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One-on-One with Coach Johnny Majors: Part 2

The conclusion to our interview with Coach Majors.

Johnny Majors is carried off the field after ISU routed OSU (54-0) and secured its first bowl bid in 1971.

Miss part 1 of our talk with Coach Majors? Head here before reading the rest of this article.

Again, portions of the following have been edited for clarity.

What is your most treasured memory here at Iowa State?

Johnny: I’d say, most memorable would be winning the last game of the season against Oklahoma State in 1971. The head of the Sun Bowl came to see us play and said if we were to beat Oklahoma State the last game of the season in Ames that we would be 8-3. There were only 11 games at that time. At 8-3, we’d get the Sun Bowl bid, Iowa State had never been to a bowl game in its history. And, it was referred to as the “coaches graveyard,” and that’s the biggest, most exciting thing to win that game. We scored on our first play from scrimmage, and we won the toss, and I took the wind. You had a choice in those times to defend the goal with the wind behind your back, if it wasn’t from the north always if you were at Iowa State in the Big 8. So, I decided to defend the goal with the wind behind my back in the first quarter to try to get field position. And we kicked off and they ran the ball back and got it on our 40 yard line on the opening kickoff and I said “Oh hell, maybe I made a mistake kicking the ball.”

The first play from scrimmage, they run up off tackle on us and they made it up on the 10 yard line. We got the ball on our own 45 yard line and the first down, we fake a run off tackle. The quarterback was Ike Harris and we called it a “take off pattern”, lots of people call it the “fly pattern” straight down field, it was a sprint end right in front of our bench and it was a touchdown pass first play from scrimmage. It was either 55 or 59 yards, I think it was 55. We beat them 59 to nothing. I think that’s still the biggest scoring difference in Iowa State history at that time. That solidified our bid to the bowl game and we accepted it, we played LSU in the Sun Bowl and lost that. I believe it was 31 to 15. It was a great, great, feel to get the win down there, one of the most exciting wins.

One of the greatest victories was the first one because as a head coach, you never know if you’re going to win a game or not. We played the University of Buffalo who gave up football for many years after that. In 1970, the first game at (indiscernible) and that was a great thrill as it was one of the biggest places I’ve been my whole life. And then the year after the Sun Bowl, we went to the Liberty Bowl, and during our last home game against Nebraska it was pouring down rain which led to a muddy field. We went 80 yards in the last three and a half minutes and we tied the game 23-23 with 23 seconds to go in the game. And we missed the extra point, it would’ve been one of the greatest victories of Iowa State.

If you could do the 1972 Liberty Bowl again, would you still go for two instead of going for the tie?

Johnny: If it was a conference game, or if it was a conference game to win the title, yeah I would’ve gone for the tie. Since it was Georgia Tech and it was also my last game, I knew I was going to Pittsburgh the next day, I think I would’ve went for two maybe 100% of the time. It was the last game of the year, we’re already in a bowl game.

(Coach has a side story to give now.)

When I went to Iowa State for the interview, I was headed to the airport, the night before my interview, (someone) has been one of my greatest friends my whole life. A manager of this radio station, TV station KRNT on CBS back then in Des Moines. (KRNT is now KCCI.) So they had a theater where they had this guy who had a black top hat and he said “we meet all the coaching candidates like this, we just wanted to party.” So, we had dinner, and they picked me up and Interstate 35 had just opened that week. So we rented a car, and I went to see outside the car and I see black dirt and I go “what am I doing out here?”

So I was the last one interviewed, and they offered me the job that day and I told them I’d think about it and I went back home. I said we need a new locker room for our program, and on my way back - I didn’t want to go back - they brought me to see President Robert Parks. I walked into his office and he says “I know you coached at Arkansas for Frank Broyles and I know you played at Tennessee, so where are you from?” I said I’m from Lynchburg, Tennessee sir. He said “you ever know a man named Shirley Majors?” I says, yes, that’s my father and he says “I played high school basketball against him in Tennessee.”

He was from Mulberry which is halfway between Lynchburg and Fayetteville it’s right on near the county line. He went to Fayetteville High School. And my dad has two great friends and teammates from Mulberry, my dad played at Lynchburg. Parks asked me who my mother was and I said Elizabeth Bobo and he says that he remembers an Elizabeth Bobo but I didn’t know she was your mother and Shirley was your dad. She lived on the corner right next to the county square and she had a sister named Francis, man did it put me in an embarrassing situation to waste this man’s/university's money I told him they offered me $20,000 and a $3,500 pd contract and another $1,500. So my total was around $25,000, and I said I need to talk to my wife. So I went back and I told her I’m thinking of taking the job and she said that was one of the proudest moments of her life because she heard about Iowa State being the coaches graveyard and that I was taking this tough job, so I went back and I said I want to make $21,000.

