KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – College Football Hall of Famer Johnny Majors, the coach of Pittsburgh’s 1976 national championship team and a former coach and star player at Tennessee, died Wednesday. He was 85.
Majors died at his home in Knoxville, according to his wife, Mary Lynn Majors. “He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River,” she said in a statement first given to Sports Radio WNML.
Majors compiled a 185-137-10 record in 29 seasons as a head coach at Iowa State (1968-72), Pitt (1973-76, 1993-96) and Tennessee (1977-92). That followed a standout playing career at Tennessee during which he finished second to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in the 1956 Heisman Trophy balloting.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. Tennessee retired Majors’ No. 45 jersey in 2012.
“Dynamic on the field. Fierce on the sidelines. Distinguished Tennessean,” Tennessee's football program tweeted. “We mourn the loss of legendary player and coach Johnny Majors — a man who left an indelible mark on Tennessee Football.”
Majors starred for the Volunteers from 1954-56 as a single-wing tailback and punter and twice was named the Southeastern Conference player of the year. He went on to a successful coaching career and had his greatest year in 1976, when he led Pittsburgh to a national championship with a team featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.
“He was more than just an integral part of my college football career; he was a dear friend who continued his relationship with me far beyond my playing days,” Dorsett said in a statement. "He took a young high school kid and showed him how to be a leader and a man. My prayers are with his family, the Pitt community and all the players and coaches who have been a part of his life. Rest in heaven, Coach.”
During the 1956 season, Majors rushed for seven touchdowns, threw five TD passes and punted and returned kicks while leading Tennessee to a 10-1 record and Sugar Bowl appearance. He finished his Vols playing career with 1,622 yards rushing and 1,135 yards passing.
He proved even more successful in the coaching ranks, where his coaching tree included Jimmy Johnson and Jackie Sherrill on his first staff at Iowa State. Majors gave Jon Gruden, currently coach of the NFL's Raiders, his first job as a graduate assistant at Tennessee. Gruden said Majors taught him what football is all about.
“He preached that loyalty and hard work are the staples to your success," Gruden said in a statement. "The amount of players he touched over several decades is endless. He was a heck of a football coach, a great competitor and truly embodied what Tennessee football is all about. We lost a great, great man, and I will miss him dearly.”
Majors began his head coaching career in 1968 at Iowa State. Three years later, he led the Cyclones to their first bowl bid in school history. He posted a 24-30-1 record at Iowa State from 1968-72 before Pitt hired him away.
“He led us to our greatest glory and changed Pitt forever,” Pitt’s football program tweeted. “Thank you, Coach. Rest in peace.”
The Panthers were coming off a 1-10 season when he took over and had won a total of 23 games in the nine years preceding his arrival. Majors went 33-13-1 in four years there and led Pitt to a 12-0 record in 1976.
“It was a team without a real weakness, one of the greatest college teams of the last two decades,” Majors wrote in his 1986 book “You Can Go Home Again.” “I realized even then that I was a very fortunate man. Few people in our profession ever have the experience of working with a team that good.”
After that title-winning season, Majors returned to his alma mater to take over Tennessee’s program. In his book, Majors said that “it was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Majors went 116-62-8 at Tennessee from 1977-92 and led the Volunteers to SEC championships in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Tennessee earned a bowl bid in 11 of his last 12 seasons on the job.
Majors missed the first three games of the 1992 season while recovering from heart bypass surgery. The Vols, coached by offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer, got off to a 3-0 start. Majors returned for the fourth game, but he was forced out and replaced by Fulmer after Tennessee finished the regular season with an 8-3 record.
“He gave many of us coaches our start in big-time college football,” said Fulmer, now Tennessee's athletic director. “He mentored us, pushed us and allowed us to be part of the proud resurgence of Tennessee football.”
Majors returned to Pitt the following year and went 12-32 as the Panthers’ coach from 1993-96.
Majors was born in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and grew up there and in nearby Huntland. His father, Shirley Majors, was a longtime football coach at the University of the South in Sewanee.
The younger Majors was an assistant coach at Mississippi State and Arkansas before becoming a head coach.
His death came two days after that of former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who died Monday at the age of 80. Majors went 4-5-2 against Dye, including a 38-20 upset of then-No. 1 Auburn with Bo Jackson in 1985 when Majors was the SEC coach of the year.