We should all have the blessing of a person in our lives we can call, simply, Coach. Maybe it’s a parent. Maybe it’s someone who oversaw your athletic career, youth, pro or otherwise, no matter how long or short. Or perhaps it’s the legend who had his painted portrait hanging in your parents’ living room, the one who led this alma mater to its greatest moments of glory. You might have never met Bear Bryant or Dean Smith, but yet they always felt like a member of the family.
For me, Coach was Johnny Majors. Coach died Wednesday morning at the age of 85.
I never played for him, but I did work for him. When we first met, I was 19 years old, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee. I had taken a job with the Volunteers football team as a member of the video crew, manning a camera to record every practice and every game, the vital moving images that would be dissected by the coaching staff and players in their meeting rooms.
To arrive at that that job each day I walked across Johnny Majors Boulevard. To get to the practice field I walked through a museum that displayed the orange No. 45 jersey worn by Majors during his years as a Vols running back, two-time SEC Player of the Year and 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up.
As I entered the door each day, I saw Johnny Majors’ College Football Hall of Fame induction plaque. As I hit the stairs to go to the video office, I passed by the 1986 Sugar Bowl championship trophy won by a team Johnny Majors coached. And when I reached the top of those stairs I was greeted by a massive framed photo of Johnny Majors being carried on the shoulder of his team as he reached down to shake the hand of Bear Bryant, whom he’d just defeated.
Minutes later, I would ascend to the top floor of the orange and white tower that overlooked the practice fields, set up my camera, and just as the drills below had started, a hand would squeeze my shoulder.
“Mr. McGee, how are we doing today? How’d you do on that big history test this morning?”
It was Johnny Majors. The living legend. The man with his name literally over the door. Big Orange Jesus himself. And he wanted to know how I had done on my World Civ final.
That’s why he’s my Coach.
For three autumns and two springs, that’s how it went. I kept one eye stuck into the viewfinder of the camera, pointed at the offense on the field, and one eye pointed toward Coach Majors as he talked. He talked a lot. He told me what it was like to be in the same room with General Robert Neyland. He talked about his days as an assistant coach at Mississippi State and Arkansas, days spent learning from Frank Broyles and coaching up Jimmy Johnson and Ken Hatfield, balanced by nights of hitting the bars of Starkville with the likes of Bill Dooley.
By the time I knew him, it had been nearly a decade and a half since he’d coached Pitt to the 1976 national championship, but he still spoke with almost religious reverence when he mentioned the Heisman-winning backbone of that team, Tony Dorsett, pronounced “Door-SIT.”
Every one of those stories was constantly interrupted. Out of the corner of his eye he would spot something he didn’t like down on the field and jerk the bullhorn perpetually glued to his right hand to his mouth. “CHECK! CHECK! CHECK! CARL PICKENS! SELL THAT ROUTE WITH YOUR EYES! IF THEY’RE LOOKING AT YOUR EYES THEN THEY AREN’T LOOKING AT YOUR FEET!”
Then it was back to the stories. About his father, small college legend Shirley Majors, who’d coached Johnny at Huntland High and then coached at Sewanee for two decades. He told me about his younger brothers, fellow Tennessee All-American Bobby, Suwanee star Larry, and Florida State’s Joe, who played for the Houston Oilers.
He especially loved to tell stories about Bill Majors, hero of Tennessee’s 1959 upset win over defending national champion LSU. Bill died six years later. He was a Tennessee assistant coach and was on his way to work with two coworkers when their car was hit by a train. He wiped tears away from his face every time he talked about Bill. Then he would catch himself.
“How’s your dad doing? … You still dating that girl from Nashville? … How’s my quarterback looking down there?”
That’s the Coach Majors that I knew. But when I would go out with friends or talk to people around Knoxville, that wasn’t the Johnny Majors I would hear about. They would talk about a big-headed head coach who made too much money and couldn’t beat Alabama. They said he didn’t run the ball enough, but they would also say he threw the ball too much. They said he drank too much, and that he was getting too old, that he was losing touch with young people. I tried to argue with them. I used my stories from practice as my ammo. But they could never be convinced otherwise.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” he said to me one day during practice when I asked him about it. He was holding the hand of his toddler grandson. “I’m only worried about those guys on that field. And this little guy right here. And I’m getting worried about you. You’re getting too skinny. Are we not feeding you enough?”
It was a critical time, not only for Tennessee football, but for the entirety of college football. Cable television was exploding. The cash was starting to roll in. Recruiting was becoming ultra-competitive. Head coaches were becoming CEOs. The Volunteers were winning a lot of football games, having just gone 11-1 with a co-SEC title in 1989 and the outright championship in ’90.
