Remembering Coach John T. Majors

Special to the Elk Valley Times by Dick Farrar, Jr.

 

Editor’s note: On June 3, one of Tennessee’s national treasures, 85-year-old John Terrell Majors, died. He left a storied legacy that included All-American recognition as a University of Tennessee football player and National Coach of the Year honors at the University of Pittsburgh, where he won the 1976 national championship. Majors, a Lynchburg native, counted many from Lincoln County among his dear friends and admirers. One was Dick Farrar Jr., who shares his remembrances of the iconic coach.

 

 

Words about John Majors; A man is what he is, not what men say he is. His character no man can touch. His character is what he is before God. His reputation is what men say he is. That can be damaged...for reputation is time. Character is for eternity.

There were others in Fayetteville-Lincoln County who knew Coach Majors better than I. For instance, Robert J. (Bobby) Parkes (deceased) and James (Skippy) Parkes grew up with Coach Majors. In Lynchburg, to them, he was Johnny. Skippy was five years older than Johnny and played football at Moore County High School for the Majors family patriarch: Coach Shirley Majors.

Bobby and Johnny were close to the same age. Bobby was a star running back for the old Fayetteville Central Tigers. While the Huntland Hornets, where Johnny Majors starred, and the Central High Tigers never played against each other in a regulation game, the two teams did scrimmage one another.

Throughout his life, John’s recall was fantastic. He could recite details about those scrimmages; how he was mauled by those big, strong, Lincoln County boys, and how he went crying to his coach, his father Shirley.

“Daddy, let’s get on the bus and go home before they kill all of us.”

I did not know Johnny during those days. Later, when he was a student-athlete at the University of Tennessee, I came to know of him well before he became a star. My great friend, Chris Patrick, Jr., who later became my brother-in-law, graduated from Central High School and entered the University of Tennessee as a freshman in 1956. Chris was assigned to East Stadium dormitory, Room 201. Room 200 housed Stockton Adkins, Tommy Bronson, and Bill Johnson. Room 202 housed Bob Gleaves and Johnny Majors.”

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Here is Chris’ story:

“Con Massey, a Fayetteville native, and John Majors were friends and Con introduced John and me. As a result, I learned of a vacancy serving tables at the athletic training table and John directed me what to do, who to see, etc. for me to secure the job opportunity. I got the job and served tables the spring quarter of 1956.

“Then in the fall of ‘56, I worked for Lon Carpenter, UT Equipment Manager, until one day we were all playing around, and I, accidentally, broke Lon’s leg. At the end of that quarter, I encountered academic problems and transferred to Middle Tennessee State for the winter and spring quarters of 1957.

‘But in the fall of ‘57, I was allowed to return to UT and was given the opportunity to work for Mickey O’Brien, UT’s legendary athletic trainer, in the athletic training room. John had recommended me to Mr. O’Brien.  I was an athletic trainer in one capacity or another until retirement in June, 2018. I spent 48 years as an active Athletic Trainer/Asst. AD of Sports Medicine. “

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To me and football fans all across the country, Johnny Majors became a household name, especially in the Farrar household. My grandmother, Daisy Hazlett and John Elizabeth Bobo, who later became John’s mother, grew up together as back-door neighbors. My father, Dick, and Shirley Majors were well acquainted and later quail hunted together on multiple occasions.

My personal acquaintance with John came about in 1960 when John became the defensive backfield coach under Coach Wade Walker at Mississippi State University. Mickey Putman (deceased), a Fayetteville native, was a freshman at MSU, and I was a junior and we were roommates. I do not recall which of us suggested it, but we wanted to meet Coach Majors.

Without an appointment, we journeyed to the athletic department and asked to see this UT All-American and new defensive coach, walked into his office, and introduced ourselves. For 30 minutes to an hour, it was like “old home time.” We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and Coach seemed to enjoy it as well. Mickey and I did not realize it at the time, but the three of us had connected.

Before leaving his office, I asked, “Coach, why would you leave such a storied program at UT to come to a place like Mississippi State?” His reply was, “Dickie, I was making $2,500 a year as a graduate assistant at UT. Mississippi State offered me $5,000 per year to come here. Does that answer your question?”

Along with Mary Lynn, John’s beautiful wife, John brought his bird dogs to Starkville. During away games, John would call Mickey and/or me to tend to his bird dogs. During home games, our job was to take care of his youngest brother, Bobby. To entertain Bobby, we would employ him to help us sell cowbells, and he was an excellent salesman.

Once, on an open date weekend, I hitched a ride home with John, Mary Lynn, and Coach Ken Donahue, who was a Knoxville-area native and the defensive coordinator on State’s staff. (Donahue later came to be recognized as a defensive genius when he coached under Paul (Bear) Bryant at Alabama. I can tell you that the stories those two told were not about X’s and O’s. When John drove up to our home on Mimosa Road to let me out, my rib cage was sore from so much laughter.

