Johnny Majors, a homegrown college football hero in Tennessee who coached Pittsburgh to an undefeated season and a national championship before returning to his native state to forge a successful 16-year head-coaching career at the University of Tennessee — although one that ended in bitterness — died on Wednesday at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. He was 85.
The University of Pittsburgh announced his death. No cause was given.
The even-tempered Majors was a college head coach for 29 years: five at Iowa State (1968-72), four at Pittsburgh (1973-76), 16 at Tennessee (1977-92) and four more back at Pittsburgh (1993-96). His overall record was 185-137-10.
Majors’s coaching years at Tennessee, in Knoxville, where he had been an All-America tailback, brought three Southeastern Conference championships and 12 postseason bowl trips. But just before the 1992 season, he underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery, and his offensive coordinator, Phillip Fulmer, was named interim coach while Majors recovered.
Fulmer won the first three games of the season. Majors then returned and lost three of his first five games. Some people felt Majors had returned too quickly, some felt his football philosophy was too conservative, and some felt Fulmer was maneuvering to get the job full time.
University officials decided to replace Majors with Fulmer, offering Majors a job as assistant athletic director. He declined, and negotiated a buyout of more than $500,000 (about $910,000 today) with two years left on his contract. (Fulmer held the head coaching job until 2008, when he, too, was forced out. He is now Tennessee’s athletic director.)
“The University of Tennessee jerked the rug out from under me,” Majors said at the time. “I have a lot of anger and a feeling of betrayal.”
As the newspaper The Tennessean said: “It broke his heart. It also stung his professional pride.”
John Terrill Majors was born on May 21, 1935, in Lynchburg, Tenn., to Shirley and Elizabeth Majors. His father was a well-known high school football coach who became head coach at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn.
As a freshman, Johnny was a T-formation quarterback for a hapless Lynchburg High School team. “We won one game,” he recalled. “We lost the first three by scores of something like 58-0, 55-0 and 65-7.”
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.)
Jackie Sherrill, who was an assistant under Majors at Iowa and Pittsburgh and succeeded him as Pitt’s head coach, said in an interview on Wednesday that Majors’ father had been a major influence on his son’s coaching career.
“He was exposed to what a football coach was, and what it took to be a football coach and a successful coach,” said Sherrill, who added that he spoke to Majors on Sunday night. “And he was certainly exposed to how to treat players.”
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. His death came two days after that of another former Southeastern Conference head coach, Pat Dye, of Auburn, who was also 80 and a fellow Hall of Fame inductee.
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.
Pitt has not won a national championship since then.
After his ill-fated tenure at Tennessee, Majors returned to Pittsburgh to take on another rebuilding job. This time the magic was gone. After the second game of his first season, a 63-21 loss to Virginia Tech, he walked into the media interview room and asked, “Do you have any questions?” When no one spoke up immediately, he asked, “Do you have any answers?”
In his second stint at Pittsburgh, his teams finished 3-8, 3-8, 2-9 and 4-7. In his final season, Pittsburgh lost to Ohio State by 72-0, Miami by 45-0, Syracuse by 55-7 and Notre Dame by 60-6. Majors resigned after that.
“I’d like to coach probably until I couldn’t walk,” he said on stepping down, “if I had enough good teams.”
Majors and his wife of 61 years, Mary Lynn Majors, had a son, John, and a daughter, Mary, who also survive him. “He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River,” his wife told Sports Radio WMNL in Knoxville on Wednesday. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Majors received an unusual honor from a young actor (and former high school and college football player), who considered him his childhood hero. As a tribute, Harvey Lee Yeary, who would become the star of the television shows “The Six-Million Dollar Man” and “The Fall Guy,” adopted the stage name Lee Majors.
Frank Litsky, a longtime Times sportswriter, died in 2018. Alan Blinder contributed reporting.