His staffs were an all-star team of assistants that included John Chavis, David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator/associate head coach Phillip Fulmer. In ’92, with Heisman favorite Heath Shuler at quarterback and great expectations, that staff turned on him. Majors suffered a heart attack during the preseason and missed the first three games. He returned in limited capacity as the team hit 5-0 and were ranked fourth in the nation.
But they lost the next three, including an embarrassing defeat at South Carolina. By season’s end, he was out. I was working on the last edition of the Johnny Majors Show, the Sunday morning coach’s show the morning after his final game. He came onto the set with purpose, a copy of that morning’s newspaper in hand showing phone records that revealed Fulmer’s interactions with powerful Tennessee supporters while Majors was recovering from his heart surgery.
I’m not here to argue whether Tennessee needed to make a coaching change. But I will argue until I join Johnny Majors on the other side of life that his exit could not have been handled worse.
The divide ran so deep within the football building that everyone was identified by their coach loyalties. Were you a Fulmer guy or a Majors guy? That spring I was lonely on the practice field tower. Fulmer preferred to stay on the sideline. One day I was pulled aside by an administrator and warned to stop referring to Majors as “Coach” because he was gone and there was a new head coach now.
From then on, Majors carried a bitterness, a sadness, that never fully went away. He went back to Pitt, where he coached four more years, introduced the world to Curtis Martin, and then retired from coaching in 1996. My father was a football official in the Big East at the time. Once, in the middle of game, Dad was standing along the sideline during a timeout, when Coach approached him.
“Jerry, can you believe my alma mater would do that to me?” In 1998, I went to Pitt and spent the day with Coach, then an associate athletic director, and he took me with him to Panthers tailgating functions before that night’s upset win over Miami. He introduced me to every group by saying, “This is Ryan McGee. He worked for me at Tennessee. If you get enough drinks in him he will tell you the truth about Judas Brutus.”
He was speaking of Fulmer.
For more than a decade, Johnny Majors remained in Big Orange exile. He moved back to Knoxville but was rarely on campus. He said he didn’t feel fully welcomed. That changed in 2009. For all that went wrong with Tennessee’s one-year Lane Kiffin experiment, what went right was one of Kiffin’s first acts of power — to call Johnny Majors and give him a keycard so that he come to the football building anytime he desired.
Coach relished the second chance so much. He became nearly a full-time resident of the video office, hunkering down in screening rooms watching old game film. I asked him what games he watched from when I was in school and he said, laughing, “Are you kidding? All I watch are my old games, when I was playing. Man, I was really good!”
He developed a habit of parking his car right in front of the football building, leaving it sitting on the curb right in the middle of traffic and going inside. When campus police told him he couldn’t do that, he pointed at the road sign above them: Johnny Majors Boulevard. “The hell you say. This is my road. I can park wherever I want.”
That didn’t change. Even after “Judas Brutus” became athletic director. Watching them avoid each other in the football building was like watching a ballet. They only shared rooms or shook hands when events forced them to do so. Though they never mended fences, Majors worked hard over his final years to heal wounds with other staffers there for the coup of ’92.
David Cutcliffe, now head coach at Duke, broke down into tears when he told me about Majors visiting with his team in Durham a few years ago and the private conversation the two coaches had that evening. “How much of our lives have we all wasted on grudges?” Cutcliffe said to me. “We’ll never get that time back and that’s tragic.”
I wish I could get some time back from the last couple of years. I would visit with Majors more than I did. Whenever the phone rang or we met in Knoxville, it was an instant memory.
We laughed about the time I sat in when Paul Hornung, winner of the 1956 Heisman, interviewed Coach in his office and, trying to be funny, controversially asked: “Johnny Majors, who really should have won the Heisman in 56?” Majors replied, “Jimmy Brown, next question.”
I visited with him after another heart surgery, a valve replacement in 2014. He told me just as they were administering his anesthesia, he asked what kind of valve he was getting. “They told me it was from a pig. I told them to go down to the AG campus and see if they couldn’t find me one from a bull.”
We talked once every few months for my entire adult life. But I should have done it more.
The last time we chatted was last fall. He was excited about the direction Tennessee football is headed. He really loved watching LSU’s Joe Burrow. He thanked me for something he’d heard that I’d said about him during college football’s 150th anniversary celebration. That conversation ended the way all of conversations ended. “Ryan, I have always appreciated your loyalty. Loyalty is all we can hope for in this life. You remember that.”
Johnny Majors was always coaching me up. Because Johnny Majors was always my Coach.