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Iconic Pitt Football Coach Johnny Majors Passes Away at Age 85
PITTSBURGH—John Majors, who orchestrated one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football history in leading Pitt to the 1976 national championship, passed away overnight. He was 85.
Nearly five decades after his initial arrival at Pitt in December 1972, Majors remains an iconic figure in Panthers’ lore. He will be forever revered for leading Pitt’s remarkable four-year transformation in the 1970s: 1-10 the year prior to his arrival to undefeated national champions a mere four seasons later.
“Coach Majors set a standard at Pitt that all of us—coaches, student-athletes and administrators—continue to be inspired by,” Director of Athletics Heather Lyke said. “His championship legacy resonates in our department to this very day. On a personal note, it was such an honor to welcome him back for enshrinement in the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame last fall. Coach Majors always told me, ‘Pitt people are as passionate and loyal as they come.’ I think that description also perfectly describes him. He remained so loyal and committed to Pitt.”
“From the time I arrived at Pitt, Coach Majors was always incredibly supportive and so enthusiastic about Pitt and our football program,” said Pat Narduzzi, Pitt’s head football coach. “We have so many reminders around our facility of Coach Majors and his time here: the photos, bowl trophies and, of course, the 1976 national championship trophy. He is a coaching legend and his impact on Pitt will never be forgotten.”
“Coach Majors was not only a dynamic football coach and tremendous motivator, but other than my parents, he was probably the best teacher I ever had in my life,” said John Pelusi, the starting center for Pitt’s 1976 title team and now a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. “He taught me so much about what you can accomplish through teamwork, focus and hard work. So much of what I’ve been able to accomplish in life can be attributed to the values and lessons Coach Majors instilled in me.”
In a profession where longevity can be elusive, Majors enjoyed a remarkably lengthy and accomplished coaching career.
Over 29 years as a head coach, Majors posted an overall record of 185-137-10, including a 116-62-8 mark at Tennessee (1977-92), a 45-45-1 mark at Pitt (1973-76, ‘93-’96), and a 24-30-1 record at Iowa State (1968-72). During an era when postseason games were far less abundant, 16 of his 29 teams earned bowl invitations.
But the trademark of Majors’ coaching career was his ability to elevate football programs to new heights. Majors forged a reputation as a program builder.
In his first head football coaching position, Majors took over a struggling Iowa State program and guided the team to its first two bowl games in school history.
From there, Majors went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he reached the pinnacle of his coaching career. Inheriting a Pitt squad that had finished 1-10 in 1972, Majors surrounded himself with a young, hard-working and talented coaching staff, and in just four seasons, transformed Pitt’s struggling football program into the 1976 national champion. His first prize recruit—Tony Dorsett—had a spectacular career at Pitt, which included being honored with college football’s most treasured award—the Heisman Trophy.
In what he considered one of the most difficult decisions of his career, Majors returned to his alma mater to help rejuvenate a stagnant Tennessee football team in 1977. He quickly revived the Volunteers into an SEC and national power.
Nearly 20 years to the day Majors arrived at Pitt the first time, the Panthers summoned him back to Pittsburgh in December 1992. While not as dramatic as his first tour, Majors lured many players that formed the nucleus of Pitt’s 1997 Liberty Bowl team, a squad that helped set into motion the revival that put the Panthers annually in the postseason picture once again.
Majors first arrived at Pitt in 1972 after a five-year stint as head coach at Iowa State, during which he had established himself as one of the bright young minds in college football. He immediately began recruiting the blue-chip talent that would provide the impetus for Pitt’s national championship in 1976 and the Panthers’ dominance of Eastern football into the early 1980s.
Dorsett was the plum of Majors’ first recruiting class, which also included defensive linemen Al Romano, Gary Burley and Don Parrish, as well as quarterback Robert Haygood, tight end Jim Corbett, linebackers Cecil Johnson and Arnie Weatherington, and placekicker Carson Long. Over the next few years Majors continued to recruit exceptional players who would play key roles in Pitt’s drive toward a national championship, including quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, running back Elliott Walker, defensive lineman Randy Holloway and wide receiver Gordon Jones.