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A great story as told by John Majors:

The Bob Hope All-America TV Show

“I was flying to New York to be a part of the 1956 All-America Team which Mr. Hope held annually at the time. On the plane with me was Jim Parker, an All-America lineman from Ohio State. Also on the flight was Lou Michaels, an All-America lineman from Kentucky where we had played and beaten Kentucky 20-7 that year.

During the game, as I crossed the goal line, I fumbled the ball and Michaels recovered. Fortunately, the official called it a touchdown, but it was close and a very controversial play.

On the plane, Michaels was seated by the window, me in the middle, Parker on the aisle seat. No sooner than the plane was airborne, Michaels looks at me and says, “It was a fumble.”

I then said, “Lou, the official called it a touchdown.”

“It was a fumble.”

I weighed about 170 pounds. Lou was 250-275, Parker was 275 plus. The conversation escalated and finally Parker said, “John, let’s swap seats. So I moved to the aisle seat, Parker to the middle possibly saving my life.”

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Back to Mississippi State

John left Mississippi State in 1963 to go to the University of Arkansas for some tutelage under Frank Broyles. John’s father Shirley suggested he accept the opportunity to learn from Coach Broyles, a great defensive mind. Interestingly, the Arkansas defensive coaching position opened as a result of Coach Doug Dickey leaving the Arkansas staff to accept the head coaching position at UT in 1964.

John Majors’ coaching chain is long and distinguished. On the Arkansas staff with Coach Majors was Jackie Sherrill, Barry Switzer, and Raymond Berry. Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones were members of the ‘64 Razorback team.

One trait John had was the ability to build loyalty. In 2018, John called and asked if my wife Martha and I would join him and his wife, Mary Lynn for lunch at Miss Bobo’s in Lynchburg. I told him Martha would be unable to attend on the date proposed. He said, “You know Reece Howell? I was going to give him a call. Would you call him for me and bring him along?” Also included was Skippy Parkes.

The occasion: John’s first captain during his first year as head coach at Iowa State was a fellow by the name of George Dimitri. George had flown from Iowa to Knoxville to reunite with his college coach and Coach Majors was introducing George to the South and Jack Daniels country.

On Majors’ staff at Iowa State were, to name a few, Larry Lacewell, Joe Madden, Jackie Sherrill, Joe Avezzano, Jimmy Johnson and Ray Greene.

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On to the University of Pittsburgh: 1973-1976 and 1993-1996

This is where my friendship with John grew as evidenced by files with our frequent letters. I have several years of letters exchanged with him, dating back to the 1970s but particularly between 1993 and 1996. Some of the letters were generic. Some were deeply candid and personal.

Interestingly, while at Pittsburgh, there were rumors that UT had reached out to Coach Majors in late November, 1976, as Coach Bill Battle was stepping down as UT’s head coach after posting a 59-22-2 record from 1970-1976. John tried to turn a deaf ear to the pitch for his services at UT since Pitt was headed to New Orleans to play Vice Dooley’s Georgia Bulldogs for the National Championship.

Reading between the lines from Pitt correspondence, it was obvious that John and Mary Lynn yearned to get back to the mountains of East Tennessee and the hills of Middle Tennessee. Thus, on December 1, 1976 three days prior to the press conference announcing Coach Majors would become UT’s head football coach beginning with the 1977 season, I wrote the following letter. Note, I addressed it to the athletic department at the University of Tennessee, not Pittsburgh. My gut feeling was that John had already accepted the UT position. Tennessee Athletic Director Bob Woodruff made the hire public on December 4, 1976.

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December 1, 1976

Coach John Majors

University of Tennessee

Athletic Department

Knoxville, Tennessee 37901

Dear John:

Let me be first in line to offer my congratulations to you for whatever decision you make. Hopefully, your decision is to come home, but having now built a #1 nest at PITT, it may be difficult to leave. We’ve been thinking for a long, long time you and Mary Lynn need to be back closer to home so we’re happy you finally got the opportunity. You should have had it seven years ago.

John, there are going to be many people pulling at your coat sleeve wanting attention or to drop a name. Me, for one, just this once and never again unless you ask. I’d like to drop one name for your consideration. You can think about it or forget it. The name is Chris Patrick, trainer at the University of Florida. If you contemplate naming your own trainer, I’m sure Chris, like you, would like to come home. Chris’ wife is from Kentucky and they have two adopted children, ages 5 and 3.

Chris has never forgotten your getting him into the athletic training field to begin with when you got him a job of managing at UT. He has been most appreciative. If and when you have time to sit down and think through your staff (if I am not premature) and you decide to consider Chris, fine. If not, you certainly will not have lost me or Chris as friends – we’re behind you 110%. By the way, I will not, nor have not mentioned this to Chris.

John, good luck to you with all of your endeavors, especially at New Orleans. Beat hell out of Georgia! You deserve #1.

Sincerely,

Dick Farrar, Jr.

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On January 11, 1977, I received a reply to my December 1st letter:

January 11, 1977

Mr. Dick Farrar, Jr.

Petersburg Highway

Fayetteville, Tenn. 37334

Dear Dick:

I appreciate your letter of December 1 and I apologize for not having answered much sooner, I am sure you realize that I have been extremely busy for the past several weeks. I have only just now returned to Knoxville.

