Johnny Majors knows heartache. He finished runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy to Paul Hornug, whose Notre Dame team went 2-8.
Majors’ Tennessee alma mater broke his healing heart when it fired him in 1992 – just two years removed from back-to-back SEC titles that were followed by a 9-3 season in 1991.
Majors didn’t specifically say having his No. 45 jersey retired on Saturday at sold-out Neyland Stadium was cathartic, but it was written on his face.
“I’ve been on pretty much of a high and I haven’t been smoking anything or haven’t been drinking anything,” Majors said while Tennessee was leading Florida 14-10 at halftime Saturday night.
The school released an announcement Saturday morning shortly after Majors said the honor was finalized.
It seemed meant to be for Majors, perhaps especially so after College GameDay commentator Lee Corso rushed over to congratulate him following his on-field ceremony. Corso and Majors are each 77 and they were both in Knoxville in 1958 when Florida State beat Bowden Wyatt’s Volunteers, 10-0. Corso was a graduate assistant at Florida State, where Majors brother Joe was a quarterback. Johnny was an assistant at Tennessee, where another Majors sibling, Bill, was playing.
“My mother sat on one side the first half and she sat on the other side the second half,” Majors said. “Bill was a starting tailback. Joe was an alternating quarterback. There’s been a lot happen in Neyland Stadium and a lot of emotional times. Brother against brother, and me coaching one side.”
Majors had four brothers. Bobby also played at Tennessee and Larry played at Sewanee for their father Shirley, who coached Johnny during a 13-year high school career before coaching 21 years at Sewanee.
Majors thought about his father while watching highlights of his career on the JumboTron before the game.
“I had a hard time not choking up,” Majors said. “I mean, I choked, and I almost boo-hooed.”
Majors recalled his first scrimmage at Tennessee. General Robert Neyland, the legendary coach who was 62 and had given up coaching and become the athletic director, was sitting shirtless in the stands wearing Army shorts and shoes with no socks.
“It didn’t make me fat-headed,” Majors said, “but when Neyland yelled ‘Who is No. 15?’ when I made two or three runs, Farmer Johnson said, ‘That’s Majors from Huntland, General.’ Those things went through my mind on the field today.”
Majors rushed to a pay phone to make a collect call to his father after the scrimmage.
“I said, ‘Daddy, they miss tackles in college just like they do in high school and the General wanted to know who I was,” Majors said. “I didn’t think I was good enough. I came from a small school, very small school. I made a lot of touchdowns, but I couldn’t believe people up here would miss me.
“I felt more comfortable at Auburn, but I wanted to go to Tennessee because it was bigger and I was a single-winger.”
Majors led Bowden Wyatt’s Vols to a 10-1 record and SEC title in 1956 when he nearly won the Heisman. He coached Tony Dorsett to a Heisman while winning a national title at Pittsburgh in 1976 before taking over at Tennessee.
“I was concerned about coming back here,” Majors said, “maybe had a little paranoia about … people were expecting too much.”
His first UT team went 4-7. His record after four years was 21-23-1.
“For every bad letter I got,” Majors said, “I probably got, without exaggeration, 50 to 100 that says, ‘Coach, hang in there. We’re with you.’ That was throughout my career.
“They weren’t too happy when we started off 0-5 one year (1988), but the Tennessee people basically were very supportive of me and my family when I was playing and coaching.”
A triple-threat player, Majors enjoyed seeing No. 45 linebacker A.J. Johnson score Saturday out of the single-wing rooted Wildcat, and he enjoyed quarterback Tyler Bray’s pooch kick when the Vols appeared to be going for it on fourth-down.
Who knows, maybe Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who wears orange pants like Majors did, had him in mind when Bray punted down a vacant field. His 41-yarder was downed at the Florida 4-yard line.
“I’ve been talking to Dooley for three years – one thing you need’s a quick kick,” Majors said. “When I came by the office (one day) he said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to show you something that we’ve put it in. It’s a pooch kick. ... He says, ‘Coach, if I quick kicked backed up on second or third down, they’d run me out of the stadium.’”
It’s probably fair to describe Dooley as embattled after Saturday’s loss to Florida. He’s 13-15 at UT and 0-11 against ranked teams overall.
Majors wouldn’t bet against the fellow son of a coach. He matched wits with Vince Dooley for more than a decade when Dooley was at Georgia.
Majors was asked if he sees any of Vince in Derek.
“Well, I see some of Vince and Barbara (Derek’s mother) both,” Majors said. “Vince is not the most verbose guy, but when he speaks he speaks well. … Barbara is a very intelligent person, but she doesn’t mind expressing her opinion and she likes to be on radio. She also is very competitve. … I think he’s got some of the best characteristics and traits from both of them.”
Majors kept returning to thoughts of his parents Saturday.
“I had the greatest coaching that a player could have with my father,” Majors said, “from the time I was born and played for him in high school. … I had no reason to ever not be as good as I could be.
“I’m a very lucky man and I had a hard time today. I did some smiling when I saw my highlight films up there. It kind of makes me feel like I was halfway decent, you know, and thinking about the good days, the blocking I had and being able to play and have fun. … This is one of the most emotional days of my life.”