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20 Years Ago in Big Orange Country: The season when one legend replaced another

A parade.

A carriage carrying Sherman and his dog, Mr. Peabody, rides through the history of Tennessee Vols football. They see General Neyland standing with George Cafego and Herman Hickman. Then they pass into other long-lost realms, eventually migrating into the time of Doug Dickey, and then Bill Battle.

The dog speaks…

"Hello, again. Peabody and Sherman here."

"Gee, Mr. Peabody, this upcoming football season has got me all in knots."

"What, Sherman, in the world are you talking about now?"

"Mr. Peabody! Derek Dooley has a losing record in his two years as our coach. It all looks so dark. We could be headed for the end of the world!"

"Sherman, in order to calm your silly anxiety, let’s take the Wayback Machine for a trip. It’s time for a history lesson. I’m going to show you what real anxiety over a football program is all about. We’re going to go back 20 years to when one legendary coach was replaced by a coaching legend-to-be. It was gut-wrenching for the Vol faithful. But first, to give you even more background, we’ll visit the year 1976."

"Are we going to visit Neyland Stadium way back when there was artificial turf, Mr. Peabody?"

"In a way, yes."

The dog narrates…

"So, there we were, my boy Sherman and me, his trusty dog, standing in the Wayback Machine, monitoring the controls, when all of a sudden we were sitting in one of the rooms of the Andy Holt Apartment Complex on the campus of the University of Tennessee in late November of 1976."

***

It wasn’t just that I was beginning my senior year at UT that autumn of 1976 that makes it an incredible time. The year 1976 was a tumultuous football season, the culmination of a long, downward spiral of fortune. In 1970, our head coach, Bill Battle, had inherited a very good program built back up from mediocrity by a young head coach named Doug Dickey. Six long years later, Coach Battle was looking at the inevitably of a pink slip, the result of a steady decline in performance of his teams. But what accelerated the firing process was the possibility waiting in the wings. I was anticipating the return of Majors to his native Tennessee as I sat on one of those ugly orange chairs in the Andy Holt tower, just thinking about the possibilities. And 16 seasons later, the ‘firing’ of Majors in favor of his assistant Phil Fulmer not only was one of the saddest moments of my Vol fandom, but also a moment that rekindled those thoughts about possibilities.

Johnny Majors, already a hero for many based on his exploits on Shields-Watkins Field during the 1950s, had been making headlines as the head coach of the Pitt Panthers. Back in 1969 when Dickey left the Vols to coach Florida, Majors, then at Iowa State, was being reported as the likely replacement. It didn’t happen. So when the rumors began to spread through Knoxville like a bad cold in November 1976, the swell of emotion could be felt in the air. On December 3, a Friday, UT announced that Johnny would be coming home. By the following Monday, the UT campus was alive with relief and anxious excitement for the 1977 season.

What a month of December it was! Majors’ Pitt squad prepared to face Derek Dooley’s father’s Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. A Pitt win would surely mean the Panthers would be national champions – A TEAM COACHED BY OUR OWN JOHNNY MAJORS! The entire Vol Nation watched that Sugar Bowl and Pitt’s thrashing of Dooley’s Dawgs as if the Vols were playing in that game.

Hotels in the Knoxville area already started to sell out in anticipation for a season that was 9 months away. Majors tried to calm the faithful’s irrational exuberance by telling us that he was "a hard worker, not a miracle worker." It didn’t work. I sat with nearly 85,000 others in a Neyland Stadium swelling with fans, a record crowd for the old stadium, to see a Volunteer team that surely would be in the Top 20 by October. As the teams were warming up on the field, I said to a friend sitting with me, "Look how big those Cal players are. They make us look like a high school team." The Cal Bears didn’t give a hoot if it were Majors or Minors coaching the Vols. They physically dominated Tennessee to begin the worst campaign in terms of losses. It was a long season that ended with a 4-7 record including a loss to Kentucky down the stretch. It was the first time a Vols football team lost more than 6 games in a season.

Humble pie doesn’t taste very good, though Majors eventually became all that he thought he could be. It just took a long time and a lot of patience. Johnny’s first ‘breakthrough’ season wasn’t until his fifth: an 8-4 mark in 1981. It wasn’t until the following season, his sixth, that his Vols were able to defeat a national power: a 35-28 win over Alabama. It wasn’t until his seventh season that his Vols elevated his SEC record to above the .500 mark. It wasn’t until his eighth season that Majors could boast about having a Tennessee team with a winning conference record (4-2 in 1983). And it wasn’t until Majors’ ninth Tennessee team that Johnny coached the SEC champions, followed by one of the greatest triumphs in the history of Vols football, a complete blitzkrieg of Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl.

