Johnny Majors, an All-American football player at Tennessee and a championship-winning coach at Pittsburgh and Tennessee, had many Mississippi connections and friends. Among those friends was the late Willie Morris, the beloved Mississippi author who would have been the first to tell you Majors was a “Good Ol’ Boy” and a great storyteller in his own right.
We’ll get to that.
Majors, a College Football Hall of Famer who died Wednesday at age 85, spent four years on the Mississippi State coaching staff in the early 1960s. Indeed, Majors coached the defensive backs on one of the greatest staffs in State history in 1963. Also on head coach Paul Davis’s staff were Bill Dooley, the future College Hall of Fame coach at Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and Ken Donahue, Bear Bryant’s right-hand man at Alabama. (Davis was later one of Pat Dye’s right-hand men at Auburn.)
“A team could win a lot of football games with coaches like that,” says John Correro, who played under Majors at State and then helped him coach on the 1963 staff. That ’63 team did win. State defeated Tennessee, Auburn and LSU and played to a tie with both Florida and Ole Miss. The lone SEC loss was by a single point to an Alabama team that would beat Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. State went on to defeat North Carolina State 16-12 in the Liberty Bowl (then played at Philadelphia). That was Majors’ last game at Mississippi State, made all the more memorable because it was played in sub-zero (minus 22 degrees) weather the inimitable Jack Cristil called “colder than a pawnbroker’s heart.”
Larry Templeton, the future athletic director, was a youngster growing up about 50 yards from Scott Field (and next door to Johnny Majors for those four years.) Says Templeton: “I was just a young’un but I could tell this about Johnny Majors: He was a character from Day One.”
Says Correro, “You could tell even way back then that Majors was going to be a head coach and a big winner.”
Majors was that. His 1976 Pitt team finished 12-0 and won a national championship. His Tennessee teams won three Southeastern Conference championships. He and Donahue, one of the great defensive minds in college football history, reunited for an encore at Tennessee. In 1985, Donahue’s defense held the Vols’ last seven opponents to just four touchdowns. Tennessee mauled one of Jimmy Johnson’s best Miami teams 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl.
Avid college football fans will know a lot of that history about Majors. What many might not know is that Majors was a voracious reader. Among the writers he admired most was Morris, author of “North Toward Home,” “The Courting of Marcus Dupree, and “Good Ol’ Boy,” among many others. In fact, Morris and Majors often wrote to one another in mail correspondence that began with a fan letter from Majors to Morris about his appreciation of the Dupree book.
The two never met until JoAnne Morris, Willie’s wife, invited Majors to Willie’s 60th birthday party in Jackson in 1994. Much to her surprise, Majors, who was living in Pittsburgh at the time, accepted and flew to Jackson for the party of someone he had never met in person.
Trust me: You should have been there. The party began at Hal and Mal’s and moved on to the Morris home in the wee hours. At 4 a.m. (or so), there were four people remaining around the grand piano, Morris, Majors, Fish Michie (keyboard player of the legendary Tangents) and me. Michie was playing, splendidly as always. Morris and Majors were singing. I wish there was a tape.
Says Michie, who now lives in Nashville, “The two of them must have asked me to play ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ about 20 times. So, of course, I did.” Majors and Morris sang along. Journalistic integrity demands this report: Neither sounded remotely like Sinatra.
That was the beginning of a Morris-Majors friendship that lasted until Morris died in 1999. In fact, Majors was again at Willie’s on the night of Sept. 8, 1998. So was I. We all watched on TV as Mark McGwire launched the home run that broke Roger Maris’s Major League single season home run record. As the muscled McGwire stepped into the batter’s box, filling the four-by-six rectangle as few have before or since, Majors told us, “Man, what a tight end that guy would have been.”
And when McGwire launched the next pitch for a line-drive home run that left the park in a nanosecond, both Morris and Majors came flying out of their chairs.” It was, as they say, a moment.
The last time I saw Majors was in December at a meeting of the Starkville Quarterback Club. I was speaking that night and Majors was in the audience – a weird juxtaposition not lost on me. I began by introducing Johnny and telling the crowd they’d have a whole lot more fun if Majors and I traded places.
Later on, over beverages, Majors held court and proved just how right I had been.