Mark Wiedmer: Majors likes what he sees from Dooley

Mark Wiedmer: Majors likes what he sees from Dooley

August 31st, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UT's head coach Derek Dooley takes the field in this file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

When it comes to knowing and caring about University of Tennessee football, Johnny Majors takes a back seat to no one.

A runner-up to Notre Dame Golden Domer Paul Hornung for the 1956 Heisman trophy -- "Jim Brown probably should have beaten both of us," Majors has observed more than once -- he won SEC titles as both a Volunteers player and head coach, spending more than 20 of his 77 years on Earth tied directly to Big Orange football.

So when Majors says of tonight's season opener against North Carolina State inside the Georgia Dome, "This first game is very important," it means more coming from him than most.

Especially when he quickly adds, "I think [UT coach] Derek Dooley knows it's an important year."

Majors is 77 now, officially retired and back in Knoxville with his bride of more than 50 years, Mary Lynn, a Girls Preparatory School graduate. He swears he doesn't miss coaching, though he admits he once did, especially in the fall of 1996 after he'd hung up the clipboard and whistle for good following four years at Pittsburgh.

"I was lost," he said. "I'd been a head coach for 29 years of my life, an assistant for 11 other years. Suddenly I was outside my realm of reality. What I really missed was the action, being on the practice field with my players, the film room, trying to out-recruit somebody.

"I'd been surrounded by football almost every day of my life, and now I didn't have it anymore. But I don't know that I miss it now. I don't think I'd want to ever work that hard again."

He tries to watch Dooley work on the practice field at least a couple of times a month. He's liked what he's seen of the 2012 Vols heading into tonight.

"First, he's a very intelligent person," Majors said of Dooley. "Second, I like this staff. They're practicing well. There's good tempo. There's good teaching taking place. They've also got unusual talent at quarterback and wideout, which is something they didn't have much of last year.

"If [quarterback] Tyler Bray can stay healthy and keep his mind on his business, he's a great talent who has a chance to be special."

Majors said this before wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers was booted from the team last week for failed drug tests. But he also mentioned the Vols' reportedly improved running game.

"If I was Derek Dooley, I'd be optimistic, too. I really believe Tennessee is going to be better," Majors said. "Of course, they can't be much worse than they were last year in the running game."

The Vols were last in the SEC in rushing offense last season.

But it is the comparisons between Majors' and Dooley's first two seasons at UT that could provide a glimpse into the Vols' future, which wound up with Majors winning three SEC titles in 16 seasons. His third year produced a 7-5 record and bowl bid, the school's first in five years.

But after two seasons in Knoxville, Majors was three games under .500 (9-12-1), much as Dooley (11-14) is today.

Also like Dooley, Majors had won only four Southeastern Conference games (Majors was 4-8; Dooley is 4-12). Also just like Dooley, Majors' four league victories had come against Vanderbilt (twice), Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Beyond that, Majors opened his third season on the road at Boston College, where N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien worked from 1996 to 2006.

You could also make the argument that much like Dooley, Majors took over a program in gradual but steady decline, the Vols having suffered increasingly worse seasons for four straight autumns before he arrived.

Said Majors of the current coach: "I think Derek took over a worse mess than Lane Kiffin when he was hired, and Kiffin took over a pretty big mess."

Kiffin, of course, replaced Phillip Fulmer, whom Majors always will believe politicked to have him removed during the 1992 season, though Fulmer always has denied it.

But a second point Majors makes about Dooley's UT tenure is without argument.

"When I was coaching, you normally had four or five years to turn around a program," he said. "I still think you need that long to put a program in good shape, though fans aren't always as patient as they used to be. All these talk shows can be pretty negative, and the Internet is worse. Plus, on the Internet there's no accountability. Too many of these people can apparently say anything they want without backing it up. And there are too many people today living and dying with who wins these games."

Were Dooley to ask, Majors has at least a couple of pieces of advice.

"One, recruit character first," he said. "In our locker room we kept a sign, 'Character above all else.' Second, don't let the negative people get you down. Show up when you're supposed to, look everybody in the eye and keep on keeping on."

Majors freely admits that the SEC of today is tougher top to bottom than the SEC he entered in 1977.

"We had some very good teams then -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU," he said. "But other than Kentucky perhaps, I don't know that I've ever seen the whole league tougher than it is now. Just look at Vanderbilt. They had a good season last year, went to a bowl, but they could have won three more games -- Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee. That tells you a lot right there."

So does Majors thinks tonight's outcome will tell the Big Orange Nation all it needs to know about its embattled coach?

"That's yet to be determined," he said. "This game won't make or break the season. But it could set the tone for the season, and it's a very important season for Derek Dooley."