Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Here's to you, Coach Majors

It still hurts.

Every August, as another UT football season rolls around, one can't help but get excited. You check the schedule. Start analyzing possibilities. Crunching predictions. Hoping. Waiting.

But, for me, the promise of fall and of Saturday afternoons watching orange-clad warriors take to the gridiron is also tinged with sadness. Because John Majors isn't here. Because he isn't a part of it.

I will never forget that Friday morning in November 1992 when the news became official. Majors was being forced out. Assistant coach Phil Fulmer was all but certain to be his replacement.

Trouble had been brewing all season. Still, it was a shock.

Johnny Majors was the only UT coach I had ever known. I had gotten used to his presence on the Volunteer sideline. He was a coach from the old school - suit, tie, pissed off look on his face during games. He was what an SEC coach, hell, what a football coach, should look like, dammit.

Majors had been a star at Tennessee in the 1950s. A tailback who could punt the daylights out of the ball. An All-American and a runner-up for a Heisman Trophy that should have been his. And the best part was he was maybe 155 pounds soaking wet.

He coached at Iowa State, turning around a down-and-out program. He took the Cyclones to two bowl appearances during his tenure, a major accomplishment at the time.

From there it was on to Pittsburgh, where Majors inherited a team that had been victorious only twice the previous year. With incredible recruiting, Pitt and Majors (and a fella named Tony Dorsett) won a national championship in 1976.

Meanwhile, down on Rocky Top, things were rocky indeed. Bill Battle had resigned after six seasons, saying someone needed to rally the Tennessee fans and he could no longer do it.

Majors agreed to return. The band played "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" his first game back against California. It felt right. The favorite son was home.

Flash forward 16 years. As the 1992 season dawned, Majors lost his close friend and confidant, team trainer Tim Kerin. He was a man Majors described in a 2003 interview as his eyes and ears. He was the one who watched out for the coach's interest. Made sure all was well in the Big Orange family.

But Kerin was dead. Majors himself was recovering from heart surgery. One wonders whether things would have been different had Kerin lived.

Fulmer won unexpected victories over Florida and Georgia as interim coach that year. Majors returned to work before the Cincinnati game, 26 days after his surgery, coaching the team from the press box. He was back on the sideline for a win against LSU.

Then all hell broke loose.

The Vols lost to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. Rumors of complaints, back stabbing and angry boosters filled the airwaves around Knoxville.

The week of the Memphis game, coach Majors called a press conference. He had been forced to resign.

He won 116 games in 16 years and had a winning percentage of .639. And yet, he was out.

"Having spent 23 years of my life at UT - as a player, student assistant coach, assistant coach and head coach - I truly appreciate the support I have received from thousands of the most loyal fans during the good years as well as in some leaner periods," he said that day in Memphis, his wife, Mary Lynn, and old pal Larry Lacewell at his side.

Then his thoughts turned to his dad.

"Since the early days of watching my dad, the late Shirley Majors, coach, I developed a very competitive spirit concerning football. I played hard, I coached hard, and I demanded a lot of myself and those who surrounded me. Sometimes in the heat of battle, I've occasionally said things that, upon reflection, I wish I hadn't. But that's been my style, and it has brought me more success than failure."

He was gone after the Vanderbilt game. Back to Pitt to coach for another few years before retiring. He is now a special assistant to the Pitt athletic director.

One can argue that Majors' time had come and gone. That the program has since been raised to another level. But it makes me sick to think that John Majors is sitting up in Pennsylvania somewhere instead of here in Big Orange Country.

When I interviewed him for a story on Tim Kerin in 2003, Majors treated me, a reporter from a community newspaper, as kindly as if I were from Sports Illustrated. He was a true gentleman. I was soon fascinated by his stories of both Tim Kerin and of long ago football Saturdays. Talking to him, one of my childhood heroes, was a thrill.

So here's to you, Coach Majors. You're still missed here on Rocky Top.

It just ain't the same without you.

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