Tennessee tailback, coaching legend Johnny Majors dies at age 85

Former Tennessee player and head coach Johnny Majors looks up after his No. 45 jersey was retired before an NCAA college football game between Florida and Tennessee, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The Southeastern Conference has lost another football coaching legend.

Johnny Majors, who guided the University of Tennessee to three SEC championships, died Wednesday morning at 85. His death comes on the heels of Monday's announcement that former Auburn coach Pat Dye, an annual foe of Majors but also a close friend, died at 80.

Majors coached the Volunteers from 1977 to 1992, leading them to a 116-62-8 record and league crowns in 1985, 1989 and 1990. He took the program to two Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl, winning all three of those matchups, including a shocking 35-7 blowout of No. 2 Miami in New Orleans after the 1985 season.

(Read more: Johnny Majors had his share of monumental triumphs with the Vols)

"The '85 team is one of the most favorite teams in Tennessee history among the fans," Majors said in a 2015 interview with the Times Free Press. "We overcame considerable adversity after losing Tony Robinson, who was the most talented quarterback I've ever coached. Daryl Dickey came off the bench and did a great job, and the only player off that defense who was drafted was Richard Cooper, who was a pretty average defensive lineman who wound up playing on the offensive line in the pros.

"We had some outstanding guys in that defensive backfield, and that whole '85 team was filled with guys who played up to their potential as much as any team I had in 29 years as a head coach. Dale Jones was a perfect example, because he was one of the greatest big-play men and greatest captains and greatest leaders I ever coached. He never played a minute of pro ball, but he's one of the greatest players in school history."

photo AP photo by Wade Payne / Former Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors claps as he watches the video display board before the Vols' home game against Georgia on Oct. 8, 2005.

Long before his coaching days in Knoxville, Majors was a star tailback for the Vols, earning SEC player of the year honors in 1955 and 1956. He is the only player in Tennessee history to receive that honor in consecutive seasons.

Majors led Tennessee to a 10-0 regular season in 1956, when the Vols were ranked No. 1 in early November but were passed in The Associated Press poll during the middle of that month by Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners. Tennessee finished the 1956 regular season ranked No. 2.

As a senior in 1956, Majors rushed 108 times for 549 yards (5.1 per carry) and seven touchdowns, and he also completed 36 of 59 passes (61.0%) for 522 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung, the only Heisman winner ever to play for a team with a losing record.

For his career, Majors tallied 1,622 rushing yards, 1,135 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. He also punted 83 times for a 39.1-yard average, returned 36 punts for 438 yards (12.2) and returned 15 kickoffs for 344 yards (22.9).

"As a teenager, I rode the White Star Lines bus from Maryville to Knoxville and sold all my UT programs before the game started so I could watch every Johnny Majors run and pass and punt and quick kick," U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday in a released statement. "When he played the game, he was Tennessee football, and the Majors family became the first family of Tennessee football. I got to know Johnny well when he was coach of the Volunteers, and I was university president.

"That friendship continued for many years. Honey and I send our sympathy and our great respect for Johnny's life to Mary Lynn and to the entire Majors family."

Mary Lynn Majors was originally Mary Lynn Barnwell and a graduate of Chattanooga's Girls Preparatory School.

Majors became a head coach at Iowa State in 1968 and left after five seasons for the same opportunity at Pittsburgh. His fourth and final season with the Panthers yielded the 1976 national championship, a 12-0 run led by running back Tony Dorsett that culminated with a 27-3 pounding of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

After losing his job at Tennessee in 1992 and being replaced by offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer, Majors returned to Pitt but could not replicate his success from before, going 12-32 from 1993 to 1996. Fulmer, meanwhile, led the Vols to a stellar run that included SEC titles in 1997 and 1998 and the 1998 national championship, but he was removed as coach in 2008.

Tennessee struggled to a 63-62 record during the past decade, a stretch that did not sit well with Majors.

"To be honest with you, they wouldn't be struggling these last eight or 10 years had they not run me out the back door," he said. "We had the three winningest years of my career in '89, '90 and '91. We won a Cotton Bowl, won a Sugar Bowl and went to the Fiesta Bowl and lost to Penn State. We went to three major bowls, and they haven't done that in about 15 years.

"In my opinion, we would have won more national championships, because we had things going, and once you get things going, you can build on it. They already had a program built when they threw me out the door, a championship program, and they've let it go down through the years."

The Majors coaching tree includes two former assistants, Jimmy Johnson and Jon Gruden, who went on to win Super Bowls. It also contains Fulmer, Jackie Sherrill, David Cutcliffe, Dave Wannstedt and Dom Capers.

Majors underwent heart-valve surgery in March 2014 and managed to stay in good spirits when asked about his health.

"I catch myself sometimes when I'm having a little cocktail out on my deck overlooking the Tennessee River getting a great urge to get off the deck and start chewing some grass and moo, because I now have a cow's valve," he said. "It's working well, and I'm doing fine."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.