Johnny Majors

Legendary college football coach and player Johnny Majors is carried off the field in his final game as an NCAA head coach after defeating Rutgers at Pitt Stadium in 1996. It was his second stint as the Panthers’ head coach. The former Huntland Hornet standout and Heisman Trophy runner-up passed away on June 3.

Johnny Majors, a Huntland alumnus who was a star football player at the University of Tennessee and enjoyed a lengthy coaching career at UT and the University of Pittsburgh, died on June 3 at the age of 85.

Majors emerged from humble beginnings in rural Tennessee to become a centerpiece of the Volunteers offense in the 1950s before transitioning into a 39-year college coaching career which included bringing a national championship to Pittsburgh in 1976 and leading the Volunteers to three SEC championships.

Huntland Athletic Director Bob Robertson said that Majors was an important part of Huntland’s history due to what he was able to accomplish during his life.

“He’s one of those guys that Huntland was very proud of,” Robertson said. “Anybody that didn’t know where Huntland was, once you mentioned that coach Majors had graduated from there, they felt like they knew Huntland.”

The oldest of five sons, Majors was born on May 21, 1935, to Shirley and Elizabeth Majors of Lynchburg. Johnny’s parents were teachers with the patriarch of the family, Shirley, also being a former football player and coach.

Jim Cunningham, a 1952 graduate of Franklin County High School and member of the Franklin County Football Hall of Fame, said that he and Johnny were born into a tumultuous time in American history.

“We were born very close to and almost immediately after the Great Depression, and the Depression was fierce in the South. Here in Franklin County and as it stretched down to Lynchburg, things were very tough,” Cunningham said.

While Johnny is known as a Huntland legend, he spent his freshman season in 1949 at Lynchburg High School, where his father had starred as a player in the 1920s. Shirley had been the head coach at Lynchburg since 1942, but he would move on to found the Huntland football program in 1949, putting him on the opposite sideline from his oldest son.

Lynchburg won just one game during Johnny’s freshman year, and it ironically came against his own father’s team at Huntland. Lynchburg beat the Hornets 19-13 on that day with Majors scoring two of his team’s touchdowns.

“John at Lynchburg beat his dad at Huntland, and (Shirley) said that would never happen again,” Cunningham said.

The Majors siblings would transfer to Huntland afterward as Johnny spent the next three years as a key part of the Huntland offense. Johnny scored 565 points in his time as a multi-talented tailback for the Hornets.

Cunningham said that most people remember Johnny for his time as a coach now, but his athleticism set him apart from most others at the time.

“They go all the way to his coaching, and it gets overlooked as to what a great athlete John was. He was a super athlete,” Cunningham said. “They tagged him at about 165 pounds, but he had great speed, great balance and he was very shifty.”

While Johnny wasn’t usually the biggest man on the field, he was able to use his other strengths to his advantage as a runner, a passer, a blocker and even a punter.

“He was thin, but he was wiry at 165 and strong. His hands were about half an inch longer than my hands and I was 30 pounds bigger than John,” Cunningham said. “Those big hands helped him hold the ball and helped him be a good passer.”

Cunningham added that Johnny was a rare triple-threat player as he could effectively run, pass and punt.

During his junior year at Huntland, Johnny experienced a major personal event off the field when he was baptized for the first time.

Johnny explained the significance of the event during a lunch meeting with Herald Chronicle Editorialist Alan Clark in July 2019.

“My mother was a Methodist who played the piano in church on occasion. She taught me the only two songs I ever learned on piano,” Majors recalled at the time.  “I wanted to join the church because of her but had not done so. By the time I was a junior in high school, a friend of mine, Durward McCord, told me about a revival being held at the Baptist church, so the next day I was immersed in Bean’s Creek and baptized for the first time.”

Johnny’s exploits on the field earned him a spot on the University of Tennessee football team after graduating from Huntland in 1953.

He sat out his freshman season before becoming a regular on Tennessee’s offense for the 1954 season. The Volunteers went just 4-6 that year, but Majors showed some potential with 416 rushing yards and 107 passing yards.

The final game of the 1954 season would be memorable as the Volunteers traveled to Nashville to play the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Cunningham, a junior at Vanderbilt at the time, said that a brawl broke out in the final minute of the game. Cunningham was on the sidelines injured and, rather than join in the melee, he said that he joined Majors to watch the action unfold.

