Majors' Betrayal

Johnny Majors returns to Pitt after an involuntary exit from Tennessee
By Keith Dunnavant
Sport Magazine
1993

On one of those muggy summer mornings that makes Pittsburgh feel more like New Orleans, Johnny Majors leans forward in his desk chair and recites the tidy little list to which he has reduced his rage:

"Dishonesty."

"Deception."

"Betrayal."

After a short pause, he repeats these words for emphasis, as if he could diagram the still-smoldering bitterness with all the ease of a halfback option. He's bitter, most of all, because he was forced to trade the future for the past.

In his own mind - and in the view of many loyal University of Tennessee supporters - the gravelly voiced Majors should be back in Knoxville, leading a Volunteers team that appears talented enough to contend for national honors this year. That should be his team. This, he can help but feel.

After wining three Southeastern Conference championships and averaging eight wins per year, the heart bypass surgery was, he thought, merely a minor setback. He wouldn't let it force him into an early retirement, the way his father had been put out to pasture before his time.

Twenty-six days after they sliced him open last August, he returned to work to find the program all abuzz about the 4-0 start orchestrated by interim head coach Phillip Fulmer. Majors then lost two of three games and watched his old school turn on him. After the second loss, he maintains, athletic director Doug Dickey offered him a six-year contract extension. But the public displays of support evaporated, for reasons still shrouded in doubletalk. Whether Majors pushed too far in his demands or was simply, as he suggests, the victim of duplicity on the part of the Tennessee administration, his contract was not renewed. Fulmer was named to replace him. No successful coach has ever been dumped so unceremoniously, especially considering the better-than-expected 9-3 season, which earned the Vols their ninth bowl bid of the 16-year Majors era.

"After all he'd done for that program, John deserved better, much better," says his friend, Mississippi State head coach Jackie Sherrill.

For Fulmer, his long-time aide, Majors now reserves a special contempt, but the school's athletic director and president also rank high on his dishonesty-deception-betrayal scale.

"I don't have any bitterness toward the people of Tennessee or the university," he insists, in a voice made perpetually hoarse by a lifetime of shouting at teenagers. "But there are still a small number of people," he adds, this publicly courtly man of verbal restraint, "for whom I shall never again have any regard. There's no doubt [Fulmer] coveted my position."

Rather than accept a cushion administrative job at Tennessee, Majors thumbed his nose at the people who said he was washed up at age 57 and stepped, instead, into his past. Twenty years earlier - to the day - the cocky young coach had left Iowa State for lowly Pittsburgh, where he took the Panthers from 1-10 to the national championship in four seasons. Now Majors must make it 1976 again. Coming off a 3-9 season that cost Paul Hackett his job, the program Majors inherited is in shambles, saddled with the weakest talent base in the Big East Conference.

"There's a great awareness," says Pitt athletic director Oval Jaynes, whose future is linked to his choice of Majors, "that this program represents a very tough job that will take some time."

For a man in the twilight of his career, the stakes are different and perhaps, in a way, bigger. Majors must turn back the hands of time and do in his late 50s what he did in his late 30s - or concede that Tennessee was right. That he's finished. Burned out. [i]Too old. This, he refuses to concede.

So this stubborn man heads for 1976, because it gives him somewhere to go.

When Tennessee hung him out to dry, Majors found it hard not to think about his father. An uneducated, dirt-poor Tennessee farmer who hated to farm, Shirley Majors left the fields when his children were young to try his hand at coaching football. There, he found his calling. Over he next 35 years, he became a legendary high school and small college coach, instilling in all of his sons a great love for the game, especially Johnny, who as a youngster, huddled around the struggling family's prized radio and dreamed of someday following in the footsteps of Army's legendary halfbacks, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. In time, he blazed his own trail. As a senior halfback at Tennessee in 1956, the young Majors finished second to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, securing for himself a hallowed place in the illustrious history of the mighty Big Orange.

He followed his father into coaching because it ensnared him, his love for the game. Then Majors watched as his father was forced to retire at 65, when the old man still had plenty of yelling and pleading and teaching left in his body. He watched him grow old without being able to do what he loved, without a reason to get up in the morning. As a young man in his 30s, Majors vowed never to let such a fate befall him.

When presented the choice between going quietly and going elsewhere, he flashed back to the old man. "I know I've still got a number of years of good coaching left in me," he says, now a few months into his 58th year. "I thought I would retire at Tennessee, but I wasn't ready to retire. I'm a builder. I know I can do it again."

At Iowa State (1968-72), Majors took a Big Eight also-ran from obscurity to respectability and two bowls. At Tennessee (1977-92), his tenure was inconsistent, including SEC championships and major bowl bids as well as five-loss seasons. Four years into his homecoming, the Vols were a mediocre 21-23-1 under Majors, prompting a popular bumper sticker that proclaimed, "We made a Major mistake." But the bumper stickers were long gone by the time Tennessee captured its first league title in two decades and upset Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.

None of Majors' teams seriously contended for the national championship, and his losing record against archrival Alabama made him a target of some alumni. But he left with more victories (116) and league titles (three) than any UT coach since the legendary General Robert Neyland. In 1989-90, Tennessee won a share of consecutive conference championships for the first time since FDR was in the White House.

