Johnny Majors not only excelled in college football, he loved being a part of it | Adams
We didn't talk that much about Tennessee when we had lunch at the SEC spring meetings in 1979. I was more interested in what he did elsewhere.
Majors, who died Wednesday morning at 85, was a Tennessee native who came close to winning the Heisman Trophy as a single-wing tailback with the Vols. He then returned to his alma mater after the 1976 football season to rebuild a program that he almost led to a national championship as a player in 1956.
I was intrigued by the rebuilding jobs he already had accomplished.
He took Pittsburgh from college football's doldrums to an unbeaten, national championship season in 1976. Before that, he worked wonders at Iowa State, which was little more than a Big Eight punching bag before Majors made it competitive.
I didn't have to ask many questions because Majors relished the topics. He seemed as proud of what he did at Iowa State as the football revival he pulled off at Pittsburgh.
In 1971, the top three teams in the country were all from the Big Eight — No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Colorado. Those were the only three teams to beat Iowa State during the regular season.
Never mind if Majors hadn't coached a down at Tennessee, where he eventually laid the foundation for UT's historic success in the 1990s. His lofty place in college football was assured by his successes at programs better known for failure.
He also distinguished himself by excelling at such a high level as both a coach and a player.
While covering Majors' UT program in the late 1980s and early '90s, I wondered how his career might have gone if he had remained at Pittsburgh. My guess is he would have presided over a football dynasty.
He didn't elevate UT football to dynasty status but restored its prominence in the SEC and nationwide. Unfortunately, his return ended badly and under strange circumstances.
Majors underwent heart surgery before the 1992 season after leading the Vols to 29 victories in the three previous seasons. UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who was Majors' offensive coordinator at the time, was named interim head coach while Majors recovered.
That was the beginning of the end for Majors as Tennessee's football coach.
As interim coach, Fulmer led the Vols to three consecutive victories. Two of those victories — against nationally ranked Georgia and Florida — were significant.
UT's start was so successful, Majors was concerned for his job. His concern proved justifiable.
If he had sat out the season while recovering from heart surgery, there's no way Tennessee could have fired him. Instead, he rushed back. The timing was terrible.
The players had bonded with their interim coach, and Majors wasn't at the top of his game. How could he have been?
He seemed agitated at practice. Team chemistry was disrupted. The Vols lost close games they should have won against inferior teams — Arkansas and South Carolina. Their three losses, including one to Alabama, were by a total of nine points.
I was critical of Majors at the time. Looking back, I should have been more sympathetic to his condition. Having since had heart surgery myself, I'm aware of the psychological ramifications.
Majors was forced to resign with three games remaining in the season, Fulmer was named the new coach and the program won a national championship six years later.
Majors was understandably bitter. And the bitterness lingered. Many years later, he still referred to Fulmer as "Judas Brutus" among other things.
That's part of Majors' legacy. It's not how he should be remembered, though.
He's one of college football's greatest success stories. He loved the sport and loved Tennessee. That's how he should be remembered.
I'm sure he felt more stress at Tennessee than he did at either Iowa State or Pittsburgh. The pressure was self-imposed. UT was his school. Tennessee was his state. And he knew how much UT football mattered to the state.
I realized that when I interviewed him by phone in 1982. I was a sports columnist in Baton Rouge then, and his rebuilding job wasn't going as well as he would have liked.
He went into great detail about Tennessee's challenges, one of which was the small number of in-state college football prospects. With some coaches, I would have written off his explanation as an excuse. Not with him. He had too much credibility because of his triumphs at Iowa State and Pittsburgh.
Majors eventually succeeded at Tennessee just as he did everywhere else.
Some college football coaches don't enjoy their success as much as Majors did. You could tell how much he enjoyed being a part of a game he loved so much.
The SEC spring meetings were much different in 1979 than they are now. They have become mainly business, and most coaches don't stay for more than one night.
But in 1979, SEC football and basketball coaches spent as much time in a hospitality room as they did in meetings. Late-night card games among the coaches weren't unusual. As competitive as the coaches were during the season, they genuinely seemed to enjoy one another's company in an altogether different setting.
Majors was in the middle of one of the card games, smiling and laughing, when I walked through the hospitality room one night.
I remember thinking, "Johnny Majors is the happiest guy in the room."
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.