Ron Cook: Goodbye,Johnny

One last visit with the man who brought Pitt its last national title before he heads home to Tennessee ... but not to retirement.

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The champagne is long gone, the old corks all that are left. There's a terrific story to those corks and how they rank among Johnny Majors' most prized souvenirs, but that's for a bit later this morning. What's a little sad is that Majors didn't save even one bottle for this special occasion. This would be the perfect time to toast his fabulous career as one of the great names in college football history, one of the great names in Pittsburgh sports history. How did Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg once put it? "John Majors is one of the people who made Pittsburgh the City of Champions."

Majors is leaving Pitt and Pittsburgh this week to return home to Tennessee, where he was an even bigger football giant. It sounds a lot like retirement, but he says he hates that word. No, he's going back to Knoxville to be with family.

Still, it's a difficult move. Some people go through life without ever having a real home. Majors, 72, is lucky; he has two.

He can't forget how Pittsburgh embraced him when he came to Pitt as coach in the early 1970s and led the program to a national championship, can't forget how the city didn't let go even after his second run as Pitt's coach in the mid-1990s went abysmally. That's why it was so easy for him to stay at Pitt the past 11 years as a special assistant to the athletic director and chancellor, a job that required only that he be Johnny Majors, football legend.

"I wish I could live in both places, but that's not how life works. You can't have it both ways," Majors said.

The good news is Majors won't be a stranger. He's planning a return for Pitt's alumni football weekend Aug. 17-18 and another for the home game against Navy Oct. 10. The better news is Majors is leaving behind more than just his heart. It's all there on the second floor of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland. Walk into the Johnny Majors Room and take a fascinating stroll through the man's life.

You talk about prized possessions? There's a picture of Majors and his father, Shirley, taken on the sideline before Shirley's final game as a coach in 1977. The strength of the two men is palpable. Johnny Majors was in his first season as the Tennessee coach, having left Pitt after the '76 national championship season, "my toughest decision ever but one I had to make because I always wanted to know what it'd be like to coach at Tennessee." A rare Saturday afternoon off enabled him to attend Shirley's final game at the University of the South at Sewanee. It's hard to tell who was more proud of whom in that photograph.

Shirley Majors had started his five sons in football. He was coaching in their hometown of Lynchburg, Tenn., where Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey is distilled, when they asked him to start the program at nearby Huntland High School in 1949. Things did not go well that first season.

"I scored two touchdowns as a freshman at Lynchburg and we beat Huntland, 19-13," Johnny Majors said, fairly giggling.

"Never again," Shirley Majors growled afterward, "will a Majors boy play against my team."

The family moved to Huntland, a town of 500 people and no stoplights, 22 miles south of Lynchburg. With one Majors boy or another playing for the Hornets, Shirley Majors' teams went 70-1-1 the next eight years.

Seeing the self-assuredness of Johnny Majors in that picture with his dad all those years later makes it hard to believe just how insecure he was as a young, skinny, 144-pound player. He never dreamed of playing at Tennessee until General Robert Neyland himself recruited him. He kept thinking he belonged at Tennessee Tech or maybe Middle Tennessee State until his first practice as a freshman in 1953.

Majors remembers breaking tackles that first day. He also remembers running in full uniform afterward to Ellis and Earnest Drug Store a few blocks away to use the payphone to call home collect. "Daddy! Daddy! Can you believe it? They miss tackles here just like they do in Huntland!"

They sure missed tackling Majors enough. He had a great college career, finishing second to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung in the 1956 Heisman Trophy voting. There's a picture at the P.A.A. of the '56 All-American team, taken in New York at the Ed Sullivan Show, with Majors in a dream backfield with quarterback John Brodie and running back Jimmy Brown. There is no memorabilia from Major's pro career, probably because it lasted just one season. The '57 Impala Coupe he bought with his $10,000 salary and $1,000 bonus from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League is long gone. A shoulder injury pushed him into coaching.

Hall of Fame coach Bowden Wyatt hired Majors to coach the Tennessee freshmen in 1957. From there, it was on to Mississippi State in 1960 and to Arkansas in 1964. He was so naive when he got to Arkansas that he told his boss, Frank Broyles, that he thought his $11,000 salary might be too much. Arkansas got its money's worth; Majors coached the defensive backs on the 1964 national championship team. Three men who went on to fame with the Dallas Cowboys -- Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer -- also were parts of that team, Jones and Johnson as players and Switzer as an assistant coach.