After all these years, his four-year tenure at Pittsburgh remains the eye-catcher on his resume, the perfect fusion of opportunity and execution against which he now finds himself competing. When Majors arrived on the Pitt campus in December 1972, the school's administration made it clear: They had chosen his gritty optimism over shutting down the program, and it had been a close vote. That first year, the last before the NCAA instituted squad limits, Pitt signed 83 high school seniors, a huge class even by the standards of the era. Among the rookies was Tony Dorsett. Four years later, the Panthers, behind Dorsett's running and quarterback Matt Cavanaugh's passing, streaked to the national title, cementing one of the most remarkable transformations in college football history.

"Coach Majors had a way of making us believe that we could come in and make something out of nothing," says Cavanaugh, now a member of the Pitt coaching staff.

After Pitt wrapped up the championship by decking Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Tennessee lured Majors home - home, he thought at the time, for good. Now the Spirit of '76 is both a blessing and a curse. Dorsett's Heisman Trophy, which rests behind Majors' desk, is both inspiration and competition

In the 17 years since that frozen moment of perfection on the floor of the Superdome, the boyish figure of a man has grown gray around the temples and a bit wider in the waist. Time has given him bags under the eyes and a thicker neck. Most notable, of course, are the five freshly transplanted arteries to his heart that saved his life last year. Without the surgery that gave Phillip Fulmer the chance to take his job, he might be food for worms today.

"I can't get away from the feeling of just being happy to be alive," he admits.

The doctors gave him a clean bill of health, but the procedure merely adds to the skepticism surrounding a man of his age attempting such a major rebuilding project. "If I seriously believed John wasn't in the best of health, we wouldn't have hired him," Jaynes says. "It's not something we question at this point. We're confident in his ability to do the job he was hired to do."

After Majors left Pitt the first time, Jackie Sherrill, who had been his associate head coach, kept the program among the nation's best. Between 1979-81, the Panthers lost a grand total of three games and flirted with two national titles. But the program has experienced various stages of disarray since Sherrill was lured to Texas A&M in 1982. Foge Fazio couldn't win. Mike Gottfried couldn't get along with the administration. Paul Hackett (13-20-1 in three years) couldn't accomplish either requirement of the job and was summarily dismissed last year. Once the most feared team in the independent East, Pitt now finds itself struggling just to compete with the likes of Syracuse, Boston College and Miami in the tough new Big East.

How the program fell so far is a question entangled in the usual excuses, but the folks now hoping for a revival insist that none of those men who followed Johnny Majors was quite Johnny Majors.

The revolving door to the head coach's office over the last decade gave the program a sense of instability, which undermined recruiting. Without a strong, established leader in charge, facilities improvements were ignored, which undermined recruiting. As the best young players in western Pennsylvania slipped away to Penn State, Syracuse, Ohio State and other powers - anywhere, it seemed, but Pitt - the Panthers appeared to do a slow burn into college football's past. They became a [i]former power, like Ole Miss. The city of Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are the only game that really matters, never embraced the Panthers with Steelers-type passion, even when they were on top. Last year, average attendance at ancient Pitt Stadium plummeted to a two-decade low of 32,687.

"The situation is a much bigger challenge than my first time here," Majors contends.

The changes in the game over the last two decades make the task tougher. The days of signing huge numbers of players to catch up with the competition are long gone. Recruiting is more sophisticated now. With only 85 total scholarships and no more than 23 to award in any given year, schools must be more selective and can't afford to gamble - as Majors did in his first tour at Pitt - on the safety of numbers. The renewed emphasis on academic standards also toughens the task, because the Pitt administration has made it clear that Majors must recruit athletes who go to class and graduate - an area in which he received criticism at Tennessee. In many respects, these changes give even the lowliest programs a fighting chance. But seducing a small number of top players to choose Pitt may be even more difficult now, because Eastern football is so much better.

"One main thrust is going to be convincing the best kids in the Pittsburgh area and in surrounding western Pennsylvania to stay close to home and come help us build this program back to what it was," says Cavanaugh, who's in charge of recruiting the fertile ground that has spawned great players like Joe Namath and Joe Montana. "None of the kids we're recruiting are going to remember what Coach Majors did here before but they know his reputation from Tennessee. His being here says to the kids that we're serious about putting Pitt football back on top."

Majors and his staff are quick to point out that their rebuilding project will take several years. Twelve starters return from Hackett's final team - a unit that surrendered more than 40 points in five games and struggled offensively. Watching the leftovers operate from his pro-style multiple offense and 4-3 defense this season - without any hint of the speed he always enjoyed at Tennessee - could prove excruciating.

The man who would not go quietly remains vague about the goals he has set for this team. But he knows his second tour is destined to be judged by the standards of the first.

"Over time, this program can be as good as it wants to be," he says. "Right now we're not talking about championships. We're talking about building a foundation, about starting from scratch."

As Majors is certain to discover, the only competition more imposing than his Big East schedule is his 17-year-old ghost.

Copyright 1993 by Keith Dunnavant

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