Wiedmer: Ex-Vols coach Johnny Majors still a historic presence

Wiedmer: Ex-Vols coach Johnny Majors still a historic presence

November 22nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Former Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

You couldn't get away with it today. A recruiting class of 73? Are you trying to build a college football team or a marching band?

But 1973 wasn't 2011. Johnny Majors was considering leaving Iowa State for Pittsburgh, a nondescript program swallowed whole by the giant shadow of Penn State.

Knowing the Panthers, who were 1-10 in 1972, needed a rapid and massive injection of talent, Majors told the Pitt administration he'd take the job if he could sign 50 kids a year for four years.

They agreed and Majors was on his way. But then he read something in the paper about the NCAA discussing capping signing classes at 30 with a maximum of 95.

"I was always good at math," Majors, now 77, said following his talk to the Chattanooga Area Historical Association at the downtown library Monday night.

"I went back to the administration and told them I needed to sign more that first year. Maybe 75 or 80. They gave me the approval."

And so it was that Majors' first Pitt signing class resembled Noah's ark, filled with at least two of everything and one very special running back from Aliquippa, Pa., named Tony Dorsett. Only he wasn't called Dor-SETT in those days; it rhymed with "corset."

It was also the end of such copious recruiting classes. The NCAA began to limit them by both the year and total.

"Some say they called it the Majors Rule," the former University of Tennessee star player and head coach said with a grin. "But that signing class built the foundation for a national championship team."

Perhaps because of that Majors Rule, he was never able to repeat that championship when he came marching home to Tennessee following Pitt's 1976 national-title run.

"There was no question that we were the most superior team in America," Majors said of that Pitt group. "Vince [Dooley] said we were the greatest team he ever coached against [in the Sugar Bowl]."

Perhaps that friendship with Vince is what led Vince's son Derek -- the current UT coach -- to don orange pants this season in honor of Majors.

Perhaps that's also why Majors said of the younger Dooley's hire, "He's getting the program back to more character and ethics."

As for his own teams' character, Majors counts at least one of his 16 UT teams in the same company as his national championship Panthers squad.

"The 1985 team [which beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl] is one of the highest achieving teams I ever coached," he said. "[Linebacker] Dale Jones [from Bradley Central] was one of the greatest leaders I ever had. That team overcame so much adversity to put together that kind of season."

He put together quite a talk for the standing-room-only crowd at the CAHA gathering.

Majors told of how Gen. Robert Neyland, who recruited him but never coached him, deserves credit for everything from placing coaches in the press box to low-cut football shoes to tearaway jerseys.

He recalled going to meet Neyland as a recruit.

"How much you weigh?" the general asked.

Ready to say 155, "even though I only weighed 150," Majors was cut short by UT assistant L.B. "Farmer" Johnson, who told Neyland the player weighed 170.

Majors was soon a Vol. But headed for the first of his two SEC MVP awards three years later, Majors' brother Joe wanted to know how much he weighed now that he was a UT football star.

"I got on the scales right after I'd played all 60 minutes in a game," he said. "I weighed 147."

He weighed in on a lot of topics Monday evening, including noting that the BCS format isn't "Bona fide, it's a faux champion."

He believes that if the Vols beat Kentucky this weekend to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl bid, that Saturday's comeback win over Vanderbilt "could be the turning point for Derek's UT career."

Then he told of his first year working under UT coach Bowden Wyatt after his playing career had come to a close.

"I had this [1p]57 Chevy coupe -- the greatest car I ever had," Majors said, "and that first couple of months on the job I'd take a break in the morning and one in the afternoon and go hang out around the student center for about an hour each time, hoping to impress a girl or something.

"Well, I get back to my little desk in the football offices one day and there's a handwritten note for me on the back of a business card from Coach Wyatt. I knew it was Coach Wyatt because he had beautiful penmanship. It said, 'Congratulations on your work. When are you going to start?'"

Judging from his energy level Monday night, one can't help but wonder when Majors is going to stop, while hoping he never does.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.