sports (2006-27)

An exercise in keeping the Big Orange Throne’s seat warm

Phil ’n’ Johnny

by Tony Basilio

As much as both men would like to deny it, Phillip Fulmer and Johnny Majors are eerily linked. The master and the pupil taking their place on Mount Volmore. One left a tremendously successful program to his star pupil/handpicked successor while the other could be leaving a mess. The longer the pupil coaches at UT, the more his tenure mirrors the master’s beginning.

Both guys are Hall-of-Fame-caliber head coaches with a tremendous body of work. Both are members of the elite of their sport, national-championship coaches. Fulmer collected his in ’98 when the Orange Sea parted, while Majors kicked in the door back in ’76 at Pitt going 12-0 behind the smooth moves of Tony Dorsett. Both guys had immediate trouble duplicating their ultimate success.

In Majors’ case and for the sake of fairness, let the record show that Johnny took over a program in ruin. In his first eight years at the helm of the Vols, he was a mediocre 51-42-3. One has to wonder what Pittsburgh would’ve offered the college-football world under King Johnny during this same period. All-America-quality players like Matt Cavanaugh, Hugh Green and Mark May were produced by the Panthers on the heels of Major’s success. This was the true golden era of University of Pittsburgh football. The decade prior to Majors’ arrival at Pittsburgh, the program only produced three All-Americans. During the ’70s with a strong recruiting staff, Majors compiled an impressive nine First Team All-Americans. Three of the first five seasons following Majors’ departure, Pitt finished with final records of 11-1. No doubt about it, he left a program that was vital and robust to his successor, Jackie Sherrill. What would Majors have accomplished if he’d stayed in the Steel City?

Winning it all and staying put doesn’t necessarily guarantee prolonged success. See Phillip Fulmer for more. Since Tennessee ascended to the throne, the Vols have been treading water. This is where the Fulmer/Majors comparison becomes really interesting. For the sake of this juxtaposition, Majors’ final seven years are ’85 through ’91, while Fulmer’s last seven are ’99 through last season. 

Being the perfect number, at least in the Biblical sense, seven is a great starting point when comparing Johnny and his one-time protégé.

Closer inspection makes one marvel at how close these two guys are in performance, approach and results. Fulmer has recorded 61 wins in his last seven seasons to Majors’ 60 wins from ’85-91. Fulmer has won 10 or more games three times to Majors’ two. However, during this period, Majors won three league titles to Fulmer’s zero. Of course, it must be pointed out that Majors didn’t have to run the gauntlet of having to conquer an opponent in the SEC Championship Game. Under the 10-team SEC configuration in which Majors operated while at UT, Fulmer would have at least one SEC Title.

During the magical final seven, Johnny has the upper hand in winning percentage by a clip of .750 to .701. Johnny is better in the league as well by winning at a .704 clip to Fulmer’s .696. Then there’s winning percentage versus Top 25 teams, where Johnny again rules the day with a .538 winning percentage. Fulmer in his last seven years is .455 against top 25 teams. Not exactly a number that will light up the room! Versus Top 10 teams, Johnny threw up a decent .438 to Fulmer’s .316.

At the end of his tenure, Majors was seen by many insiders of the day as a man consumed by his arrogance and irascible nature. Many see a $2 million man in Fulmer in the same light.

In the final seven years of the Majors era, Neyland Stadium was a tough place to play as he recorded a .600 winning percentage versus ranked opponents at home. From ’85 through ’92 Majors appeared in three major bowl games while Fulmer had none. Johnny’s bowl record was 5-1 while Fulmer logged a 2-4 record from ’99 through the present.

Ultimately both men may be bound by overstaying their welcome. Majors was 17 years into his tenure when he was terminated in ’92’s Coup de John. Fulmer is heading into his 14th season, and the clock is ticking amidst the pressure and backdrop of capital projects like the stadium renovation that necessitate success or else. Since Fulmer’s ascension to the Big Orange Throne, Fulmer and Majors barely acknowledge each other. That’s OK, since their accomplishments sing a similar song just the same.

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