Johnny Majors, A Legend of the Game
By Marty Mulé
Johnny Majors unlocked a secret of postseason success in New Orleans: let the players have fun on what is supposed to be a fun experience, and bring them along as a football team to a fine point by kickoff time.
That philosophy worked to perfection in the Sugar Bowl, where Majors coached three teams to three victories, including one for the national championship; another representing the biggest upset in the game’s 75 years; and a third signaling one of the Sugar’s greatest fourth-quarter rallies.
In those games, Majors’ Pitt Panthers defeated Georgia for the 1976 national title; his Tennessee Vols, an eight-and-a-half point underdog, upended the Miami Hurricanes (coached by his former assistant, Jimmy Johnson) in 1986; and surged from two touchdowns behind in the final period to nip Virginia (coached by old friend George Welsh) by a single point in 1991.
It’s interesting – and probably extremely satisfying to him – to note that Majors’ 2-0 ledger as a Tennessee coach is the best of the five men – including a couple of coaching giants – who brought illustrious Volunteer teams to New Orleans in the last 75 years. Gen. Robert Neyland was 0-2; John Barnhill was 1-0; Bowden Wyatt was 0-1; and Bill Battle 1-0.
The one blotch on Majors’ New Orleans resume’ is the game he played in, the 1957 Sugar. As a triple-threat tailback at the University of Tennessee, Majors finished second as a senior in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Paul Hornung of Notre Dame. Majors’ second-ranked Vols were upset by Baylor, 13-7. It was the third time an undefeated, untied Tennessee team went down to defeat in the Sugar Bowl.
But the Baylor game had lasting influences on Majors. One was his life-long affinity for New Orleans, and the second was his coaching philosophy for bowl games: letting his team have fun at the proper time, and slowly bringing the players along until they were ready to play – at kickoff time.
An avid history buff, Majors says what a lot of world-travelers about the Crescent City. “Fortunately, I have been able to travel all over the world in my lifetime,” Majors said, “but there’s only one New Orleans. There’s no place like it. There are a lot of things I love about New Orleans. As far as places I like to visit when I am there, I like Jackson Square and the history of New Orleans, particularly around that (French Quarter) area, and I enjoy Cafe’ Du Monde, where they have the beignets. I enjoyed getting on the trolley. When I had a couple of hours I would just get on the trolley and take a little ride with my wife and a couple of friends or some staff members and their wives. I like to ride through the Garden District. It is a very, very charming place in many, many ways.
“I love the culture and I love the food. I have never had a bad meal in New Orleans. I love the history of the place.”
A conventional coach on the field, Majors was a bit unorthodox in preparing for a bowl game. He learned what not to do at the 1957 Sugar Bowl.
“We had a great head coach at Tennessee then. Wyatt was National Coach of the Year when I was a senior, and he is in the (College) Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach,” Majors said in reliving the experience. “We loved Coach Wyatt. He and his staff were outstanding, and they built a great program.
“He didn’t like to fly. We took a train to many of our games, and we took the train to come down to New Orleans. It was a very, very interesting two-day trip, one night on the train and when we got there we were pretty isolated about 45 minutes outside New Orleans. We went into town one night as a team, and that first night we went to see Lilly “Cat Girl” Christine and then Louis Prima. But that was it, and we wanted to see more of the sights than that. I think that affected my preparations when I was a head coach.
“A lot of coaches didn’t understand why (when Majors became a head coach) I gave them free-reign early on trips, but what I did was when we were at a site for six days or so I would let the players have a late curfew the first couple of nights, or maybe no curfew, and tell them, ‘Look, if you mess up I am going to put you on a bus with a one-way ticket.’ They had a chance to let their hair down and have a good time, and we controlled some of the areas they went to. After a couple of days they’d be ready to get down to business. We let them sleep late and enjoy some night life, then the closer we got to the game we’d cut back and they’d be ready to play. New Orleans is a special place and you have to be able to see what’s going on and not just practice football every day.”
That was what Majors did when his Pitt Panthers were paired against the Georgia Bulldogs in 1977 Sugar Bowl. Major had Heisman recipient Tony Dorsett and a team that was ranked No. 1. They had so much free reign, that a joke in the press box, when Pittsburgh held a 21-0 lead, was, “Well, I guess they’re drinking Bloody Marys down there now.”
At the end of the game the Panthers were drinking in the scoreboard, which read: Pitt 27, Georgia 3, a score which made Pittsburgh the undisputed No. 1 team in the land.
In a way, that victory completed a circle that began with Majors’ first memory of the Sugar Bowl, sitting near the living room radio as an 11-year-old with his father, then a Tennessee high school coach and barber, and listening to the 1947 duel between Charlie Trippi of Georgia and Choo-Choo Justice of North Carolina. Later he recalled hearing the exploits of Texas’ Bobby Layne and Alabama’s Harry Gilmer.
As much as University of Tennessee football got into Majors’ blood, so did the Sugar Bowl. He’s left a definite imprint on the game. Not just by his record, but by his influence.
Jimmy Johnson, who coached Miami to a national championship before taking the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl; Jackie Sherrill who succeeded Majors at Pittsburgh, where he brought another Panther team a Sugar Bowl victory; and Larry Lacewell, a top assistant on some of those Arkansas Sugar Bowl squads, were all among his disciples, learning the trade under Majors at his first head coaching stop at Iowa State.
“Larry Lacewell, Jimmy Johnson, Jackie Sherrill were on my first staff up there. Man, they had all the answers.”
Marty Mulé is an award-winning sportswriter who covered national and Southeastern Conference sports, including the Sugar Bowl, in his 33 years at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is now a free-lance writer.