Sunday, September 13, 2009

The day Johnny came marching home

And, so, it's back to reality.

After our dancing in the streets opener against Western Kentucky, Tennessee football fans were brought down to earth last night following a 19-15 upset loss to UCLA. I will leave it to others to talk about Jonathan Crompton's inept performance and a shaky offensive effort that ruined both stellar defense and a beautiful late summer Knoxville afternoon.

No, today, let's talk about the day Johnny came marching home.

In case you weren't there, UT honored one of its legends yesterday. Former head coach John Majors came back in a big way. He led the team down the traditional Vol Walk to the stadium. He was honored before the game. He was at midfield for the coin toss. And, yep, there he was, strolling the sidelines once again, in that trademark coat and tie.

My, how good it all felt, an overdue make-up perhaps, or at least a way to finally put 1992 behind us.

And, in case you weren't there either, here's what happened 17 years ago:

Majors underwent heart surgery before the season started. Serious stuff. UT announced that offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer would coach the team while Majors recuperated.

The Vols jumped out to a 5-0 start, which included unexpected wins at Georgia and against Florida. Majors returned to work sooner than expected (he reportedly just showed up at practice without telling anybody) and coached the Cincinnati game from the press box.

Then things just, well, went to hell. UT lost three straight -- to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. Some fans (and others) jumped on Fulmer's bandwagon. (I never will forget the classless and disgusting chants of "Block That Artery!" at a home game that year.)

Word leaked in the days leading up to the Memphis State game that some kind of press conference would be held on, of all days, Friday the 13th. At it, Majors announced that he was being forced to resign at the end of the year.

To be fair, I should say that 1992 had not been a good year. Majors lost one of his best friends, trainer Tim Kerin. He had complained loud and long about wanting a pay raise during the preseason tour around the state. I have heard that a couple of the exchanges he had with old friends and members of UT's athletic board weren't pretty.

Still, the news was a shock. After all, Johnny was a favorite son, and the team despite its skid finished 8-3 and went to a Jan. 1 bowl.

Majors and some others said that it was part of a conspiracy, that Fulmer and others conspired to get his job. Fulmer denied it, said he'd remained a loyal assistant.

I don't know. I do think it's the great untold story of Tennessee football. Nobody in the local press at the time either had the sources or the guts to tell the real tale. About five people know the truth. Who knows whether they will ever blab about it.

Anyway, Majors left at the end of the year, returning to Pitt, where he'd once won a national championship and was (and is) a beloved figure. He remained bitter about the Tennessee firing and didn't have too much to do with his alma mater until after Fulmer's contract was bought out last year.

Perhaps Majors' biggest coaching flaw was his inconsistency. Legendary sportswriter Marvin West calls it a yo-yo. One step forward. One step back. Blow out Florida one week, lose to Alabama 9-6 the next. People always say, too, that Johnny was too conservative, "up the middle," blah, blah, blah. I hate to tell you this, folks, but not only is that a bit of hyperbole, it didn't stop after Majors went back to Pitt.

But, there he was yesterday, sporting his coat and tie, looking older and grayer, but still that same "I Did It My Way" coach that brought us so many good memories. Let's not forget (yeah, it was way before my time) that 1956 season, 10-0 before the bowl, single-wing tailback Majors losing the Heisman Trophy in a stunning and controversial vote to Paul Hornung, who played on a Notre Dame team that won two games that year.

Let's not forget that in 1977 Majors left Pittsburgh, the No. 1 team in the country, to resurrect a UT program that had hit a nadir. Let's not forget the 1982 win over Alabama, 1985, the '86 Sugar Bowl, the 11-1 team in '89, the 45-3 blowout of Florida in 1990 and the Miracle at South Bend. And let's never forget our fast-talkin' favorite son.

At the start of the fourth quarter, UT showed a video tribute to the ol' coach on the jumbotron. It showed his classic pregame talk in Memphis after the resignation announcement. It showed him roaming the sidelines in his coat and tie. It showed Andy Kelly throw a bomb down field.

Then it played a line from one of my favorite songs, and when I heard it I thought, "This is one of the classiest gestures this university has ever offered, one heck of an olive branch."

I'm the No. 1 fan of the man from Tennessee.

Welcome home, coach. You've been missed.

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