Johnny Majors was the first Tennessee football player to have a street on campus named after him and is still held in reverence by most Volunteer football fans. When Johnny came marching home in the winter of 1977, days after winning a national championship as head coach at Pittsburgh to resurrect Tennessee's football fortunes, fan expectations were at a fevered pitch.
It was the proverbial prodigal son returned to rescue Tennessee football tradition after three ordinary seasons under Bill Battle that culminated in back-to-back, bowl-less, 7-5 and 6-5, campaigns. To make matters worse, Battle was a Bear Bryant protegee and former Crimson Tide player.
Majors came in and quickly put together the No. 1 recruiting class in America and revitalized Tennessee1s fan base. He also used his position of popularity to push through improvements to the foot ball facilities and raise needed funds for the program. It was an exciting time in Big Orange Country as many envisioned a return to the Tennessee gridiron glory days of Robert R. Neyland and all were excited by UT's football future.
No doubt, more of you are familiar with the controversy when Majors departed Tennessee and was replaced by assistant coach Phil Fulmer who coached the Vols to a 3-0 start in 1992, including wins over Georgia and Florida, while Majors recuperated from preseason heart surgery. When Major returned that season expectations were high as Tennessee had the inside track over Florida for the division title before back-to-back upsets against Arkansas and South Carolina.
Awaiting a contract extension, Majors stalled signing before the season started and actually tried to negotiate for a better deal through a high-profile holdout. After he returned that season and faltered, the powers-to-be at Tennessee weren't so eager to enter into an agreement. Majors tried to force the issue late in the season and when Tennessee refused to resubmit its original offer, Majors was out and Fulmer was in.
Of course, the tensions between Majors and Fulmer had become unbearable that year and it was clear that if Majors returned, Fulmer wouldn't. Fulmer already had head coaching offers from Arkansas and South Carolina on the table. That forced Tennessee administrators to evaluate where the program was and where it was headed. They saw a brighter future with Fulmer and elected to let Majors seek his fortune elsewhere.
That1s when a downtrodden Pittsburgh football program called him back. Much like during his triumphant return to Tennessee there was an infusion of excitement about the Panthers' pigskin fortunes, but after four years Majors failed to repeat his earlier magic in the Steel City and was eventually forced to resign.
Today we can only assume Majors remains bitter about his unceremonious ouster at Tennessee after 16 seasons as head coach. The same is apparently not true about his failed four-year stint for the Panthers as he still maintained a place on their payroll after stepping down as head coach. But Majors has had no interest being a part of anything to do with Tennessee football and adamantly refuses to even publicly speak the name Tennessee -- a practice he shares in common with former Vanderbilt and LSU coach Gerry DiNardo.
The whole business has been a bitter pill for Majors and Tennessee football fans to swallow and it's hard to see such an ugly estrangement between a school and one of its favorite sons. In Hollywood, Majors would have won a national championship for Tennessee and entered his golden years with the grace of a John Wooden.
Instead, in the real world, Majors is suffering his winter of discontent.
Ten years into the Phil Fulmer administration at Tennessee few would argue the Vols are better off now than they were when Majors left. After two SEC championships, a national championship and several seasons in the national title picture, Tennessee has become a perennial top five power. That's what Fulmer set as his goal when he took over the program and talked of reaching that illusive 'the next level.'
There's no way to know what Majors might have done over the last decade at Tennessee, but its a fact that he survived the worst start by any coach in UT football history. I honestly believe that any other coach starting so slowly would have never survived at Tennessee. The fact he remained coach for 16 seasons is evidence of how truly beloved he was to the Vol nation.
I1m not here to bury Johnny Majors (the record does that far beyond by poor power to add or subtract), but neither am I here to praise him.
During his first six years at Tennessee, Majors compiled a 35-32-2 record. Compare that to the man Majors replaced and the man that replaced Majors. Heck, compare it to any coach in Tennessee's storied football history for that matter. And I do mean anyone. Fulmer went 67-11 in his first six seasons and Battle went 53-17-2. Doug Dickey went 46-15 in his six seasons at Tennessee. John Barnhill and Harvey Robinson combined to go 38-9-3 in six seasons when General Neyland was called to service, and in the first season after his retirement. Bowden Wyatt went 39-19-4 in his first six seasons at the Volunteer helm. And the General was an astounding 52-2-4 in his first six seasons and 46-17-3 in his first six seasons after a combined five-year absence while serving his country in war.
But it even goes back further than that. Between 1916 and 1925 with two years off for World War I, M.B. Banks and John R. Bender combined to go 45-20-7. In five seasons between 1911-1915, Z. G. Clevenger compiled a 26-15-2 mark. Before that the only other coach to be stay for more than two seasons was George Levine (1907-09) who was 15-10-3 in three years as head coach.
In his sixth season at Tennessee, Fulmer won a national championship while posting a 13-0 record. Doug Dickey won an SEC Championship with a 9-2 record. Neyland won a national championship with a 10-1 record during his second six-year start. On the sixth year of his initial start at Tennessee, he went 9-0-1 and the Vols outscored their opponents 243 to 15.
In his sixth season at Tennessee, Majors' team went 6-5-1 with a loss to close the regular season against Vanderbilt, followed by a Peach Bowl setback to Iowa.
In conference play the differential was even greater, Majors had a 16-19-1 mark in the SEC after six seasons, compared to Fulmer's' 43-7 record. During that six-season span, Majors was 1-5 vs. Alabama while Fulmer was 5-1; Majors was 3-3 vs. Auburn and Fulmer was 6-0 vs. Georgia which replaced Auburn as an annual conference opponent. Majors never had a winning conference record in his first six years while Fulmer never had a losing season.
Besides the obvious differences in what Majors achieved on the field, consider the other problems Tennessee experienced under his leadership. He ran a clearinghouse for coaches, changing defensive coordinators and secondary coaches in non-stop succession. Off-the-field troubles were a constant concern and the inconsistency on the field was exasperating. He followed a 9-1-2 season in 1985 with a 7-5 1996 season which included losses to Army 25-21, to Auburn 34-8 and to Alabama 56-28.
The Vols went 10-2-1 in 1987 only to lose six straight to start the next season en route to a 5-6 campaign. The best success Majors enjoyed at Tennessee was between 1989-92 when the Vols went 38-9-2. That also coincides to the time Fulmer served as Tennessee1s offensive coordinator. By the way, the 1991 Tennessee team that finished 9-3 arguably had the best collection of talent ever at UT, including such NFL stalwarts as Dale Carter, Carl Pickens, J.J. McCleskey, Darryl Hardy, Chuck Smith, Chris Mims, Bernard Daffney, Tom Myslinski, Jeremy Lincoln, Aaron Hayden and James Stewart.
When Majors struggled in the beginning, he blamed it on the miserable state he found the program, scholarship limitations and the poor recruiting base in Tennessee. He railed against detractors, berated assistants and players alike. Maybe he suffered from the pressure to get his alma mater back on top and tried too hard ‹ much like a batter overswings trying for a home run and strikes out. Now he rails against time and the cites Tennessee for what he perceives as an injustice.
Yet even in light of the information I've presented about Majors' accomplishments as a coach at Tennessee, I still strongly feel he has a special place in Volunteer football history. And I believe there's enough love in the hearts of Tennessee fans to embrace both Majors and Fulmer, as I have faith Fulmer is big enough to accept Majors as an elder statesman and potential emissary for Tennessee football. He returned to Knoxville for a couple of public appearances two years ago, but he has yet to return to the Big Orange fold even as an unofficial ambassador of good will.
You know the way home, Johnny. We'll leave the lights on for you.