PITTSBURGH – The late Johnny Majors made an impact in the football histories of both Pitt and Tennessee.
When the two squads take the field at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the two programs will be meeting for the first time since 1983 – when Majors led his alma mater against Pitt, the school he had coached to a national championship during the 1976 season.
Majors, who passed away in June 2020, will now be honored by Pitt and Tennessee who jointly decided to name this weekend’s matchup the Johnny Majors Classic.
“We are honored to join the University of Tennessee in celebrating the life of Coach Johnny Majors,” Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke said in a statement last month. “Beyond the victories, Coach Majors made such a huge impact on the lives of his players. That’s his greatest legacy and the University of Pittsburgh is incredibly proud to be part of it. We look forward to being with the Majors family when we visit in September.”
“Honoring Johnny Majors in this way creates another really special and unique element to an already-special season as we celebrate Neyland Stadium’s centennial,” Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Danny White said. “I appreciate Pittsburgh’s partnership on this. It will be a memorable day for the Majors family as well as fans of both schools who appreciate Johnny Majors’ hall of fame legacy.”
A Tennessee native, Majors played tailback for the Volunteers from 1953-56. Majors won back-to-back SEC Most Valuable Player honors in his final two seasons as a player and finished as runner-up in Heisman voting in 1956, leading the Volunteers to a 10-1 record that year. Majors began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee the following season. He held assistant coaching positions at Mississippi State and Arkansas before getting his first head coaching job at Iowa State in 1968, where he remained until coming to Pitt in 1973.
Majors’ arrival had an immediate impact on the Panthers. Local star running back Tony Dorsett from Hopewell High School was part of Majors’ first recruiting class at Pitt and Dorsett quickly became the Panthers’ best player. Majors led the Pitt to its first winning record in a decade and first bowl appearance in 17 years, earning him Coach of the Year honors in 1973. Pitt had posted a 1-10 record the season prior to his hiring, and Majors turned the team into national champions in just four years, as Dorsett amassed over 6,000 yards during his Pitt career, setting an NCAA record.
Dorsett would go on to be the first – and so far, only – Pitt player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1976.
Following the 1976 national championship and another Coach of the Year award, Majors left Pitt to coach at Tennessee. While he wouldn’t win another national title, Majors led the Volunteers to three SEC championships during his 16-year tenure in Knoxville and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Majors returned to Pitt for a second head coaching stint from 1993-96, but couldn’t recapture the glory of his previous stint. The Panthers failed to net a winning record in any of the four seasons during his second tenure at Pitt. Majors retired from coaching following the 1996 season.
Majors’ impact on Pitt is still felt – and seen – to this day. It was Majors who originally chose to change the team colors from navy and old gold to royal blue and mustard yellow – partly so the Panthers’ uniforms would not resemble those of rival Notre Dame, who they played on a yearly basis at the time.
Majors was also responsible for the Pitt script logo, hiring an artist to design the iconic look modeled after the “Ucla” script on UCLA’s helmets. The colors and Pitt script would go on to be worn by Pitt legends, including Dorsett, Dan Marino, Jimbo Covert, Hugh Green and Bill Fralic. The Panthers returned to the navy and old gold color scheme following Majors’ retirement in 1996 and added the infamous “DinoCat” logo at that time. They also began going by “Pittsburgh” instead of Pitt. The school then began using a block letter Pitt logo in 2005, but returned to the script logo in 2016. The royal blue and mustard yellow color scheme was readopted full-time in 2019.
On Tuesday, ESPN reported that Majors’ longtime assistant coach and friend Jackie Sherrill will serve as the Panthers’ honorary captain for Saturday’s contest and will speak to the team before the game. Sherrill and Majors coached together at Arkansas before Sherrill spent eight years as an assistant under Majors at both Iowa State and Pitt. Sherrill was the lead recruiter who helped make Dorsett a Panther. Sherrill succeeded Majors at Pitt, coaching the Panthers from 1977-81. The two remained close and even spoke on the phone the day before Majors died.
“He called me, and we talked for an hour and a half,” Sherrill recounted to ESPN. “He was in great spirits and said he felt good and kept saying, ‘I want to come see you.’ I told him that my grandkids lived in Nashville, and we were supposed to meet up in Nashville later in the month.”
“It’s still hard to believe that he’s gone,” Sherrill continued. “We had so many great moments together. I used to always tease him that I think we only had one cross word in all of the years I worked for him.”
Current Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is thrilled to be honoring one of his predecessors on Saturday. Narduzzi and Majors developed a relationship over the course of Narduzzi’s time in Pittsburgh.
“I love it,” Narduzzi said of his team participating in the Johnny Majors Classic. “I like it the best because I’ve had a relationship with Coach Majors from his time spent here at Pitt, the days he’s been here to visit the university he loved here. Spent a couple flights with him. Spent a lot of time with him at some of the Nike clinics he was heavily involved in through his retirement years.”
“I think it’s a great thing in honor of the Majors family,” Narduzzi said. “We’re excited about that.”
A second edition of the Johnny Majors Classic will be held next year when Pitt and Tennessee meet at Heinz Field on Sept. 10.
Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pitt football and basketball for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey