Johnny Majors: The Prodigal Vol

Former coach Johnny Majors endured a long exile after he was fired from UT. Now he's back and enjoying his triumph.

The lobby of Fairways and Greens, a driving range tucked next to an industrial park in far West Knoxville, is a little bit like a golf-themed hotel—The Golf Channel is on TV, golf magazines are scattered around tables next to plush leather chairs, there's a small bar over in the corner. I'm waiting for former University of Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors. We've agreed to meet here for an interview an hour before Majors' golf lesson this afternoon. "My chipping has been terrible," he confided on the phone.

Majors is already 10 minutes late when he calls the front desk for directions. Even though he regularly comes here for instruction, he can't ever seem to find the place.

The few minutes before these kinds of meetings are always tense, but the anxiety is amped up this time by my childhood memories of UT football during the Johnny Majors era: listening to the UT/Kentucky game on the radio every fall as I raked leaves with my dad; the triumphant 1985 Sugar Bowl win over Miami; that heartbreaking string of losses to Alabama in the 1980s; the thrilling highs and gut-wrenching lows that marked the star-crossed careers of Tony Robinson, Reggie Cobb, and Chuck Webb. Majors was the first UT football coach I was aware of. His presence dominated my formative years as a fan. I still associate him with autumn and the pageantry of college football.

Beyond that, he's a towering figure in UT football history. He was an All-American tailback in 1956, leading a 10-1 team to an SEC championship and finishing second in a controversial vote for the Heisman Trophy. He's the third-winningest coach at UT behind the legendary Robert Neyland and Phillip Fulmer, Majors' successor, and he won three SEC championships in his 16 years as head coach.

When he finally shows up, about 15 minutes late, I have a hard time recognizing him. He doesn't look at all like I expect him to. Now 74 years old, he's aged since he roamed the sidelines at Neyland Stadium as one of the last gruff, old-school Southern football coaches in the Southeastern Conference. He looks frailer than he did then. His hair is gray now, and thinner. His colorful appearance—a straw hat, sunglasses, a brightly colored striped golf shirt—might be typical for the golf course but it's in stark contrast to the old-fashioned houndstooth jackets he wore during UT games. He even has a day's worth of stubble underneath a thick, white layer of sunscreen. ("My wife says I look like Marcel Marceau, but you have to do it," he says.) But he's still spry, hitting the links a few times a week, and his iron-blue eyes light up, especially when he talks about football.

The staff at the driving range is attentive but deferential. They address him as "Coach"; somebody grabs his golf bag, somebody else offers him a glass of water. He chastely flirts with the receptionist while he changes into his golf spikes.

This is the privilege of celebrity, of emeritus status, and Majors obviously enjoys it. It's a new feeling for him. He left UT clouded by controversy and stung by what he regarded as a bitter betrayal, and he spent the next 16 years in exile. He felt the program—especially his former assistant, Phillip Fulmer, the man who had replaced him—had turned its back on him, so he turned his back on it. After leaving UT he coached at the University of Pittsburgh for four years and stayed there as an administrator for more than a decade after retiring as head coach in 1996. He didn't take part in any official UT events until 2000, when he returned to Neyland Stadium for a ceremony honoring the SEC championship teams from 1985, 1989, and 1990. He reportedly refused to even say the word "Tennessee" for years after he was fired, referring to the state as "that place I used to work."

Since October, though, the old coaches have seen their fortunes reverse. Fulmer has taken Majors' place in the wilderness and Majors has emerged as the revered elder statesman of the program. Fulmer was fired in the middle of a miserable 5-7 season and Majors has seen his public standoff with the athletic department come to an end. Fulmer's replacement, Lane Kiffin, has made room for Majors as an unofficial consultant. When Majors showed up at a football practice at Neyland Stadium in April, it was the UT football equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Majors is in constant motion as we talk—or, more accurately, as he talks. He sits, gets up, paces, sits again in a different seat. For 40 minutes, he details the first two-thirds of his biography. What I want to discuss is his return to the UT family after those long years in exile; what I get is a chronology from Majors' birth in 1935 through his playing days in the 1950s to his early coaching career and finally to the moment he accepted the head coaching job at his alma mater in 1977. He doesn't refuse to answer questions, exactly; he just turns them all into an entry point for his life story. It's not what I want, but it's fitting. The fact that he's here to tell his story is a small triumph. The winners write history, after all, and Majors, to almost everyone's surprise but his own, is still standing.

WHEN MAJORS TOOK THE head coaching position at UT in 1977, he was one of the most sought-after young coaches in the country. In four years at Pittsburgh, he had turned around a moribund program; he recruited future Heisman winner and NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett in his first year, and won a national championship in 1976.

Majors had expressed interest in the UT job when Doug Dickey left way back in 1969, after two years as head coach at Iowa State. UT hired the 28-year-old Bill Battle, a protege of Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant, instead. But when Battle's fortune turned with two straight five-loss seasons, Majors, fresh off his national title, seemed like the right pick. It wasn't an easy decision for him, though.

