FAYETTEVILLE -- Johnny Majors picked the right time to become a University of Arkansas football assistant coach.
It took 22 games before he experienced a loss with the Razorbacks.
Arkansas finished 11-0 and won a share of the national championship in 1964 when Majors joined the staff and coached defensive backs for Frank Broyles.
Then the Razorbacks went 10-1 in 1965 with their only loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl.
Majors, who switched from coaching defensive backs to running backs in 1967, helped Arkansas to a 33-8-1 record in four seasons, then had a memorable run as a college head coach.
In 29 seasons at Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee, Majors had a 185-137-10 record with 16 bowl games. He led Pittsburgh to the 1976 national championship, and his Tennessee teams won three SEC titles in 1985, 1989 and 1990.
Majors, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, died Wednesday at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. He was 85.
"He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River," Mary Lynn Majors said of her husband in a statement to Sports Radio WNML.
Despite Majors' relatively short stay at Arkansas, he returned to Fayetteville often and always spoke fondly of Broyles and his time with the Razorbacks.
"I fell into a wonderful situation," Majors said in 2004 when he was in Fayetteville for an Arkansas letterman's reunion. "I learned so much from Frank and the other coaches. It prepared me as well as I could be prepared to become a head coach."
Majors came to Arkansas from Mississippi State, where he coached defensive backs from 1960-63.
"Coach Majors really appreciated working for Coach Broyles," Gary Adams, an All-Southwest Conference cornerback for the Razorbacks from 1966-68, said Wednesday. "Coach Majors told me one time that Coach Broyles offered him $11,500 a year to come to Arkansas.
"Coach Majors said, 'Coach, I appreciate the offer, but that's too much money.' He said at Mississippi State he was only getting $5,500 or something like that. But Coach Broyles said, 'No, that's what I'm going to pay you.' "
Majors said in 2004 that no college head coach treated his assistants better than Broyles.
"He paid us well, and I think Frank was the first one to establish a courtesy car program for his coaches," Majors said. "We had memberships in the country club and we had nice homes."
In 2014, Majors spoke at a banquet honoring Broyles, who was Arkansas' coach from 1957-76 and athletic director from 1973-2007.
"Frank Broyles knew X's and O's, but he expanded your thinking more than any coach that I could imagine," Majors said. "He made you think, had a lot of ideas and was very creative.
"His motivation was outstanding. I remember my wife saying that even the few games we lost, you never felt we had lost them after you saw Frank on television because he was a great motivator."
Ken Hatfield, a star defensive back and punt returner for Arkansas and later the Razorbacks' coach, credited Majors with putting together a strong secondary in 1964 with an unlikely cast.
Hatfield moved from safety to cornerback as a senior, and Majors asked for and got Bill Gray and Harry Jones from the offense.
Gray, who had played quarterback, started at cornerback along with Hatfield. Jones, who returned to offense in 1965 and 1966 as a wingback, was a starting safety in 1964.
"Coach Majors was playing with a guy that was half quarterback and half defensive back in Bill," Hatfield said Wednesday. "He was playing with a guy that on offense couldn't get on the field in Harry. Then he was playing with a safety who got converted to cornerback in me.
"So he had a lot of balls up in the air that year coaching defensive backs, but he made it all work."
Majors praised his revamped secondary in a 2014 interview with Hawgs Illustrated.
"It was a group that maximized their talents as much as any football team I have ever been around in 40 years of coaching," Majors said. "Not a single one of my defensive backs [in 1964] played a down in pro football."
Adams, who came to Arkansas as a quarterback, was another player who made the switch to defense at Majors' urging.
"Coach Majors was very animated as a coach," Adams said. "He was always right in the middle of all the action. He would run around from one player to the other.
"Now, he was hard on you sometimes. If you did something wrong, he'd get in your face. But the next minute he'd be giving you a hug."
Majors was a two-time SEC Player of the Year as a single-wing running back at Tennessee. As a senior in 1956, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung, but at 5-10 and 162 pounds he was considered too small for the NFL.
After playing for the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL in the summer of 1957, Majors began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee.
Iowa State never had played in a bowl game until Majors led the Cyclones to the Sun Bowl in 1971 and Liberty Bowl in 1972.
Majors then left for Pittsburgh, which had suffered 11 consecutive losing seasons.
In the days before the NCAA imposed scholarship limits, Majors brought in 83 recruits and his first Pittsburgh team finished 6-5-1.
Three years later the Panthers went 12-0 and won the 1976 national championship. Running back Tony Dorsett led the team and won the Heisman Trophy.
Beano Cook, Pittsburgh's sports information director at the time who later worked for ESPN, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Majors was "the most beloved Southerner of all time" in Pennsylvania.
"He did for Pitt football what General Marshall did for Europe after World War II," Cook said. "He saved it."
Majors returned to Tennessee in 1977 to revive the struggling Vols. He had a 116-62-8 record in 16 seasons at his alma mater, including a 31-27 victory over the Razorbacks in the 1990 Cotton Bowl in what turned out to be Hatfield's last game as Arkansas' coach before he went to Clemson.
"Coach Majors did a good job everywhere he went," Hatfield said. "He was a football man through and through. He could relate to players, and his players always played hard for him. His record speaks for itself."
Majors missed the first three games of the 1992 season after undergoing heart surgery.
Offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer served as interim coach and led the Vols to a 3-0 record, including victories over Georgia and Florida. Tennessee won Majors' first two games after he returned to coach -- beating Cincinnati and LSU -- but then the Vols lost to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina by a combined nine points.
The 25-24 loss at home to the Razorbacks was the beginning of the end for Majors considering the Vols were 5-0 and ranked No. 4 going into the game and Arkansas was 1-4. Majors was forced to resign after the regular season and was replaced by Fulmer, who is now Tennessee's athletic director.
Over the years, Majors talked often about being stabbed in the back by Fulmer.
Majors had a second stint as Pittsburgh's coach, but the Panthers struggled to a 12-32 record from 1993-96. He resigned as coach and worked as a special assistant to then-Pittsburgh athletic director Jeff Long until 2007. Long then replaced Broyles as the Arkansas athletic director the next year.
In the spring of 2019, Majors returned to Fayetteville one last time for a letterman's reunion, visited an Arkansas practice and talked to the team afterward.
"Coach Majors was a complete coach," Hatfield said. "He recruited well, he coached well, and he knew what he was doing.
"He could motivate you. He had great enthusiasm all the time. I don't think he ever lost that, even in his 80s.
"Whenever you'd see him, there were certain moments and plays that you had with him that he always could recall."
Sports on 06/04/2020