So anyway, I took the job. The first few weeks I was visiting people from different parts of the state, and I went down to Des Moines and they say “Why did you come to Ames?” I was also asking myself that same thing. I got more of that question than I did encouragement. I brought in some young coaches, Jimmy Johnson and Jackie Sherrill and we started recruiting right away and we won three games the first year and three the second. Then we went 5-6 and we broke the ice my third year. We went 8-3 in ‘71 and it’s the only time in history that the Big 8 Conference finished the season, after the bowl games, 1, 2, and 3, nationally. Nebraska was 12-0, Oklahoma was 11-1 and they only lost to Nebraska, Colorado was 10-2, and we were 8-3, those were the only three teams we lost to. That was by far the best conference in the country.

What are your thoughts about ISU's competitiveness with regards to facilities and amenities now vs. when you were here?

Johnny: When I started here, players were dressing in the intramural room. They just built this complex across from old state gym. In the classroom that had physical education classes, they had intramural lockers there. Football players dressed with the regular students. When I went back I told them I need a new locker room. They also furnished a new car to each assistant coach, so we had a car program my first year, and we had the locker room started my first year.

We had 27,000-28,000 seats and we sold a lot of tickets. I told them “we need a new stadium,” they had just built a new basketball and wrestling arena that held about 8,000 or so. The theaters on campus were funded with PRIVATE MONEY, private donations and such. So I started telling people that (we needed a new stadium) and they thought I was nuts. But the third year(1970) we played Oklahoma here and we had them down 21 to nothing in the first quarter and they ended up beating us 29-28 in the last three or four minutes. But we filled the stadium, packed it and we’d pack that stadium every week.

They started raising money a couple years before I left there and they used the old stadium one year under Earle Bruce and it was completed before his second year. So I’m the one who started that. We played Oklahoma State the last game of the 1969 season, someone told me we won’t have over 10,000 show up and it was true, about 10,000 of the 28,000 seats were full. But by my third year we sold it out every week. I’m always glad to see Iowa State do well.

(Coach is now reflecting on quality players from his time here.)

George Amundson was a freshman my second year, and David McCurry was an outstanding receiver out of high school in Iowa. So they threw the ball well, and Amundson was very good at the option. And this Joe, he was very smart and very confident, but he says “coach I don’t believe in the option,” and I said “well I do.” And then that week I put in an option play against Missouri. Amundson had about three runs against Missouri. He was a very good passer, he was 6’3” 215 pounds and an outstanding runner, powerful with good open field ability. Also a great athlete, he broke the all time record in the shot put and the discus, that’s how good he was. He was one of my favorites of all time. A great guy with a great sense of humor. I’ve met some great ones like Tony Dorsett, Reggie White, and many, many more, Willie Gault. I had a lot of number one draft choices, seven from Tennessee alone.

I met George Amundson at the spring game, do you have any stories about him that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

Johnny: George had a run of 31 yards for a touchdown, and then he goes 71 yards on a quarterback option keeper. And then Dean Carlson, our other quarterback went twenty yards on the same play. We tore Missouri up, we beat them 31 to 19. Iowa State had not beaten Missouri in twenty years period, and we had not beat them in 31 years down in Columbia, Missouri. And late in the game, with about three minutes to go I told George to “run the clock play” which meant you take the ball go back, and get on one knee. Next thing you know he’s diving over the line and gains a yard or two. I’m yelling from the sideline “George, GEORGE, get on the damn ground!” He sticks his head out of the huddle and says “But coach, it’ll ruin my rushing average.”

It’s funny today, but I wanted to kill him. But, he was so good I couldn’t afford to kill him. He’s got a great sense of humor and a great personality. I said one day at practice “you gotta have fun at practice, gotta have enthusiasm, gotta be vibrant.” We were practicing one day and George sprints out on the sprint out pass, he’s going to his right and the tight end was about eight or ten yards deep going in the same direction to the right. George jumps up in the air, and he lifts his left leg while jumping and he throws the ball under his left leg and completes the pass to Keith Krepfle, a great tight end. And I ask him, George what the hell are you doing man? He responds with my saying of that we have to have fun out here and I couldn’t argue that.

Another time it was raining at practice and we had a little puddle of water where I called the players around and George just slides like you slide into second base if you’re trying to steal. He just slides in it and splatters water all over me. So, I was tough, and I was demanding, aggressive and a disciplinarian. But a little of that (fun) is good for the team. When George splashed this water all over my khaki pants, that’s the kind of guy he is. A terrific person, a great father, three outstanding daughters. I keep up with them, I go back to Iowa State every year, I got to. I love it, I’ll always appreciate it, I’ve never lived in a place with a more fine people. More outstanding citizens than in any part of the country, it’s hard to beat the Midwestern people because of their farm background and their work ethic.

Keith Krepfle, our tight end, played about eleven years with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ike Harris, an outstanding receiver played with the Saints. Matt Blair, an outstanding linebacker played with the Vikings for about 12 or 14 years. It got to the point where we were winning more Iowa players than Iowa did. My teams always played with pride and enthusiasm. We certainly brought pride and enthusiasm to Iowa State and I’m proud to be a part of it, and I had some wonderful people who have supported me greatly. It was an exciting experience to go from nowhere to somewhere very important. Good luck to you.