Majors' work at Arkansas attracted attention. He didn't really want to take the Iowa State head coaching job in 1968, especially after he visited the campus and was asked repeatedly, "Why in the world do you want to come to Ames?" He remembers sitting up nights, smoking cigarettes, wondering what kind of mess he put himself in. But he couldn't turn down the $21,000 salary. "I had the chance to make $100,000 in five years!" Majors said.

This country boy wasn't so backward that he didn't ask the Iowa State administration for new uniforms and a new locker room. "They went $200,000 in the red to hire me," Majors said. No one complained after he led the Cyclones to their first bowl game in 1971 and another in '72.

Majors performed similar magic after he took the Pitt job in 1973 and, later, the Tennessee job. The Panthers, after going 1-10 in '72, went to their first bowl game in 17 years in his first season and won that national title three years later. The turnaround wasn't so dramatic at Tennessee, but still was impressive. In '79, the Volunteers went to their first bowl game in five years, the first of 11 bowls they would play in during Majors' 16-year run. His teams won three Southeastern Conference championships.

Maybe the most remarkable picture in the Johnny Majors Room is of Majors being carried off by his Tennessee players after they beat Alabama for the first time in 11 years in 1982. Tide coach Bear Bryant, wearing his famous houndstooth hat, can be seen reaching up to shake his hand. It was Bryant's final game against Tennessee; he retired after the season and died of heart failure a month later.

Still, the best part of the P.A.A. shrine to Majors centers on his time at Pitt. It includes the wonderful days of the '70s and the dark days of the '90s, when the Panthers went 12-32 in his four seasons and were beaten by such scores as 72-0, 45-0 and 60-6 in 1996, his final season.

It was no surprise that Pitt, looking to recapture its glorious past, hired Majors for the second time in 1993 after he was forced out at Tennessee. He said Tennessee reneged on a promise to give him a seven-year contract extension after he missed the first three games of the '92 season after heart surgery. He blamed a coup led by then-assistant Phillip Fulmer, who replaced him and still coaches the Volunteers.

The surprise was that Majors came to Pitt the first time.

"I was very interested in the Michigan State job," he said. That went to Denny Stoltz.

"I thought I was going to get the Purdue job," Majors said. Alex Agase got it.

"Kentucky offered me their job, but I knew I couldn't beat Tennessee there, and I didn't want to go back home and lose," Majors said.

That left Pitt.

"I talked to Bud Wilkinson and Duffy Daugherty" -- two other legendary names in the college game -- "and they told me Pittsburgh was a sleeping giant," Majors said.

The day he took the job, Majors said he went to then-Pitt recruiting coordinator Foge Fazio and asked, "Who's the best player in Western Pennsylvania?" Replied Fazio, "The Dorsett kid at Hopewell High School."

"Let's go," Majors said.

Pitt got its man, and the rest is part of college football lore. Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy in 1976 and led Pitt to the national championship. He was, quite simply, the best player in college football history.

Next to two Sports Illustrated cover shots of Dorsett in the Johnny Majors Room is the play sheet that Majors carried on the sideline during Pitt's game against Penn State at Three Rivers Stadium in '76. Scrawled in his writing and smudged by rain is a reminder to call the "Hopewell Special." Majors did just that in the third quarter. For the only time in his initial four years at Pitt, he said he had the Panthers line up with an unbalanced line and put Dorsett at fullback. The subsequent dive play to Dorsett surprised the Nittany Lions and produced a 40-yard touchdown run. Pitt won, 24-7, to finish the regular season 11-0.

Which leads to that marvelous story about the champagne corks.

After the Panthers beat Northwestern in 1973 to give Majors his first victory at Pitt, good friend Eddie Ifft gave him a bottle of champagne. Something told him to save it. The same thing happened after another Pitt booster, Dr. Mickey Zernich, gave him a case after Pitt beat Notre Dame in '75. The timing just didn't seem right for a celebration.

"I told everyone that we weren't going to open those bottles until we beat Notre Dame and Penn State in the same season," Majors said. "I don't have to tell you that isn't easy to do."

Pitt got it done in '76. Dorsett ran for 181 yards in the 31-10 season-opening victory at Notre Dame. The Hopewell Special helped to take care of Penn State.

The corks finally were popped. Majors' wife, Mary Lynn, was going to throw them away the next morning, but Majors' dad, on hand for the celebration, suggested she might want to keep them. Majors is glad she did.

The corks are in a glass canister in a trophy case in the Johnny Majors Room.

"I'm very proud of what they represent," the man said, quietly.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
Johnny Majors sits for a photographer Friday in the room named for him at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
Click photo for larger image.


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