ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
AP photo by Kirk McKoy / University of Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors rides victorious on the shoulders of his team after the Vols defeated Maryland 30-23 in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 18, 1983, in Orlando, Fla.

You couldn't help but wonder what Johnny Majors would have thought at the close of the University of Tennessee's 41-34 loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday inside Neyland Stadium. After all, this was the Johnny Majors Classic, so named because the late Majors not only starred for and coached UT, but also because he coached Pitt to the 1976 season's national championship with a little help from Heisman Trophy running back Tony Dorsett.

So the two schools decided to play this one in his honor, with a second installment slated for next season at the Steel City's Heinz Field.

And if that one is as uncertain as this one was with less than five minutes to play, the Vols down by the final score but owning the ball inside the Pitt 40, it should once again draw ESPN's interest. Might even be slated for prime time.

But as former Vols defensive back Charles Davis said last week of which way his coach might have leaned: "Pitt became family, but Tennessee was blood."

True, and Majors did retire to Knoxville late in life after his second stint coaching the Panthers from 1993 to 1996 didn't end as well as his first run there, though he did stay on at Pitt in a fundraising capacity for 11 more years before marching home again to his native Volunteer State for a final time.

Still, to watch this game on television on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was to feel the Majors Classic was mere background noise, and soft noise at that, as perhaps it well should have been. Maybe if they could have scheduled it on a different week. Or a different year.

This was primarily a weekend for quiet and painful reflection regarding the worst day we've experienced collectively in this country at least since the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. And to recall that specific Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001 is undeniably important, if not imperative on so many fronts. That day must never be repeated, though recalling the sacrifices so many brave men and women made that day and for weeks after that should be repeated every year on that date. To do anything less is a gigantic disservice to all who have served.

Yet first-year UT coach Josh Heupel was also right to say after the Vols' first loss of the season after opening with a win against Bowling Green: "I appreciate the Majors family being here and having an opportunity to celebrate everything he's meant to Tennessee football as both a player and a coach."

Johnny Majors would certainly have appreciated the Vols' fight throughout this one. There was the punt they blocked on the Panthers' first possession that led to early leads of 7-0 and 10-0 for the hosts. There was the toughness they displayed in clawing back from two 14-point holes to have that late chance to tie, or even win on a 2-point conversion.

And all of this after starting QB Joe Milton III went to the sideline with a lower leg injury near the end of the opening half, opening the door for Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker to spur Big Orange rallies thereafter until his late interception ended all chance at victory.

If UT didn't have a quarterback controversy before Saturday, it certainly does now.

some text
AP photo by Wade Payne / Former University of Tennessee football player and head coach Johnny Majors, center, stands with wife Mary Lynn Majors and UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek after his No. 45 jersey was retired before the Vols' home game against Florida on Sept. 15, 2012.

But Heupel was also right to mention Majors before he said anything about the loss in his postgame remarks, because the Majors clan will always be the First Family of Tennessee Football, regardless of the bitter taste Majors' ouster in early November 1992 in favor of Phil Fulmer had on his family for years to come.

"It stung him until the very end," said his son, John Ireland Majors, who lost his father in June 2020 at the age of 85.

Added Johnny's brother Bobby, the all-time great UT defensive back who still lives here in Chattanooga: "It means a great deal to our family to have the school remember Johnny in this way, but I think the new (university) administration did it to hype funding for the football team."

For John Ireland, there are warm, fuzzy memories from his dad's time with both the Panthers and the Vols.

"When Dad was at Pitt, they had tearaway jerseys, and some of us kids would grab them off the locker room floor, take them home and wash them and play football in the backyard with them," he recalled. "A few years ago, I was going through some boxes and found one of those No. 33 jerseys that Tony Dorsett had worn. I got it framed and it's in my house now."

Of course, there were also many happy UT memories.

"I was in high school at Bearden the first time we beat Alabama while my dad was coaching," he said last week. "And I was in college (at UT) when we beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl."

Beyond that, he still watches the video of when his dad wore orange pants one night and stood in the Neyland Stadium student section during Derek Dooley's brief coaching tenure.

The Johnny Majors Classic also carried the extra bonus of having former Pitt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherill serve as honorary captain for the Panthers. Sherrill was an assistant for Majors at Iowa State and Pitt. Said John Ireland: "We've always been close. Jackie gave part of the eulogy at my dad's funeral last year."

So given the complex relationship that still exists between the Majors family and Tennessee, someone couldn't help but ask Johnny's son if it wasn't hard to change allegiances from the Panthers to the Vols as a youngster.

"It's hard not to get into that Big Orange spirit at Neyland," he said.

Especially if Heupel's Vols can keep the same fighting spirit they showed against Pitt in the games to come.

some text
Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT