100 Days of Vols #70 - Johnny Comes Marching Home

Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

Though it happened before I was born, there's no doubt that the first major step in Tennessee's return to prominence was Johnny Majors

Bill Battle's tumultuous tenure at Tennessee was over. It had been going downhill ever since an extremely successful first couple of seasons as the Volunteers' head coach where he won with Doug Dickey's talent.

After Battle resigned after six seasons, the Vols squared their sights on former Vols great, the Huntland Hornet Johnny Majors, who had experienced national championship success at Pittsburgh after a successful tenure at Iowa State. Majors didn't have to think twice. As the Vol Historian wrote in early May, Majors never even opened the counter offer Pitt made for him to stay with the Panthers.

When the Vols called, Johnny came marching home.

A massive rebuilding project followed as Majors tried to establish the ground for recruiting better players to Knoxville and instilling the discipline in the program that had been sorely lacking under Battle [now the Alabama athletic director]. UT saw Majors as the coach and recruiter to put the program back on the map. After all, he'd won a national championship with Tony Dorsett at Pitt, and he'd recruited Dorsett there.

Dorsett once famously told Sports Illustrated about his recruitment: "I couldn't understand a word Coach Majors said, but I sure liked the way he said it."

The Vols didn't see immediate benefits, finishing 4-7 in 1977 and 5-5-1 in 1978. While the wins and losses didn't reflect the turnaround, the Vols were getting used to the hard-nosed approach Majors took in running a program. The fans were still excited about Tennessee football again. The Pride of the Southland Band even played "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" prior to his first UT game against California.

The turnaround began taking root in 1979 as the Vols beat Notre Dame 40-18. They'd also jumped on top of No. 1 Alabama by a big margin before losing, but even the loss led Sports Illustrated to announce that better times were on the way for UT. The Vols steadily improved and finished 7-5 before taking a step back in 1980, losing to two future Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Marcus Allen before finishing 5-6. From then on, the Vols were mostly back, though, other than an awful 1988 season.

From 1981-92, Majors went 95-39-7 while winning three SEC championships and two Sugar Bowls -- after the 1985 and 1990 seasons. Before Phillip Fulmer unceremoniously took over in a messy divorce following the 1992 season, the Vols had gone 34-9-2 in the past 3 1/2 seasons. Majors dealt with a heart attack in '92 and the Vols were stellar under Fulmer, who was believed to be one of the up-and-coming young assistants in the country. Though UT reached heights not experienced since the days of General Neyland under Fulmer, there remains many questions about why Dickey elected to drop Majors for Fulmer at that point.

He'd won 116 games in 16 years and had a winning percentage of .639 but was forced out after Fulmer won surprising victories over Florida and Georgia as an interim while Majors was recovering from heart surgery. Majors was forced out, and Fulmer was ushered in. It was a shocking day in my house. My dad really liked Fulmer, but he loved Majors. There was concern that the Vols had made a major mistake, even after the excitement of the wins we weren't supposed to have in '92 with Phil as the interim.

Things just didn't feel right, letting Majors go with the health issues, especially after he'd enjoyed such stellar success recently. At a gut-wrenching meeting with the media where he announced he was being forced out, Majors said this:

"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 some of the leaner periods. 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 surround 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."

The two legendary Tennessee coaches still do not get along to this day. Majors famously referred to Fulmer as "Judas Brutus."

But let's not resurrect old demons, shall we? This entry is to celebrate Majors' return to Knoxville and Tennessee's return to prominence. He'd been an incredible football player -- a national star -- in the 1950s, finishing as an All-American halfback and as runner up to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung his senior year. He paid his dues as a coach succeeding in Ames, Iowa, of all places before going to Pitt and winning the '76 championship with Dorsett.

Then when the Vols needed him most, he came home. Patience was followed by championships, and Tennessee became TENNESSEE again. Thanks largely in part to Majors.

"I had a lot of excitement and a lot of rewards," Majors told the Chattanoogan. "I had a lot of exciting times at Tennessee. We left the program in a lot better shape when we left than when we got there."

That goes without saying.

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