The 'most beautiful woman ever' reflects on her life with Johnny Majors

Georgiana Vines
Special to the News Sentinel

Mary Lynn Majors is busy writing thank-you notes to all the people who remembered her after the death of her husband, legendary Tennessee football coach and player Johnny Majors.

“I received about 200 (notes and letters) and am doing a few each day,” she said in an interview conducted over FaceTime. She was at her home off the Tennessee River where she and John — as she called him — moved when they returned from Pittsburgh in 2007. Assisting her has been her “buddy,” Martha McClellan, whom she’s known for more than 40 years.

“Martha has ordered me some special stationery and I’m writing personal notes. I want everybody to know how much I appreciate their attention,” she said. Many included newspaper clippings from where the couple lived outside Knoxville. “There were lots of stories to see how people cared,” she said.

How Johnny met Mary Lynn

John Terrill Majors and Mary Lynn Barnwell Majors were married just two weeks short of 62 years when he died at the home on June 3 at age 85. They had met on a blind date during her freshman year at UT after he saw her in the student center and made a point of finding out her name.

In an earlier interview with the News Sentinel, she said Johnny  had just returned to Knoxville from playing for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL to finish his degree and work with Vols coach Bowden Wyatt as an assistant. He got her name from a Sigma Chi fraternity brother and called her in West Hall, a freshman dormitory. She said yes.

“I knew John’s name. I remembered hearing about Johnny Majors. I listened to the football games when I was in Chattanooga,” she said. Chattanooga was where she grew up, the daughter of C.H. and Esther Barnwell. She graduated from Girls Preparatory School before coming to UT in 1957.

It wasn’t long after the wedding in 1958 that Mary Lynn became the wife of a coach and began moving around as her husband’s career took off.

Mary Lynn Majors and Johnny Majors in 1959.

In 1960, Johnny became an assistant coach at Mississippi State at Starkville. After three years, he was hired as an assistant  by Arkansas and moved to Fayetteville.

Then in 1968, he was named the coach at Iowa State. The family, which now included two children, John Ireland and Mary Elizabeth, moved to Ames.  

“Two others had turned it down,” Mary Lynn said about the Iowa State job. “It was known as the ‘coach’s graveyard.’ (When) John took the job, I told him that I’ve never been more proud of you than I am today.” The team was on a downslide and Majors turned it around by leading it to its first bowl game.

Mary Lynn Majors and her family, John, Mary Elizabeth and Johnny Majors, in 1977.

The next stop was Pittsburgh in 1973, where  Johnny  guided the school to the 1976 National Championship.

UT soon called  and Majors returned home and was coach from 1977 to 1992, winning three SEC championships. The couple moved back to Pittsburgh where Johnny was hired again as coach  until 1996 and later became special assistant to the athletic director and chancellor until 2007.

Then they returned to Knoxville, but not until a grandson, Brandon Harrill, whom they had raised since he was 6, had finished high school.

Life of a coach's wife

Life as a coach’s wife included perks, like going to bowl games as part of a university’s official group. Wives attended all the games.

“You get used to being with other people,” Mary Lynn said. “Sitting up in the press box, you learn to get along with everybody even if you don’t know them. They know your husband really well,” she said.

Bud Ford, the UT Athletics Department historian whose career was in media relations, said while he dealt primarily with coaches and players, he knew that Majors’ wife was always pleasant.

Mary Lynn and Johnny Majors on Aug. 29, 1977.

“Coaches' wives have the ability to know when to be there and when not to be. She was in a unique position. They were very approachable, and I think that’s what endeared Coach (Majors) and to some extent his wife to the Tennessee family,” Ford said.

But it also meant being alone or having sole responsibility for the children's activities.

“They let me participate and expand my interests,” John Ireland said. “I played the violin, baseball, football, soccer. She always had a station wagon and was always dressing in the car. I even had dance lessons on Friday night, to make sure I was well rounded. She put a lot of mileage on that station wagon.”

In an interview in 2007 with the News Sentinel upon returning from Pittsburgh, Johnny  even used his familiar instructions of '"attack, attack, attack" when describing the transition away from football.

“Mary Lynn is the prettiest, most beautiful woman ever," Johnny said. "She’s stuck in there with me through some tough times, but a lot of great times, too. She’s always worked hard, but I haven’t always been much help. I guess you could say that it’s time I helped out on game day. And, I need to get my game face on and help with this move. I guess you could say it’s time for me to attack, attack, attack when it comes to things at home.”

Johnny and Mary Lynn Majors at Neyland Stadium on Aug. 20, 1977.

Flower arrangements and sitting on the deck

While Mary Lynn was kept busy as a wife and mother, she also took time to develop her own interests — some of them Mary Lynn and Johnny shared when they returned to Knoxville, which included supporting the Knoxville Opera and Knoxville Symphony. As a couple, they helped with fundraising for the opera, frequently judging vintage costumes at an annual croquet tournament.

Mary Lynn is well known for flower arranging. She said her mother was a great gardener who did flower arrangements, and her own interest grew from helping to establish a flower festival at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in 1987. She visited a festival at a cathedral in Brandon, England, when her husband spoke at a football clinic there.

Mary Lynn Majors shows how to decorate with fresh flowers at the Downtown YWCA in March 1991.

That’s also when she and McClellan became such good friends. They decided to involve as many other women in the church as they could. “Martha and I checked out every woman when they went up for Communion and decided what they could do,” she said. Some were asked to help with flower arrangements, while others were asked to contribute money or provide food for a luncheon or tea.

She’s been active in garden clubs and been a judge all over the country. When she moved back to Pittsburgh, the Garden Club of Allegheny County found out about her skills with flowers and got her active.

Mary Lynn Majors at the Pigskin Classic game at Anaheim Stadium in California in 1990.

“The best thing was when we were in Pittsburgh, there was heat in the garage. I would teach women how to arrange flowers,” she said.

McClellan, who would visit Mary Lynn in Pittsburgh, said her friend had “moved into a community that didn’t have flower arranging skills. But they do now.”

Mary Lynn turned 81 on July 13 and had a quiet celebration with John Ireland and his son, Owen. “She took phone calls while we were there, people calling her to wish her happy birthday,” her son said.

Mary Lynn and Johnny Majors at their home in September 1990.

Mary Lynn, in taking time to write notes to friends, is reminiscent of what her husband did the last few weeks of his life. She said he sat on the deck of the house they bought in the Topside subdivision when they returned from Pittsburgh, writing notes and making phone calls. His birthday was May 21 and he had received a number of calls, cards and gifts. One gift was an acrylic helmet that lights up and has Johnny Majors’ name, number and years he was SEC MVP. It was sent by Carson Long, who was placekicker all four years at Pitt, John Ireland said.

Mary Lynn said her husband spent the day on the deck the day he died. Her statement at the time said, “John passed away this morning. He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River.”

Georgiana Vines is retired News Sentinel associate editor. She may be reached at gvpolitics@hotmail.com.