Johnny Majors was a teacher, a listener and a football coach. But, most of all, Majors was a builder. He took struggling programs and left them much better than when he arrived on campus.
His first coaching job took him to Ames, Iowa, in 1968 where he took over an Iowa State program that was coming off consecutive two-win seasons and never had been to a bowl game in its 78-year history. By Majors’ fourth season, the Cyclones won eight games (the most since 1906) and played in the Sun Bowl.
Majors made the jump to the University of Pittsburgh for the 1973 season with the Panthers coming off a 1-10 campaign. Majors led the program to four straight winning seasons and capped it with a 12-0 record and national championship in 1976.
The Tennessee job in 1977 was a little different as the Volunteers were above .500 the year prior (at 6-5) but Majors allowed Tennessee to make the jump. He took the team to seven straight bowls from 1981-1987 and won five of them. The team then went on to win 29 games in a three-year stretch from 1989-91.
To do this kind of building or rebuilding, Majors had to be patient, listen and stay open to suggestions throughout his coaching career, regardless of the success he had attained.
“I never knew too many know-it-alls who really knew it all. A lot of them were egotistical and not nearly as smart as they thought they were,” Majors says. “I was a listener. I wanted to learn. I was smart enough to know I didn’t have all the answers.”
Majors always had one answer for which he was certain: be loyal. No matter the situation and no matter the awkwardness … be loyal to your staff, your players, your program and your head coach.
Before he was winning a national championship or rebuilding big-time programs, Majors started his career as a defensive assistant at Tennessee, Mississippi State and Arkansas. During one of those stops, he says, he had a disagreement with the defensive coordinator about going to a three-defensive-back philosophy (Majors was in favor of it).
Rather than side-stepping the coordinator, Majors says he spoke to him, expressed his views and flat-out told him he was going to approach the head coach about changing the defensive philosophy.
“Being loyal is never talking behind a coach’s back. If you have a disagreement, you talk to him face to face,” Majors explains. “If you work for a head coach, you go in like a man and ask to talk to him privately.”
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This way of handling his business, and handling his assistants, had a lasting effect on the game of college football. Clearly, Majors knew what he was doing, especially when you consider the extensive list of assistants who worked under him and went on to lead their own programs, including Dom Capers, Jon Gruden, Jimmy Johnson, Jackie Sherrill and Dave Wannstedt, among others.
He says it’s being up-front, loyal and dedicated to making programs (and players) better as to why he had such a successful career, which includes 185 wins, nine bowl victories, a national championship and three SEC titles.
“I go back to Ames, Iowa, or Pittsburgh or the University of Tennessee, and the people treat me great,” Majors concludes. “They realized I worked hard and gave credit to good assistant coaches who made me a better coach. I can’t complain about the way I’ve been treated in my entire life, and I’m 82 years old.”
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