Majors wasted little time beginning the turnaround at Pitt. In 1973, he guided the Panthers to a winning record (6-5-1) for the first time in 11 years. Pitt also landed a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, its first bowl appearance in 17 years. That startling turnaround brought Pitt and its new coach extensive national attention, and earned Majors National Coach of the Year honors by both the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the Walter Camp Foundation.
Majors led Pitt to a second consecutive winning season (7-4) in 1974. That year, the Panthers made an appearance on national television for the first time since 1963, while Pitt’s home attendance was twice the 1972 average.
In 1975, Pitt’s ascendance continued as the Panthers clawed their way to an 8-4 season that included a victory over Kansas in the Sun Bowl and a No. 15 final national ranking by the Associated Press.
Then came the magical 1976 season. A dominating, nationally televised 31-10 victory at Notre Dame in Pitt’s opener set the tone for the season. The Panthers were undefeated the rest of the way, capping their 11-0 regular-season record with a 24-7 win over Penn State. Pitt, ranked number one in every national poll, was invited to the Sugar Bowl, where the Panthers crushed Georgia, 27-3, to win the national championship.
Pitt started three different quarterbacks in 1976 due to injuries. Original starter Haygood was lost to injury in the season’s second game. Cavanaugh missed three contests due to injury, forcing walk-on Tom Yewcic into service. Yet, the Panthers remained undaunted in route to an undefeated season.
Majors again was named Coach of the Year, while Dorsett, who set or tied 18 NCAA records during his fabulous career at Pitt (including the career rushing yardage record of 6,082), won the Heisman Trophy.
After the 1976 season, Majors returned to Tennessee as the Vols’ head coach, and before long he was shaping the program into an SEC power. Tennessee won SEC championships in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Lofty rankings in the polls characterized Tennessee football throughout his tenure.
Tennessee was a perennial bowl team under Majors, earning invitations to the Sugar (twice), Peach (twice), Fiesta, Cotton, Citrus, Sun, Liberty, Garden State and Hall of Fame bowls during his last 12 years there.
Majors’ professional stature was reflected when he served as president of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) in 1990. That same year, Tennessee’s SEC title gave the school its first back-to-back conference championships since the Vols won three in a row from 1938-40.
A member of the most famous football family in Tennessee, Majors was destined to carry on family tradition. His father, the late Shirley Majors, was a successful high school coach for 13 years in Tennessee and later served for 21 years as the head coach at Sewanee (University of the South), compiling a record of 93-74-5. He was selected as the Football Writers Association Small College Coach of the Year in 1973, the same year his son, John received the Division 1A Coach of the Year honor at Pitt. Two of John’s brothers, Bill and Bobby, were great stars at Tennessee. Another brother Joe, starred at Florida State, while a fourth brother, Larry, played for his father at Sewanee.
John was the biggest football star in the Majors family. He played for his father at Huntland High School, where he scored an incredible 565 points. As an All-America tailback at Tennessee, he led the Vols to a 10-0 record in 1956, a No. 2 ranking and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. That year he was named United Press International’s Back of the Year and finished second to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987.
Majors was twice named MVP in the SEC, and in 1975 was named to the 25-year All-SEC Team (1950-74). The entire Majors family, including mother Elizabeth and sister Shirley Ann, were charter inductees into the Tennessee Hall of Fame in 1966.
Following his brilliant playing career at Tennessee, Majors began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater in 1957. He served additional stints as an assistant at Mississippi State (1960-63) and Arkansas (1964-67) before taking the head job at Iowa State in 1968, where he earned Big Eight Coach of the Year honors from both wire services in 1971.
John Terrill Majors was born on May 21, 1935 in Lynchburg, Tennessee. He and his wife, Mary Lynn, have a son, John, and a daughter, Mary.
