Donahue but that did little to appease UT’s infamous boo-birds. ‘Bama jumped to a 14-0 lead but Tennessee actually played its best game thus far, falling 28-20 when the best player on the field was UT defender Keith DeLong -- 19 unassisted tackles, an interception, a sack and a bunch of teammates who still refused to toss it in.
Granted, the next five games have always been “the B side” on Tennessee’s schedule but the monumental and heroic turn-around came the Tuesday before Tennessee’s first win of the year. The weekly Tuesday press conference, as always, was at this huge table that looked like the classic “T” on the Vols football helmet and Majors appeared to be running late. Amid the writers’ light chatter the door flung open and John hit the table so hard with his hand it’s a wonder both didn’t break … “Gentlemen! Our football team is only about two inches from hell!” he said with a fiery face, “… but let me tell you this … we are moving in the right direction!”
Not only did a young but gutsy Tennessee football team win those last five games, the never-say-die spirit Majors kept alive is from which lore is made.
Anytime someone would mention a lingering problem or discrepancy in the UT program, John would say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” which translated means, “Handle today’s problems quickly and don’t get sidetracked by anything that takes your eye off the bulls-eye.”
That’s how he was. That’s why I loved him. I’ll share some more stories and more on two of my favorite friends in the weeks ahead.
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Some years after the turnaround, Johnny was asked in a quiet moment about the 1988 season: “When we were 0-6, my answer was I didn’t have all the answers,” he said in a recent interview. “I said I was going to keep on keepin’ on. I believed that.
“I was going to hang in there through the tough times and the good times. I had no intention of giving up. I worked hard to never learn to lose. It paid off. We had some close victories after the 0-6 start, but it certainly paid off over the next three years.”