John Terrill Majors (May 21, 1935 – June 3, 2020) was an American football player and coach. A standout halfback at the University of Tennessee, he was an All-American in 1956 and a two-time winner of the Southeastern Conference Most Valuable Player award, in 1955 and 1956. He finished second to Paul Hornung in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. Majors served as the head football coach at Iowa State University (1968–1972), the University of Pittsburgh (1973–1976, 1993–1996), and Tennessee (1977–1992), compiling a career college football record of 185–137–10. His 1976 Pittsburgh squad won a national championship after capping a 12–0 season with a victory in the Sugar Bowl. Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987.
Majors played high school football for the Huntland Hornets of Franklin County, Tennessee. They won the state championship in 1951. Majors' father, Shirley Majors, was the head coach at Huntland from 1949 to 1957 and then head coach at The University of the South, Sewanee, from 1957 to 1977. Majors also played alongside his brother, Joe, at Huntland. Another brother, Bobby, also played at Tennessee and professionally for the Cleveland Browns. In all, Majors had four brothers, who all played football. Johnny was the oldest.
A triple-threat tailback at the University of Tennessee, one of the last schools to use the single-wing rather than some version of the T formation, Majors was an All-American and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. Majors lost the Heisman Trophy to Paul Hornung, who starred for Notre Dame, which had a losing record (2–8). To date, this is the only time the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to a player on a losing team. Many fans of college football believe that Hornung won the Heisman because he played for the storied Notre Dame program, despite the team having a losing record.
He played for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1957 and then became an assistant coach at several schools.
Majors was the 24th head football coach for the Iowa State University Cyclones located in Ames, Iowa and he held that position for five seasons, from 1968 until 1972. His career coaching record at Iowa State was 24–30–1.. During his time at Iowa State he guided the Cyclones to their first ever bowl games in 1971 and 1972. Majors ranks tied for 8th at Iowa State in total wins and 19th in win percentage.
After Iowa State, Majors found his greatest success as coach of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers in 1973. In Pittsburgh, he recruited such greats as Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett and Matt Cavanaugh, among others. The Panthers won the national title in 1976, after which Majors went back to Tennessee, his alma mater. Majors also received National Coach of the Year honors for that season.
At Tennessee, Majors achieved success in the 1980s and early 1990s winning three SEC championships in 1985, 1989, and 1990, but falling short of a national title. In 1989, the Majors-led Vols followed a 5–6 season with an 11–1 season, the largest turnaround in college football that year.
The University forced Majors to resign as Tennessee's football coach during the closing weeks of the 1992 football season. The Vols racked up a 3–0 record under interim coach Phillip Fulmer, a longtime Majors assistant, who steered the team while Majors was recovering from heart surgery. After the Vols went 2–3 following Majors' return, he suddenly was asked to resign during the week leading up to Tennessee's game at Memphis State. A Knoxville News Sentinel story reported that while Majors was recuperating from heart surgery, Fulmer allegedly exchanged 26 telephone calls with Tennessee Athletics Board member Bill Johnson, who had played with Majors in the mid-1950s at Tennessee. A strong contingent within the Tennessee fan base believes that it was behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the part of Fulmer, Johnson, athletics director Doug Dickey, and university president Joe Johnson that pushed Majors out. Other fans believe that Majors created his own problems in the summer of 1992 by, among other things, complaining about his current contract during a preseason publicity tour across the state. Many speculate it was likely a combination of all circumstances.
Pittsburgh (second stint)
After being forced to resign at Tennessee, he returned to his second home of the University of Pittsburgh to once again coach the Panthers. Throughout the mid-1990s, Majors tried to recreate the magic of 1976 at Pitt but achieved little success going 12–32 in four seasons from 1993–1996. He retired from coaching following the 1996 NCAA season and served at Pitt in the position of Special Assistant to the Athletic Director and Chancellor until the summer of 2007. A room on the second floor of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association adjacent to Pitt's campus is dedicated to him and displays memorabilia from his career.
Majors died on June 3, 2020 at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Knoxville named a street after Majors. Johnny Majors Drive is on the campus of the University of Tennessee and is the location of the school's practice facility. Actor Lee Majors borrowed Johnny Majors' last name to form his stage name. According to one published account, Lee, whose real name is Harvey Lee Yeary, met Johnny when he was a football player at Tennessee and they became friends. Lee Majors was regularly seen on the sidelines during Johnny Majors' first tenure at Pittsburgh and during the early days at Tennessee.
Head coaching record
|Iowa State Cyclones (Big Eight Conference)|
|1971||Iowa State||8–4||4–3||4th||L Sun||17|
|1972||Iowa State||5–6–1||2–4–1||5th||L Liberty|
|Pittsburgh Panthers (NCAA Division I independent)|
|Tennessee Volunteers (Southeastern Conference)|
|1981||Tennessee||8–4||3–3||T–4th||W Garden State|
|Pittsburgh Panthers (Big East Conference)|
The following assistant coaches under Johnny Majors became college or professional head coaches:
- Lynn Amedee: UT Martin (1980–1981)
- Joe Avezzano: Oregon State (1980–1984)
- Bob Babich: North Dakota State (1997–2002)
- Kippy Brown: Memphis Maniax (2001)
- King Block: Arkansas State (1960–1962)
- Dom Capers: Carolina Panthers (1995–1998), Houston Texans (2002–2005)
- Curt Cignetti: IUP (2011–2016), Elon (2017–2018), James Madison (2019–present)
- David Cutcliffe: Ole Miss (1998–2004), Duke (2008–present)
- Daryl Dickey: Presbyterian (1997–2000), West Georgia (2008–2013)
- Phillip Fulmer: Tennessee (1992–2008)
- Ray Greene: North Carolina Central (1979), Alabama A&M (1979–1983, 1986–1988)
- Jon Gruden: Oakland Raiders (1998–2001), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002–2008), Oakland Raiders (2018-Present)
- Ray Hamilton: Bay State Titans
- Walt Harris: Pacific (1989–1991), Pittsburgh (1997–2004), Stanford (2005–2006)
- Jimmy Johnson: Oklahoma State (1979–1983), Miami (FL) (1984–1988), Dallas Cowboys (1989–1993), Miami Dolphins (1996–1999)
- Ken Karcher: Liberty (2000–2005)
- Larry Lacewell: Arkansas State (1979–1989)
- Larry Marmie: Arizona State (1988–1991)
- Gary Nord: UTEP (2000–2003)
- Bill Pace: Vanderbilt (1967–1972)
- Randy Sanders: East Tennessee State (2018–present)
- Al Saunders: San Diego Chargers (1986–1988)
- Jackie Sherrill: Washington State (1976), Pittsburgh (1977–1981), Texas A&M (1982–1988), Mississippi State (1991–2003)
- Kevin Steele: Baylor (1999–2002)
- Dave Wannstedt: Chicago Bears (1993–1998), Miami Dolphins (2000–2004), Pittsburgh (2005–2010)
- Tommy West: Chattanooga (1993), Clemson (1993–1998), Memphis (2001–2009)
- Ron Zook: Florida (2002–2004), Illinois (2005–2011)