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Majors in 2009
|Born||May 21, 1935
|Died||June 3, 2020 (aged 85)
|Coaching career (HC unless noted)|
|1960–1963||Mississippi State (DB)|
|Head coaching record|
|Accomplishments and honors|
|1 National (1976)
3 SEC (1985, 1989, 1990)
2× SEC MVP (1955–1956)
Walter Camp Coach of the Year (1973)
AFCA Coach of the Year (1976)
Sporting News College Football COY (1976)
SEC Coach of the Year (1985)
|College Football Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1987 (profile)
John Terrill Majors (May 21, 1935 – June 3, 2020) was an American football player and coach. A standout halfback at the University of Tennessee, he was an All-American in 1956 and a two-time winner of the Southeastern Conference Most Valuable Player award, in 1955 and 1956. He finished second to Paul Hornung in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. Majors served as the head football coach at Iowa State University (1968–1972), the University of Pittsburgh (1973–1976, 1993–1996), and Tennessee (1977–1992), compiling a career college football record of 185–137–10. His 1976 Pittsburgh squad won a national championship after capping a 12–0 season with a victory in the Sugar Bowl. Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987.
Majors played high school football for the Huntland Hornets of Franklin County, Tennessee. They won the state championship in 1951. Majors’ father, Shirley Majors, was the head coach at Huntland from 1949 to 1957 and then head coach at The University of the South, Sewanee, from 1957 to 1977. Majors also played alongside his brother, Joe, at Huntland. Another brother, Bobby, also played at Tennessee and professionally for the Cleveland Browns. In all, Majors had four brothers, who all played football. Johnny was the oldest.
A triple-threat tailback at the University of Tennessee, one of the last schools to use the single-wing rather than some version of the T formation, Majors was an All-American and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. Majors lost the Heisman Trophy to Paul Hornung, who starred for Notre Dame, which had a losing record (2–8). To date, this is the only time the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to a player on a losing team. Many fans of college football believe that Hornung won the Heisman because he played for the storied Notre Dame program, despite the team having a losing record.
He played for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1957 and then became an assistant coach at several schools.
Majors was the 24th head football coach for the Iowa State University Cyclones located in Ames, Iowa and he held that position for five seasons, from 1968 until 1972. His career coaching record at Iowa State was 24–30–1.. During his time at Iowa State he guided the Cyclones to their first ever bowl games in 1971 and 1972. Majors ranks tied for 8th at Iowa State in total wins and 19th in win percentage.
After Iowa State, Majors found his greatest success as coach of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers in 1973. In Pittsburgh, he recruited such greats as Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett and Matt Cavanaugh, among others. The Panthers won the national title in 1976, after which Majors went back to Tennessee, his alma mater. Majors also received National Coach of the Year honors for that season.
At Tennessee, Majors achieved success in the 1980s and early 1990s winning three SEC championships in 1985, 1989, and 1990, but falling short of a national title. In 1989, the Majors-led Vols followed a 5–6 season with an 11–1 season, the largest turnaround in college football that year.
The University forced Majors to resign as Tennessee’s football coach during the closing weeks of the 1992 football season. The Vols racked up a 3–0 record under interim coach Phillip Fulmer, a longtime Majors assistant, who steered the team while Majors was recovering from heart surgery. After the Vols went 2–3 following Majors’ return, he suddenly was asked to resign during the week leading up to Tennessee’s game at Memphis State. A Knoxville News Sentinel story reported that while Majors was recuperating from heart surgery, Fulmer allegedly exchanged 26 telephone calls with Tennessee Athletics Board member Bill Johnson, who had played with Majors in the mid-1950s at Tennessee. A strong contingent within the Tennessee fan base believes that it was behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the part of Fulmer, Johnson, athletics director Doug Dickey, and university president Joe Johnson that pushed Majors out. Other fans believe that Majors created his own problems in the summer of 1992 by, among other things, complaining about his current contract during a preseason publicity tour across the state. Many speculate it was likely a combination of all circumstances.