Two more SEC championships followed. Johnny Majors was one of college football’s top coaches. And he was our coach.

***

The dog speaks again…


"Now, Sherman, I have shown you a lesson in patience. With that backdrop, let’s now travel ahead to 1992, the last season that Johnny Majors would coach the Tennessee Volunteers. Let me show you how your present anxiety is nothing compared with what happened 20 years ago. Coaching changes are always difficult to endure. But this was the worst imaginable – a coaching legend replaced by an assistant who had to learn and perform on the job in the most trying of circumstances."

"I’m ready, Mr. Peabody."

***

My good friends here at RTT invited me to write an article for their annual pre-season publication Rocky Top Tennessee. The following are some excerpts from that article titled 20 Years Ago in Big Orange Country: The Season When One Legend Replaced Another. Check out the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99), the Kindle version ($9.99 from Amazon.com), or the ebook (a downloadable PDF for $7.99 from GameDayDepot.com).

EXCERPTS

It is hardly possible to believe that a season ending with a 9–3 record would go down as one of the most tumultuous campaigns of Tennessee Volunteer football. But that is an apt description of what happened 20 years ago. It was a season that was ushered in with the untimely death of the head athletic trainer and a heart bypass operation performed on the head coach. These preludes led to the main act featuring stars in the making at quarterback and running back, an improbable run up the national ranking to number four under unproven leadership, and an agonizing four weeks during which the team lost its only three games of the season, doing so under the ailing head coach who had returned from the operating table to per­haps save his job. The finale gave us the transfer of power from one Tennessee legend to another.

William Shakespeare did not write this tale. It was more like a modern-day reality television show. But it really hap­pened. So, if you think 2008 was the most gut-wrenching sea­son possible, take a trip back 20 years to when Phillip Fulmer began his Tennessee head coaching career, and when another Tennessee legend ended his.

***

It all began on August 3, 1992, when Big Orange Coun­try was handed some very sad news. Head athletic trainer Tim Kerin, only 44 years old, died at UT Hospital of an aortic an­eurysm. Kerin had come to Knoxville with head coach Johnny Majors from Pitt in 1977 where he’d been Majors’ head trainer since 1973…. On August 25, 1992, coach Majors underwent three and a half hours of open-heart surgery less than two weeks before Tennessee opened its 1992 campaign. This was like royalty be­ing near death. The entire Vol Nation held its breath. The aura of Johnny Majors in Tennessee had only one equal – General Robert Neyland…. While Majors lay on the operating table, his Vols were get­ting ready for their second full-scale scrimmage of the pre-sea­son. It was announced that Coach Philip Fulmer, the Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator, would take over the reins…. So, it was "Interim Head Coach" Phillip Fulmer that joined John Ward on the 1992 season premiere of the Johnny Majors Show after the Vols had plowed over the Ragin’ Cajuns 38–3. It was a surreal scene as John Ward kicked off the show by introducing Philip Fulmer as the "winningest coach in major college football – he’s never lost a game."…

***

The Vols found themselves 2–0 overall, 1–0 in confer­ence play, and the Vol Nation began breathing huge sighs of relief. One monumental fear was put to rest. Apparently the Big Orange had the tools, and also the continuity of leadership, to survive the temporary loss of Majors. But now, a new fear appeared. Once Majors returned to the sidelines, would Fulmer become a top candidate for another program?...

Next, it was Steve Spurrier’s fourth-ranked Florida Ga­tors in Knoxville to begin what would become a long-standing rivalry between Fulmer and the East Tennessee native Spurrier. A late summer storm turned Neyland Stadium into something of a Southeast Asian monsoon. But that didn’t stop the Vols. Shuler at quarterback ran like Condredge Holloway and Jimmy Streater combined. Mose Phillips caught a short swing pass out of the backfield and ran 70 yards for a touchdown. Meanwhile, the fired-up Vol defense held the Gators to only 68 yards on the ground and less than 300 yards overall. It all turned into an improbable 31–14 win over Florida. Now, the Fulmer Bandwagon had wheels on it, and a high-performance engine to power it. The nation was beginning to take notice. So did Johnny Majors. Only four weeks after open-heart surgery, Majors was back in the locker room, reciting his "Attack, Attack, Attack" mantra that had brought him so much success as a head coach over the previous quarter-century. To some, he had hastily re-assumed the head coaching duties in an effort to save his job and his aura as his Vols had captured the imagination of many under his Offensive Coordinator….