Chris Patrick is an excellent trainer and a fine person and I appreciate your mentioning him to me. I am seriously considering bringing Tim Kerin, my trainer at Pittsburgh, with me to Tennessee. If this does not materialize, I would certainly be interested in talking with Chris.

Thank you for your letter and I shall look forward to seeing you in the near future.

Sincerely,

John Majors

Head Football Coach

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John’s tenure at UT is well chronicled. Only once did we discuss his unfortunate dismissal at UT. “I love UT, as a player, graduate assistant, and head coach. My blood will always run UT orange. However, there are seven individuals connected with or who were connected with … (UT) that I will never have any use for. Let’s just let it go at that.”

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Back to Pitt and beyond

Returning to Pittsburgh was bittersweet for John. I think it helped to keep his pride intact. But between 1977 and1992, the NCAA had tightened the recruiting rules, the nature of the offenses and defenses had changed, and perhaps, as mightily as he tried, his heart was broken due to the UT fiasco, and he no longer had the hunger for or the competitiveness for the game he once had.

Moving back to Knoxville in 2007 from Pittsburgh, our time together became what I might characterize as frequently infrequent.

Perhaps two to three times a year in Sewanee, Lynchburg, Fayetteville, Nashville, or Huntland, we would get together. He would call and say, “I’ll be in Lynchburg on such and such a date. Call (and he would name several of his Fayetteville friends) and invite them to what’s that place off the square? Cahoots...and I’ll buy lunch.”

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My best Majors story was when I invited him to speak at a Rotary meeting and unbeknownst to him, we ambushed him with a roast. He was totally surprised. Larry Taft served as Master of Ceremonies and here is his remembrance of the roast.

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“The roast was the brainchild of Mr. Farrar, and I had serious doubts about whether it could be pulled off. But, I was wrong

“When Coach Majors arrived and entered the room where the crowd was waiting, he saw people he’d grown up with from Lynchburg and Huntland as well as people from the media and others who he had known for years. His immediate reaction was that we had gone to great lengths to reunite him with longtime friends. He did know what was lay ahead.

“But he soon realized that the joke was on him, and he couldn’t have enjoyed it more as one person after another took the podium and spun a yarn about him.

“Of course, he enjoyed tossing a few good-natured barbs around when he had the podium, but it was evident that he was in his element. No matter how much success he attained, it was clear he appreciated his upbringing and never pulled away from his deep roots in southern Middle Tennessee.”

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It was July, 2018 and John and Mary Lynn were spending July 4th at the Majors’ home in Sewanee. John called to say he would like to come through Fayetteville and pick up Skip Parkes and me to take him on a guided tour of the area football fields on which he played during his days at Lynchburg and Huntland.

He wanted a circuit ride around the lower Middle Tennessee area to Petersburg, Cornersville, Chapel Hill, Ardmore, Elkton, Lynnville, Richland, Belfast, and of course, he wanted to see Falcon Field and Roy Clark Fieldhouse where he had visited with coaches Billy Joe Evans, John Meadows, and Louis Thompson on recruiting occasions.

The highlight of the circuit was a lunch stop in Lynnville at Big Johnny’s Burgers and Colonel Littleton’s Gift Shop. It was obvious Coach Majors had not lost his “rock star” attractiveness as townspeople stopped him for autographs and pictures.

At every town stop, whether it was Petersburg, Chapel Hill, wherever, John could tell you the score of every game he played in, the score at halftime, quote down and distance. As stated, his recall was unreal. Not only about football, but he knew World War II history “downs and distances” as well. Skip and I enjoyed the day spent with Mary Lynn and John. It did not make any difference that the playing fields from 1949 through 1952 had been converted to a cow pasture or community center. “Old Sunshine”, as Mary Lynn nicknamed him at Iowa State, was in his glory reminiscing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention John’s friendship with, in addition to Skip Parkes, Bill Wise, Charles Harmening, and Bob Simmons. Bill, Bob, and John were close over the years. Both were Fayetteville boys and grew up competing against each other in sports.

My last conversation with John was on or about the week of May 11, 2020. I had watched on You Tube John reading a children’s book at a drug store in Knoxville before young children and signing autographs while at the drug store.

I called late that evening teasing him about his public speaking ability. I told him we often called Bob Woodruff, UT Athletic Director who hired John from Pitt, the blocked punt of public speaking. I said, “John, you are the blocked quick kick of public speaking.” John, in his playing days, was a great quick kicker.

With that, I asked, “What’s going on?” He replied, “You won’t believe what I’m doing. I’m sitting on my deck overlooking the beautiful Tennessee River enjoying a gin and tonic and working on my funeral arrangements.”

Of all I remember about Coach John Majors was his delight in telling football stories, his great recall of details, and how he could work a room full of people. He was truly a legend and an institution, and his character and integrity remain unquestionable.

Rest in peace, Coach,

Your friend,

Dick Farrar, Jr.