Pittsburgh (second stint)
After being forced to resign at Tennessee, he returned to his second home of the University of Pittsburgh to once again coach the Panthers. Throughout the mid-1990s, Majors tried to recreate the magic of 1976 at Pitt but achieved little success going 12–32 in four seasons from 1993–1996. He retired from coaching following the 1996 NCAA season and served at Pitt in the position of Special Assistant to the Athletic Director and Chancellor until the summer of 2007. A room on the second floor of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association adjacent to Pitt’s campus is dedicated to him and displays memorabilia from his career.
Majors died on June 3, 2020 at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knoxville named a street after Majors. Johnny Majors Drive is on the campus of the University of Tennessee and is the location of the school’s practice facility. Actor Lee Majors borrowed Johnny Majors’ last name to form his stage name. According to one published account, Lee, whose real name is Harvey Lee Yeary, met Johnny when he was a football player at Tennessee and they became friends. Lee Majors was regularly seen on the sidelines during Johnny Majors’ first tenure at Pittsburgh and during the early days at Tennessee.
Head coaching record
|Iowa State Cyclones (Big Eight Conference) (1968–1972)|
|1971||Iowa State||8–4||4–3||4th||L Sun||17|
|1972||Iowa State||5–6–1||2–4–1||5th||L Liberty|
|Pittsburgh Panthers (NCAA Division I independent) (1973–1976)|
|Tennessee Volunteers (Southeastern Conference) (1977–1992)|
|1981||Tennessee||8–4||3–3||T–4th||W Garden State|
|Tennessee:||116–62–8||57–40–3||*Three early games and the Bowl game are credited to Phillip Fulmer.|
|Pittsburgh Panthers (Big East Conference) (1993–1996)|
|National championship Conference title Conference division title or championship game berth|
The following assistant coaches under Johnny Majors became college or professional head coaches:
- Lynn Amedee: UT Martin (1980–1981)
- Joe Avezzano: Oregon State (1980–1984)
- Bob Babich: North Dakota State (1997–2002)
- Kippy Brown: Memphis Maniax (2001)
- King Block: Arkansas State (1960–1962)
- Dom Capers: Carolina Panthers (1995–1998), Houston Texans (2002–2005)
- Curt Cignetti: IUP (2011–2016), Elon (2017–2018), James Madison (2019–present)
- David Cutcliffe: Ole Miss (1998–2004), Duke (2008–present)
- Daryl Dickey: Presbyterian (1997–2000), West Georgia (2008–2013)
- Phillip Fulmer: Tennessee (1992–2008)
- Ray Greene: North Carolina Central (1979), Alabama A&M (1979–1983, 1986–1988)
- Jon Gruden: Oakland Raiders (1998–2001), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002–2008), Oakland Raiders (2018-Present)
- Ray Hamilton: Bay State Titans
- Walt Harris: Pacific (1989–1991), Pittsburgh (1997–2004), Stanford (2005–2006)
- Jimmy Johnson: Oklahoma State (1979–1983), Miami (FL) (1984–1988), Dallas Cowboys (1989–1993), Miami Dolphins (1996–1999)
- Ken Karcher: Liberty (2000–2005)
- Larry Lacewell: Arkansas State (1979–1989)
- Larry Marmie: Arizona State (1988–1991)
- Gary Nord: UTEP (2000–2003)
- Bill Pace: Vanderbilt (1967–1972)
- Randy Sanders: East Tennessee State (2018–present)
- Al Saunders: San Diego Chargers (1986–1988)
- Jackie Sherrill: Washington State (1976), Pittsburgh (1977–1981), Texas A&M (1982–1988), Mississippi State (1991–2003)
- Kevin Steele: Baylor (1999–2002)
- Dave Wannstedt: Chicago Bears (1993–1998), Miami Dolphins (2000–2004), Pittsburgh (2005–2010)
- Tommy West: Chattanooga (1993), Clemson (1993–1998), Memphis (2001–2009)
- Ron Zook: Florida (2002–2004), Illinois (2005–2011)
May he Rest in Peace