By now, the college football world has heard the news of legendary player and coach Johnny Majors passing away. Majors is among the seminal figures of the sport, with a combined 29 years of coaching at three different programs, all of which saw a change in fortunes for the better.
The majority of his career was spent with his home state team: the Tennessee Volunteers. Majors was an elite halfback in his playing days, where he helped lead Tennessee to a Sugar Bowl victory and No. 2 ranking. He came back to the university in 1977 as a head coach, freshly off a national championship with the Pittsburgh Panthers. The next 16 years were a wild ride that became the bulk of Tennessee fan memories. For many in the Big Orange nation, Majors was Tennessee football encapsulated.
To provide a trip down memory lane, we’ve compiled five of the greatest moments in his career as a Tennessee Volunteer.
1956 vs. Georgia Tech
Majors’ playing career is notable enough: As a Volunteer, he racked up awards and was an All-American as well as a Heisman finalist (who truthfully should have won it). He was undoubtedly a top-5 player in the nation during his playing career that spanned from 1953 to 1956.
But this game stands out. It was arguably the biggest game in program history at the time, when Tennessee was competing for a national championship and had to square off against the dominant team of the era. It was a #2 vs #3 matchup, and Majors was going to need to deliver.
That he did. Majors played every single snap of the game, on both sides of the ball. As was typical of games in the era, it was a low scoring grudge match which was decided on singular plays. Tennessee ultimately came away with a 6-0 victory and one of the legendary wins in program history.
Majors had a big role in that, helping lead the way down the field for the game’s only touchdown. He also produced kicks of 68, 50, and 43 yards, two of which pinned Georgia Tech right near their end zone. That’s right folks—it was the era where punting could almost singlehandedly win you a game. It sure did help to have one of the better players in the nation on your side.
1982 vs. Alabama
Coming into the 1982 Third Saturday in October, the Crimson Tide were ranked No. 2 and boasted an 11-game win streak over the Volunteers. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling for Tennessee fans of new. Majors had yet to beat Alabama, or even come within 10 points of doing so. The 2-2-1 Tennessee squad looked like they were cruising for a beatdown.
Instead, Majors pulled off the stunning 35-28 victory over the Tide in Neyland Stadium, mercifully breaking one of the most embarrassing streaks in college football. Majors was carried onto the field by his players, and even had to do the postgame handshake with Bear Bryant while perched atop orange jerseys.
Majors hadn’t shown the fanbase much in the way of positive development prior to this game. Tennessee wasn’t doing awful. But they weren’t doing great under his coaching in the five seasons to that point. This win gave fans the hope that something greater could be achieved. It would take Majors a little bit longer to get the train going, but the 1982 Alabama game was a huge milestone in doing so.
1985 vs. Miami
The 1985 Tennessee team wasn’t given much a chance against the No. 2 ranked Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl that year. Miami had a typical loaded roster with NFL players, and were still in contention to win the title if they beat Tennessee and Penn State lost. Meanwhile, Tennessee came out in 1985 and surprised everyone with their first SEC Championship in 16 years. It was the high point of Majors’ coaching career at the time.
The Hurricanes didn’t know what hit them. Tennessee’s swarming defense proved that their 5-0 run to end the regular season was no fluke, and they successfully harassed Vinny Testaverde into one of his worst career outings. Tennessee came out with a 35-7 blowout win, and a name that has stood the test of time: the Sugar Vols.
Winning both the SEC Championship and a major bowl game did wonders for Majors’ career trajectory. The next seven seasons would see the Volunteers win two more conference titles, appear in four major bowls, and record four more seasons of at least nine wins. This was the turning point for Majors and the perception of his program.
1989 vs. UCLA
If you want to know the exact game where Tennessee started off their 90s dynasty, look here. Yes, this was in 1989, but the 90s streak didn’t come out of nowhere. It emerged from this season, and this game in particular was the wake up call.
The Bruins were ranked No. 6 in the nation and had just come off a 10-2 season where they finished top-10. Meanwhile, Tennessee was coming off a shockingly bad 5-6 year that shook the faith some had in Majors. Tennessee had also played Colorado State a week prior and won by a measly three points. This game took place in the Rose Bowl on Pay Per View, and it sure may have seemed that Tennessee fans were paying to watch a beat down.
They did! But it was Tennessee delivering it. The unranked Volunteers stunned the nation by cruising to 24-6 victory over a Bruins team that many thought would compete for a national title. It was a convincing enough win that Tennessee entered the AP poll the very next week. They did not drop out of the poll until 1994.
It also began a season that would take Majors to the zenith of his career. Tennessee finished with a shared SEC Championship and an 11-1 record with three victories over top-10 teams. Had it not been for a shootout loss against Alabama, this team may have won it all. Majors achieved another top-5 AP Poll finish and successfully transitioned Tennessee into the new era. From here on out, Tennessee was viewed as a national contender year in and year out.
1991 vs. Notre Dame
You very rarely hear of a team successfully coming back from a 24-point deficit in college football. That’s especially true in eras where running the ball dominated playbooks and allowed the clock to bleed time.
The 1991 Tennessee team and Johnny Majors can say they’re one of the very few to ever pull off such a tremendous feat. The No. 13 ranked Volunteers were battered and disappointed, after losing to both Florida and Alabama in consecutive weeks. They went up to South Bend to take on the national champion contending No. 5 ranked Fighting Irish. It looked like the game was over before halftime, as Notre Dame sprinted out to a 31-7 lead.
But a single play may have changed their fortunes. Right before the half, Tennessee blocked a field goal attempt and returned it all the way for a touchdown.
The comeback just kept rolling from there. Tennessee’s defense held Notre Dame to a fraction of their first half output, and allowed their offense some breathing room to get into a rhythm. It culminated in the Volunteers taking a 35-34 lead, but the Fighting Irish still had one more chance near the end of the game to kick a game winning field goal. Instead, Tennessee’s line went through the blockers like a sieve, and got a piece of the ball. Tennessee preserved one of the greatest comebacks the sport has ever seen.
It was nice revenge for Majors and Tennessee, who had suffered a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame the year prior. This game ruined Notre Dame’s national championship hopes and simultaneously helped salvage Tennessee’s season.
No man did more to bring Tennessee back to prominence than Johnny Majors. There have been better coaches, and better players in program history. But Majors’ guidance throughout his coaching tenure allowed Tennessee to build into a nationally competitive program in the 1990s once again. Many of the good memories that Volunteer fans enjoy were built on a foundation that Majors installed.
We’d be remiss to not mention that his tenure ended in embarrassing fashion. Many in the university should be ashamed of how Majors was treated in the decades after his departure. The ultimate mending of that relationship in the 2010s was the first step towards properly recognizing what Majors did for the program.
History, especially in college football terms, tends to favor the name on the trophy. For Tennessee, that’s always going to be Robert Neyland and Phil Fulmer, and they’re hoping Jeremy Pruitt is the next. But for everything from 1977 onwards, Majors deserves a little asterisk somewhere on the plaque—noting just how much the program he loved dearly, loved him back.