John Majors: A living legend lost

Marvin Westwestwords

John Majors, one of the three biggest names in Tennessee football history, has died at age 85.


John was the oldest son from a famous football family, an all-American tailback for the Volunteers, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, Tennessee coach for 16 years, a prominent honoree in the College Football Hall of Fame, a legend in his time.

Majors coached football for 40 years at five schools. There were no dull days.

There is great insight in the family comments:

Mary Lynn Majors, his wife of 61 years, said “John spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved, looking out over his cherished Tennessee River.”

Majors’ son, John Ireland Majors, recognizes that his father’s legacy extends well beyond football.

“Dad’s passions and friendships were so diverse. He loved the symphony, travel, history and almost any type of museum.”

Mary Elizabeth Majors, his daughter, added, “My dad was a strong and determined person. Our family will all try to live up to that legacy as we mourn his loss – and celebrate his life.”

A memorial service at St. John’s Cathedral will be held at a later date.

“It’s a sad day,” said athletics director Phillip Fulmer. “He gave many of us coaches our start in big-time college football. He mentored us, pushed us and allowed us to be part of the proud resurgence of Tennessee football.

“He touched and changed many lives for the good. Our thoughts are with his family, former players and great fans who are remembering him today.”

Former Vol Charles Davis, now a TV analyst, said playing for Majors was one of the greatest experiences of his life.

“I have literally thought about him in some form or fashion every single day of my life since the first day I got to Tennessee. You’ll never be able to say the word ‘Tennessee’ without the name ‘Majors’ coming up very quickly in your mind. He is Tennessee and Tennessee is him.

“I was just fortunate enough to have played for him, fortunate enough to get to know him not just as a player, but as a person. He’s had a profound influence on my life and always will… I love the man.”

John Majors, born in Lynchburg, a player in Huntland, was a coach on the field. His father, Shirley, was renowned as a high school coach and at Sewanee. John knew a lot about football when he arrived at UT. He did not realize he wasn’t big enough to do what he did.

John was great in 1956, star attraction in a wonderful season, key man in Tennessee’s victory at Georgia Tech, one of the greatest games in the history of college football. He was player of the year in the Southeastern Conference.

Majors’ coaching career reflected the influence of Robert R. Neyland. He was basically conservative. He believed defense won games. He took pride in the kicking game.

John played for Bowden Wyatt, one of Neyland’s all-time favorite captains. He was an Arkansas assistant to Frank Broyles, linked three ways to Neyland.

Unlike the General, Majors was exciting and excitable, exuberant, entertaining. He rebuilt programs at Iowa State, Pitt and Tennessee.

Majors took a pay cut to leave the national championship team at Pittsburgh and come home. It took longer than expected to make the Vols competitive. Four years into his homecoming, the Vols were a mediocre 21-23-1, prompting a popular bumper sticker that proclaimed, “We made a Majors mistake.”

Things got better in his seventh season. Three teams won SEC championships.

In truth, his tenure (1977-92) was inconsistent. There was high drama and deep disappointments. None of his teams seriously contended for a national championship. He was 4-12 against Alabama but he finished with 116 victories.

I thought the Sugar Vols were the highlight. Tennessee defeating Miami, 35-7, in the 1986 Sugar Bowl was what turned New Orleans into a party town.

Before and after were ups and downs and wild, confusing rides on the merry-go-round.

In the middle of the 1979 season, Tennessee snuffed homecoming happiness with a 13-7 loss to Rutgers. The very next Saturday the Vols stunned Notre Dame.

The 1981 season opened with a 44-0 loss at Georgia and a little 43-7 setback at Southern Cal. Those Vols finished 8-4, including a victory in the Garden State Bowl.

The 1988 Vols lost their first six games. Defensive coordinator Ken Donahue took too much of the blame but the team won the next five.

Ah yes, November 9, 1991: After trailing Notre Dame 31-7 in the second quarter, Tennessee delivered the Miracle at South Bend. God switched sides, Vols 35, Irish 34.

Majors had two kinds of heart troubles in 1992 – quintuple bypass surgery and a broken heart. No successful coach has ever been dumped so unceremoniously.

John brought some of it on himself. He talked too much about a raise he wanted when UT salaries were frozen. He created a difficult relationship with key people – UT president Joe Johnson, athletics director Doug Dickey, trustee Bill Johnson and some big-money boosters.

Example: At the Touchdown Club of Atlanta, Majors said “Somebody gives you a thousand bucks or $50,000 to build a weight room and they think they own a piece of the club.”

True statement – better left unsaid.

John Majors became an emotional contradiction for fans. Some thought his time had passed. Some thought he was betrayed. He dwelled on the negatives. Fans all wanted to love him with all their hearts.

He truly was a living legend. Homegrown. Terrific talent. Courage off the chart. Colorful coach. Fiercely competitive. Fun guy.

I knew John Majors

John Majors and I were in college together. We maintained the acquaintance. Oh my, the stories I could tell. I’ll be restrained.

The sports editor of the school newspaper was the only one in the Memphis press box on Sept. 25, 1954, who knew who he was when he made his first run against Mississippi State.

Majors was supposed to be a redshirt. He was on the travel squad as an insurance policy but he wasn’t going to play. His name and number were not in the official program.

When an emergency developed and the slender sophomore with the skinny legs trotted onto the field, reporters were curious. When a spinner trap broke for 80 yards, confusion erupted.

Who the hell is that? I knew. John and I were in the same geography class.

John later heard the story. He said he was glad I made it to the game. Me, too.

I was the one he called five, six or seven times very early one morning after I had written a story about him changing defensive coordinators – before he had told Bobby Roper he no longer had the job.

I had written in a rush and gone to Louisville to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Majors had gone into orbit. He was furious that I had jumped the gun and mad at himself for putting off his obligation. He said what he thought, then thought of something else to say and called again. And again. And again.

We saw each other the following Monday at practice. He showed no hint of a grudge. It was like nothing had happened. He had actually read my Derby story.

I once spent most of a week with him to report on his recruiting skills. It was at a time when he was often accused of drinking too much. A few readers seemed surprised to learn that John was not a drunk. I saw him hold the same half glass for more than an hour in a social setting. I never saw him miss a day of work.

That he talked too fast was insufficient proof that he was indulging.

I have his book, “You Can Go Home Again,” with the following inscription: “With hope of good success with Scripps Howard in your new position as sports editor.”

I accepted that with gratitude without wondering if he was glad that I was gone.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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