Johnny Majors established Tennessee football for Vols' best decade in his players' eyes

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Johnny Majors was preparing Tennessee for a major clash against No. 6 UCLA in September 1989 when a situation with J.J. McCleskey needed his attention.

McCleskey, a redshirt freshman walk-on, quit after not making the travel roster. Majors knew just what to do.

“Coach Majors reached out to my parents and got me back in the fold,” McCleskey said. “He knew I would do what my parents told me to do. I traveled to UCLA and played on kickoff return. By midseason, I moved to defensive back and was starting. 

“My whole football career changes if Majors doesn’t make that call.”

Majors died on Wednesday morning. He was 85. 

“It was almost like he wasn’t really a man,” said Aaron Hayden, a running back at UT from 1991-94. “He was more of an idol that was a really good football coach. You don’t imagine those guys leaving this earth.”

Majors' former players at Tennessee remembered the legendary Vols coach and player as someone who deeply understood his players and ushered a program into an elite decade with a hard-nosed but empathetic approach.

“Johnny Majors is the reason why Tennessee’s foundation was set,” said Chuck Smith, who played on the defensive line at Tennessee from 1990-91.

Majors, whose playing career landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame, returned to his alma mater in 1976. Majors guided Pittsburgh to a national championship and undefeated season in 1976 before becoming Tennessee's coach. 

In 16 seasons at Tennessee from 1977-92, Majors compiled a 116-62-8 record. He led Tennessee to an SEC title in 1985, its first since 1969, and two more in 1989 and 1990.

“He sparked the rise of Tennessee football in the late '80s and early '90s,” said McCleskey, who now coaches defensive backs at Tulane. “My first year (in 1988) we were 0-6 at one time. That was it. We won five games to finish. We went 11-1 the next year and we were rocking and rolling.”

Smith arrived in 1990 as a junior-college transfer. He recalled a sit-down with Majors and fellow junior-college recruits Dale Carter and Chris Mims before the season. Majors told the trio he brought them in to “take the defense to another level … if we are going to win championships.”

Tennessee had its second consecutive top-10 finish in 1990. Smith singled out a resounding 45-3 thumping against No. 9 Florida as setting the stage for the decade.

“Coach Majors was on the forefront of starting the greatest era of Tennessee football,” Smith said. “That is the era for all those guys wanting to become Vols all the way up to the 1998 team because Johnny put together an unbelievable coaching staff and they recruited unbelievable talent. He was the leader. …

“That helped mold the '90s and what continued with Coach (Phillip) Fulmer. Johnny started it.”

Former Vols remembered Majors as a disciplinarian, who was never shy to come down from his tower in practice to coach a player intensely. They praised him for hiring an elite staff. They also remembered a man who brought players from all backgrounds together in an impressive fashion.

“He did that back then,” Hayden said. “Imagine that 30 years later. We didn’t have any issues back then at practice or in the dorm with the black-white stuff. We were all Vols. That was our culture. That was our cult, so to speak. …

“You never (experienced racism) on that field and when you were in his program. There was an attitude of we had business to do, but life is life. He was just one of those guys that was a visionary leader.”

Said McCleskey: “If you really want to win, you have to put the best people on the field, but you have to treat everyone the same way in the program. I don’t care if you are black, white, from Russia or from Africa, Johnny was in the business of winning.”

Hayden never saw Majors’ leadership and the respect his players had for him more than in the locker room at halftime at Notre Dame in 1991. The Vols were handled for the first 30 minutes, but came back to win 35-34 in the “Miracle at South Bend.”

“I can almost live it now,” Hayden said. “Everybody was quiet. Every eye was gazing at this man as he stood on top of chairs, as he talked about coming back to beat a legendary team at a legendary place. We believed him. He commanded men to be men. I will always remember that about him.”

Majors was forced out as coach in 1992 and replaced by Fulmer, his former assistant. The program never won fewer than eight games in a season in the 1990s and finished ranked in the Associated Press top five six times in the decade.

Majors’ players pointed to the final years that the Lynchburg, Tennessee, native coached as making Vols football what it grew to be.

“He surrounded himself with good people and good things happened,” McCleskey said.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.