KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- John Majors, who coached Pittsburgh to a football national championship in 1976, starred as a player at Tennessee in the 1950s and later returned to his alma mater as coach to lead the Volunteers back to national prominence, died Wednesday morning. He was 85.
Majors went by "John" among his friends and family and was known as "Johnny" as a player and coach. His name will forever be intertwined with the University of Tennessee and the entire state.
"It's with a sad heart that we make this announcement," Mary Lynn Majors, his wife of 61 years, said in a statement released by the family. "John passed away this morning. He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River."
Majors, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987, was the runner-up to Paul Hornung for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. Gen. Robert Neyland once referred to Majors as the "greatest single-wing tailback in Tennessee history."
As a coach, Majors rebuilt programs at Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. He led the Vols to three SEC championships, including their first in 16 years in 1985. Majors returned to Tennessee in 1977, the year after leading Pitt to a national championship, and guided the Volunteers program through the end of the 1992 regular season, when he was forced out as coach.
Charles Davis, an NFL analyst for CBS Sports, played on the 1985 SEC championship team under Majors that beat Miami 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl. He said Majors was a Tennessee treasure.
"Coach Majors is Tennessee and Tennessee is him," Davis said. "I was fortunate to have played for him and to have been on that 1985 team that won the Sugar Bowl and brought us back in a lot of ways. But that was his mission. It's why he came back to Tennessee. He could have stayed at Pitt and kept kicking butt. But the bottom line is that Tennessee was home for him, and all of us who also consider Tennessee home are fortunate that he did come back.
"He made us better in every way."
Majors compiled a 185-137-10 record as a head coach and earned three national coach of the year honors along the way. Majors' coaching tree stacks up with anybody in the college game. He had 33 assistant coaches under him go on to be head coaches at either the college or professional level, including Jimmy Johnson, Jon Gruden, Phillip Fulmer, David Cutcliffe, Jackie Sherrill, Dom Capers, Lovie Smith, Ron Zook, Walt Harris, Kevin Steele and Larry Lacewell.
Majors gave Gruden his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Tennessee.
"He taught life lessons that I still live by today as a husband, father and coach," said Gruden, now the Raiders head coach. "He preached that loyalty and hard work are the staples to your success. The amount of players he touched over several decades is endless."
Cutcliffe, now the head coach at Duke, said he still has some of the notes he would take in staff meetings with Majors while at Tennessee.
"There is no person in coaching who I carry more respect for than Coach Majors. ... He was a man of principle, held the highest of standards for himself and those around him and gave so much to our great game," Cutcliffe said. "The lessons he taught me were so much more than what I gave in return."
Majors, a native of Lynchburg, Tennessee whose father, Shirley, coached at the University of the South, was the epitome of old school in the way he coached and pushed his players and coaches.
"Yes, he was old school, but he was also the guy you wanted with you when the times were the worst," said Keith DeLong, an All-American linebacker at Tennessee under Majors and a first-round NFL draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 1989.
"That 1988 season when we started 0-6, that's when he was at his best. We were young, had a lot of injuries, playing a lot of freshmen, playing a tough schedule and pretty much getting beaten up by a lot of people. He took a lot of heat, but was as solid as a rock. That's something I will never forget and something you take with you the rest of your life as a man, as a husband and as a father."
Majors was famously tough on his assistant coaches and players.
"But I knew that toughness is what it takes to be a successful player or coach," said John Chavis, who earned a scholarship at Tennessee as a walk-on under Majors and served as defensive coordinator at four different SEC schools (Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas).
Added DeLong: "One of the last times I talked to Coach Majors, he said, 'I wasn't too hard on you, was I?' I told him, 'Coach, I'm thankful you were as hard on me as you were. It not only made me a better football player, but made me a better man.'"
Davis joked that he still has nightmares about seeing Majors up in the familiar coaching tower on the Tennessee practice field and barking instructions on his megaphone.
"Sometimes you could understand him and sometimes you couldn't, but you knew when he was pissed when he would slam that megaphone down," Davis said. "And if you ever saw him sprinting down those spiral steps, out of breath when he'd get to the bottom and then come sprinting toward your position group, you knew you and your position coach were in for it."
Majors' head coaching record at Tennessee was 116-62-8, and his resilience was never more apparent than the 1988 season when the Vols lost their first six games. With a restless fan base howling, Majors steered that team to a 5-0 finish, triggering a run that saw the Vols go 34-6-2 over the next three and a half seasons with two SEC titles.
"He was one of those guys with such charisma and character that he could be 0-6 and still rally the whole state," said DeLong, whose father Steve DeLong also played at Tennessee and won the Outland Trophy in 1964. "Not many coaches can command that kind of respect even when they're losing like that. But Coach Majors could, and Tennessee football really took off after that."
Majors missed the first three games of the 1992 season while recovering from heart bypass surgery. Tennessee, with Fulmer serving as coach, started out 3-0 that season with wins over nationally ranked Georgia and Florida. Majors returned for the fourth game, but was forced out as coach and replaced by Fulmer following the end of the regular season. The Vols finished the regular season 8-3 that year.
"He mentored us, pushed us and allowed us to be part of the proud resurgence of Tennessee football," said Fulmer, who is now Tennessee's athletic director. "He touched and changed many lives for the good, and our thoughts are with his family, former players and great fans who are remembering him today.
Following his ouster at Tennessee, Majors returned to Pitt and coached the Panthers to a 12-32 record over four seasons. He retired from coaching in 1996 and served as assistant athletic director at Pitt until 2007.
"He led us to our greatest glory and changed Pitt forever," the Pittsburgh football program posted on Twitter. "Thank you, Coach. Rest in peace."