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One-on-One with Coach Johnny Majors: Part 1

We talked with the football legend about his rise to prominence.

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Melvin, Russ. “Huntland Back Sets Unbelievable Mark.” The Nashville Tennessean 26 Nov. 1951: 17. Print.

Johnny Majors comes from a strong football-based family. His father was his high school coach, Bill (one of four brothers) played at Tennessee (1958-60) and helped beat #1 LSU, Bobby played at Tennessee from 1968-1971 and also played for the Cleveland Browns, Larry was a successful high school coach, and Joe played at Florida State and Alabama in addition to the Houston Oilers.

Like fellow ISU great Troy Davis, Coach Majors was once snubbed from winning the Heisman Trophy (in 1956). However, he made the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and got his number retired at Tennessee in 2012.

In this first of a two-part series, you’ll read Coach Majors’ “story” of his experiences in life from a recent phone interview I did with the former Cyclone head coach.

The following was spoken by Coach Majors. Some portions have been edited for clarity.

I wanted to be a head coach when I was 32 years old, but I had no desire to live north as I was from middle Tennessee. I was born and raised in Lynchburg, Tennessee and the spirits have traveled worldwide, home of Jack Daniels Distillery. I was born up above the square in my grandmother’s house in 1935, and I just had my 82nd birthday Sunday (May 21). So I was born in Lynchburg, grew up there until I moved to a town south of there called Huntland. It’s one word. My dad was a high school coach in all three sports: football, basketball, and baseball.

I was at the University of Tennessee in 1953 as a freshman. They became the No. 2 team in the country. I played one year of pro football, but I got back in time before Christmas. I came from Montréal, which is Canadian League.

Eldred Reaney | 25 Nov, 1956

My last year at UT I made unanimous All-American, and I was second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. I was on the Perry Como Show with the other All-Americans, and the Ed Sullivan Show, those were the only two times I went north my whole life. December ‘56, I went to Canada and the next year went up in the summer and became a student coach, and the coach asked me if I wanted to coach and if so, he’d have a job for me at Tennessee. Bowden Wyatt was the coach.

I became the assistant freshman coach in late fall. Next, I went to Mississippi State for four years and I was at Arkansas for four years, and we won the national championship my first year 11-0. Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones were senior starters on that team. I coached Jimmy as a defensive back and we beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. So, that was my assistant coaching career. Three years in Tennessee, four in Mississippi State, and four in Arkansas.

I was only coaching in the south, and I got a call from Clay Stapleton, the athletic director at Iowa State who had been the head coach the 10 previous years and he wanted to be athletic director. They hired a guy named Smith from Michigan State, I forget his first name, he only stayed a couple-three weeks, maybe a week, and went back to Michigan State as assistant athletic director. They gave the job to Clay.

Stapleton was a graduate of the University of Tennessee and played under General Neyland, he played there in like ‘42. In ‘41 and ‘42 he was in the Army for World War II and he came back in 1946 to play with the guards. He played under Neyland, and I was signed under Neyland so we had some common background there. I met him one time in the state of Tennessee at the annual coaching clinic where he was a main lecturer and he brought two of his assistants with him.

Iowa State, at that time, people referred to it as a “coaches graveyard” because nobody’s ever had great success. Clay, I’m not sure he had all that money, I know he had one winning season in 10 years. They beat Oklahoma two out of three times. The famous “Dirty 30” in 1959 or ‘60, they beat Oklahoma too I’m pretty sure, but they didn’t have that many winning seasons — maybe one or two. Stapleton was a good coach, he was a respected man, and a man of character and unique diligence. And he called me to be interviewed, which was a smart thing.

In December 1967, we were all there being interviewed. I think I was the last one to do it. I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want to live up north. Colder weather, I wasn’t familiar with the territory, and I was hoping to get a job in the Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In the Southwest Conference, Texas was the most dominating team they had. We beat Texas three out of four times when I was at Arkansas. I was at a coaching clinic, Broyles’, tell you what he’s one of the greatest coaches of all time. He was a Georgia Tech graduate and he played for Coach Bobby Dodd, who was a Tennessee graduate. I coached about five years with Robert Neyland, coach of Tennessee, and Frank Broyles who was under Dodd at Georgia Tech. Bobby and those hall of fame coaches, hall of fame players at Tennessee and Dodd were playing once at Georgia Tech. 6-0 down in Atlanta, they were No. 2 we were No. 3 and we won 6-0. I called the plays and was one of the top assistants, went 8-3 then 5-6, and it was all a great learning experience.

Coach Majors inherited a program that encountered a mid-decade downturn (10-26-4). Long gone were the days of the Dirty 30, and long gone was the week of being ranked in the AP Top 25. If it weren’t for Coach Majors, Iowa State likely wouldn’t have seen the rise to national prominence that occurred in the 1970s. Thanks to Coach Majors, the Cyclones were ranked as high as No. 12 nationally in his fifth season. Majors was only in Ames for five seasons, however, he made a great turnaround and led the Cyclones to a 24-30-1 record and two bowl appearances during that time.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our talk with Coach Majors.