Johnny Majors, 85, Winning Coach at Pittsburgh and Tennessee, Dies


That one win came against a team his father coached at Huntland High School, and the loss rankled the elder Majors, who vowed that it would be the “last dad-blamed time a son of mine plays against me,” as Johnny Majors recalled in a memoir, “You Can Go Home” (1986, with Ben Byrd).

Shirley Majors then moved the family to Huntland, about 20 miles to the south, where Johnny finished out his high school career playing for his father’s squad. (Three of his brothers also played for their father.)

At Tennessee, Majors had an All-America career as a 5-foot-10, 165-pound tailback who did much more than run. He variously passed, punted, called signals and played safety in a 6-2-2-1 defense. (His brother Bobby also achieved All-America honors playing for Tennessee.)

In 1956, Johnny Majors’s senior year, Tennessee was 10-0 in the regular season and ranked second nationally to Oklahoma before being upset by Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. In the voting for the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s outstanding player, Majors finished second to Paul Hornung, the Notre Dame quarterback and future N.F.L. Hall of Fame running back for the Green Bay Packers.

In 2012, Tennessee retired Majors’s No. 45 jersey. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987.

Considered too small to play in the National Football League, Majors was not selected in the draft. Instead, he spent 11 years as an assistant coach — three seasons at Tennessee, four at Mississippi State and four at Arkansas — before becoming head coach at Iowa State.

In his next job, at Pittsburgh, he inherited a team with 11 consecutive losing seasons and only one victory the year before. He quickly brought in 83 recruits, and his first team there went 6-5-1. Three years later, in 1976, with the Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett at tailback, Pittsburgh went 11-0 in the regular season, defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and was voted national champion. Majors was voted coach of the year in 1973 and 1976.

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