"Of all the times to be invited back to Tennessee," Majors says. "That was the hardest move I ever made, coming back to Tennessee. I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh even more than I wanted to come back to Knoxville right then. But I'd always had a desire to come back, and to come back to your alma mater is such an honor. I always would have wondered what it was like to be coach at Tennessee."

Majors had been just as conflicted when he came to UT the first time in 1953. He grew up west of Chattanooga in the small towns of Lynchburg and Huntland, the oldest of six children. His father, Shirley Majors, coached Johnny and his four brothers at Huntland High School. Majors was recruited by several major colleges, but chose Tennessee. He starred for three years—freshmen weren't eligible to play varsity sports back then. During his senior year he earned All-America status and finished second to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung in the Heisman vote.

When he came back to Knoxville in 1977, it wasn't everything he expected. The football facilities, he says, were run down and outdated. He immediately found himself spending far more time than he'd anticipated lobbying the administration and the athletic department for more money and physical improvements. Those came, eventually, but Majors says the effort they required may have made his first few seasons on the field more difficult. He didn't have a winning season until 1979, and his overall record at the end of four years was 21-23-1.

The next decade, however, was one of the great runs in UT history. The team averaged eight wins a year between 1981 and 1991, with two 10-win seasons, three conference championships, three top-10 finishes, and seven bowl wins. But the seed for Majors' departure may have been planted in the ruinous 0-6 start to the 1988 season. The team recovered and eventually finished 5-6—and went on to win back-to-back SEC championships in 1989 and '90—but Majors barely held on to his job during the losing streak. The scars left from that season may have contributed to what happened in 1992.

MAJORS SPENT THE WEEK leading up to the 1992 season opener against the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the hospital after surprise quadruple bypass surgery. Fulmer, who was Majors' offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, led the team to a 5-0 start, with upset wins over Florida and Georgia. When Majors came back, the team lost three straight conference games. Public and political support switched from Majors to Fulmer, and the stage was set for Majors' dismissal at the end of the season. Fulmer went on to his own impressive 16-year tenure as head coach, winning 152 games, two SEC titles, and the 1998 championship before his ouster last fall.

But many people still believe that Fulmer worked behind the scenes to manipulate some of that political support. Majors has never addressed those rumors directly, but he has made cryptic allusions to some mysterious machinations leading to his firing. "I've always appreciated my association with the University of Tennessee, even though I was deceived in the worst way possible by a few individuals," he tells me. "That didn't change the way I feel about UT."

Time healed some of those wounds. Majors retired from Pitt—he'd worked as a special assistant to the athletic director there since 1996—and he his wife, Mary Lynn, moved to a house on the river in South Knoxville with little fanfare in 2007. He stayed out of the fray, for the most part, when Fulmer was fired last fall, but quickly embraced Lane Kiffin and his staff.

Knoxville's not Majors' family home; the peak of his coaching career was the 1976 national championship at Pitt. But few people's lives are as entwined with the history of UT football as Johnny Majors' is. In between his playing and coaching days here, three of his younger brothers, Bill, Bob, and Larry, played at UT. Bob was also an All-American; Bill was a promising assistant coach when he was killed in a train wreck in 1965.

A new administration at UT, led by Athletic Director Mike Hamilton, helped that healing process. Hamilton, who took over as AD from Doug Dickey in 2003, has recognized the political and PR importance of honoring old coaches; he brought former UT basketball coach Ray Mears back into the fold in the few years before he died in 2007. He made contact with Majors not long after he took the AD job, years before Majors moved back. But Fulmer's departure is what really cleared the way for Majors' return. It's an unofficial relationship, but it seems to benefit both Majors and the football program.

"After being here for two years, things kicked in good about six months ago," he says. "I've been treated very genuinely and honestly by the present administration."

OUR INTERVIEW IS INTERRUPTED for Majors' golf lesson, but a little more than an hour later he calls me on his cellphone as he's driving to a doctor's appointment. I'm a little anxious that he's talking and driving at the same time. He picks up exactly where we left off, in 1977, and goes through all the heavy lifting he went through to get UT on equal footing with other SEC teams.

"I didn't realize the administration had let the facilities go down as much as they had," he says. "But my last five years we had the winingest team in the SEC. We'd been falling behind in facilities and I talked to the administration and we added new locker rooms and a new indoor practice facility. I left the program with the best three teams of my whole career."

He won't make specific predictions for this year's team, but he does expect significant improvement. And he hopes Kiffin gets some patience from the fans. "As far as execution and knowledge, things like turnovers and effort, you'll see some improvements there," he says, maybe taking an indirect swipe at Fulmer's recent teams. "But the first year or two doesn't indicate how good a coach is when you have to rebuild. You can't judge a coach on his first two years."

He worries that he's talked to much about himself. When I drop my professional reserve and tell him I'm glad he's a part of UT football again, he pauses, his voice drops, and he thanks me. "I've certainly enjoyed it, to be a part of the university," he says. "It's a great tradition."