Cunningham said he did so to make sure nobody from his team would try to jump Johnny during the brawl.

The Volunteers and Johnny improved in 1955 as Tennessee finished the season with a record of 6-3-1. Johnny played a major role in the improved record as he rushed for 657 yards, passed for 476 and scored 11 total touchdowns while being named the MVP of the conference.

Johnny led the Volunteers to a conference championship in his senior campaign as the 1956 Volunteers ended the regular season with a mark of 10-0. However, the Volunteers would take their only loss of the year in their bowl game as the Baylor Bears beat them 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1957.

He passed for a career-high 552 yards for the season while also rushing for 549 yards and scoring 12 total touchdowns. These stats put him among the best college players in the nation that season, but Majors would finish second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish went 2-8 in 1956, and it is the only time in Heisman history that the winner came from a team with a losing record.

Cunningham said that regional biases might have played some role in Majors’ Heisman snub.

“When he blossomed like he did on the football field, he deserved to be the Heisman Trophy winner,” Cunningham said. “It’s picked by sportswriters all over the country, and there are a whole lot more in the North than there are in the South.”

However, Majors’ strides were still impressive considering his small-town roots.

“It’s huge for a 1A school to have a player in Division 1 football and, even more than that, one that was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy,” Robertson said.

Majors still received recognition for his achievements as a senior as he was named the SEC MVP for the second year in a row.

Following a brief stint as a player for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League after graduating, Majors returned to the college ranks as a coach.

Cunningham said that Johnny was an avid reader and would often study military strategies in his spare time as a coach.

“He loved to read history, and he loved to study military battles,” Cunningham said.

After a few assistant coaching jobs at Tennessee, Mississippi State and Arkansas, Majors landed his first job as a head coach with the Iowa State Cyclones in 1968.

Johnny led the Cyclones to a record of 24-30-1 in five years with his best mark being a record of 8-4 in his final season with the program in 1972.

He was then offered a job with the Pitt Panthers, and Johnny led them to a 6-5-1 record in his debut year in 1973. Majors received the Walter Camp Coach of the Year that season after turning around a program that had won just one game the prior year.

Johnny’s biggest milestone as a coach would come in 1976 when he led the Panthers to a 12-0 record and a national championship. 

The Panthers, led by Heisman winner Tony Dorsett on the field, won 11 of their 12 games by double digits as they trounced No. 5 Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl to close out the season.

While Majors had seen plenty of success in Pittsburgh to that point, his time there would come to an end after the 1976 season as he returned to Tennessee as the head coach.

Johnny became the leader of the Volunteers for the next 15 years as he led the program to three conference championships and an overall record of 116-62-8. Majors was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 1985 after leading the Volunteers to a record of 9-1-2 and winning the SEC championship.

However, trouble arose in 1992 when Majors underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery prior to the start of the season.

Philip Fulmer, the offensive coordinator for Tennessee at the time, took over as the interim coach and led the Volunteers to a 3-0 record. Majors returned and went 2-3 before university officials attempted to force him out of the position to give Fulmer the job.

Majors ultimately negotiated a buyout of his contract to officially part ways with UT.

He then returned to Pitt in 1993, but the Panthers struggled with a record of 12-32 over the course of the next four seasons. Majors retired from coaching following the 1996 season.

Majors finished his coaching career with an overall record of 185-137-10.

While he mainly resided in Knoxville after retirement, Robertson said that Johnny kept his connections to Huntland strong over the years.

“He would come by the fieldhouse once during the summer, and he always tried to attend a game every year,” Robertson said.

Majors also stayed in touch with his local colleagues with Cunningham mentioning that he had no problem showing off the effects of his football career as a badge of honor.

“He could take his shoulder and drop it. He could dislocate it in your presence,” Cunningham said. “It was the strangest thing why he never got it fixed, but he never did.”

Johnny was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987. His No. 45 jersey was retired by the University of Tennessee in 2012.

The entire Majors family received a special honor in 1966 as they were part of the inaugural class for the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

Even more than 60 years after his playing days ended and more than two decades after he coached his last college game, Robertson said that the legacy of Johnny Majors continues to inspire.

“It lets every kid know that they have a chance to make it,” he said. “It kind of encouraged all of us to realize that no matter what the circumstances are, you’ve got a chance to go and you’ve got a chance to do the things that you want to be able to do.”