***

Majors officially returned as the sideline Head Coach when the Vols traveled to Baton Rouge for a night tilt against LSU. Tennessee swamped over the Bayou Bengals 20–0 and was sit­ting at 5–0 and ranked fourth in the nation, a position that was almost unthinkable in August as the Vols were entering a bit of a rebuilding phase.

Then it all went pear-shaped. The Vols lost a squeaker to heavy underdog Arkansas 25–24 in Knoxville, spoiling the thoughts of an undefeated Ala­bama visiting an undefeated Volunteer team the next Saturday. Alabama came anyway, defeating Tennessee 17–10 and giving Majors his seventh consecutive loss to the long-time rival from Tuscaloosa. And you know what happens in the Knoxville when the Vols lose two consecutive conference games at home. The large rock near Neyland Stadium had "Johnny is Back, We Want Phil" painted on it for all to see, possibly including Majors on his way to work….

"It doesn’t take a lot of guts to go out and do something in the darkness – paint a rock. It doesn’t take much ingenuity…. There is the Legions of the Miserable sometimes that are always going to be miserable. You don’t let those affect how you ap­proach your team." The Legions of the Miserable were beginning to drive the Good Ship Volunteer. They were gaining scores of new mem­bers as the Vols season, surprising as it seemed, was beginning to tank.

***

The last straw was imminent. In Columbia against SEC-newcomer South Carolina, a late, long touchdown pass/run from the Heath Shuler-Mose Phillips duo brought the Vols to within a point. Perhaps the ultimate outcome would have been different if the game had been played years later when overtime was part of the solution. But 1992 was still back in the day when a teams’ record was spelled out with three numbers, not just two. Majors needed a win to keep potential disaster at bay. Instead, the two-point conversion attempt failed and Tennessee limped back to Knoxville with their third-consecutive confer­ence loss, a 24–23 catastrophe. The Vols, once ranked #4 under Fulmer, were now #23 under Majors…

The open date the following the 1992 loss was a welcomed reprise from the downward spiral of the fortunes of both the Tennessee Vols as a football team and of Johnny Majors as a head coach. But time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Just as Phillip Fulmer would find out 16 years later, the unthinkable happened. On the Friday evening before the Memphis State game on the banks of the Mississippi River, 57-year old Johnny Majors delivered a statement to the local press that was quickly transmitted by the national media. It was given with a feisty tone to say the least….

Tennessee defeated Memphis State 26–21. But it was more like a funeral. To the national media, it was as if the University of Ten­nessee had let a legend go just because his team had lost three consecutive games. ESPN’s Lee Corso had this to say on the air following Major’s press conference in Memphis: "It’s a sad situa­tion, though, when a man who’s basically given is entire life to a university is forced out of the system based on one lousy month on a football field."…

***

But, as usually is the case in the matter of oversimplifica­tion of events, the situation was likely more complex. Majors undoubtedly was forced out to allow new blood to lead the football program into the future. Was it simply based on a three-game losing streak? Or was it orchestrated during Majors’ recuperation period via backroom dealings involving Athletics Board member Bill Johnson, Athletics Director Doug Dickey, university president Joe Johnson, and even Phillip Fulmer him­self? Could Majors himself have set the table of discord with the powers-at-be by complaining about his contract, that had two years remaining, in public during a publicity caravan across the Volunteer State?

The full story has yet to be told, at least publically. Perhaps somebody will write that book. But one thing is for certain. In 1992, the game was changing. Not only football, but all sports were in the middle of a revolution of sorts. Football was becoming, or had already become, a player’s game as opposed to one played by individuals under an authoritarian rule. There were glimpses of this long before 1992, but examples such as the individualism of the Fab Five – a collection of University of Michigan basketball players in the early 1990s – are windows to the changes that were taking place when Johnny Majors lost his last game as Tennessee’s head coach….

FanPosts are most often submitted by users. The views and opinions expressed in FanPosts do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by the editorial staff of Rocky Top Talk or SB Nation.

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