The memorials and tributes for legendary Tennessee coach and player, Johnny Majors, continue to pour in after his passing on Wednesday at age 85. Throughout his coaching career via stops at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee, Majors won 185 games, with 116 of them as head coach here in Knoxville.
There is so much that can said about the coach, player, and man who Majors was. I have decided to take a great trip down memory lane and revisit some of Majors’ greatest wins at Tennessee.
Notre Dame, 1979
In his first two seasons at the helm of his alma mater, Majors compiled a record of 9-12-1, as he was in the beginning stages of a program rebuild. By his third season in 1979, fans began to get glimpses of what was to come.
After getting the Vols to No. 17 in the AP Poll, Tennessee suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in program history via a 13-7 homecoming defeat against Rutgers on Nov. 3. The next week, the Vols hosted No. 13 Notre Dame, a program two years removed from a national title. Sitting at 4-3, Majors needed to make a statement.
And, boy, did he answer. Tennessee rolled the Irish, 40-18, giving Majors his first signature win in Knoxville.
As a player, Majors knew about the intensity of The Third Saturday in October, first-hand. In his sixth year with the Vols, Majors found himself 0-5 against Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Not only that, but Alabama rode into Knoxville with the backdrop of the 1982 World’s Fair down the road riding an 11-game winning streak in the series.
It was one of the all-time thrillers in this rivalry, as unranked Tennessee took down No. 2 Alabama, as Majors was carried on his players’ shoulders to midfield where he shook the hand of Bryant. It would be The Bear’s final game against the Vols, as he retired at the end of the season before passing away in early 1983.
By 1985, Majors had established consistency at Tennessee, leading the Vols to six bowl appearances in the previous seven seasons. However, there still remained the next step of getting UT to championship contention. Enter the “Sugar Vols” of ’85, a team which captured Tennessee’s first SEC Championship in 16 years.
There are many classic moments for this season. The first of which came in the second game of the campaign, as the Vols welcomed No. 1 Auburn and running back Bo Jackson to Neyland Stadium. Jackson would rush for nearly 1,800 yards on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy later in the season.
This was not one of his Heisman moments.
Following what would be the only loss of the 1985 season, 17-10 to Florida in Gainesville, Tennessee, made the journey to Birmingham to take on Alabama. Unlike the ’82 game mentioned in this list, by this point, the “tide” had turned in this rivalry. Tennessee had won three straight over Alabama and looked to make it four.
This game was a tight contest, mostly known for Dale Jones’ incredible interception at the line of scrimmage and Bama’s near comeback attempt. It came down to a final field goal attempt by the Tide, but the kick fell short to give the Vols their fourth straight win over Alabama.
Miami, 1986 Sugar Bowl
After capturing the SEC Championship, Tennessee was invited to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl on New Years’ Day against the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes. With a squad consisting of Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin and more, and coached by former Majors’ assistant Jimmy Johnson, this team — like all ‘Canes teams of “The U” era — was stacked.
Miami and its fans expected to have little trouble with the Vols and make its case to the AP and Coaches Poll voters that it deserved to be No. 1 over Oklahoma or Penn State. Things opened well enough for the ‘Canes, as Irvin scored the opening touchdown and Miami led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. However, it was an “Orange Crush” for the rest of the game.
Tennessee scored 35 unanswered points and made the night a living hell for Testaverde, as he was constantly under attack. And running back Jeff Powell, whose name wasn’t even listed in the 1985 program, scorched the Miami defense up and down the Superdome turf.
Tennessee started the 1988 season with an abysmal 0-6 record. After that, the Vols won 10 consecutive games from ’88-’89. One of these wins was over the late Pat Dye’s No. 4 Auburn Tigers. Just like four years prior, Tennessee had an impressive Auburn team to deal with in Neyland Stadium. And just like in ’85, they were dealt with.
In the midst of heavy rain, the Vols thrashed the Tigers’ defense on the ground to the tune of 350 rushing yards. 225 of those came from Reggie Cobb, with a chunk coming on a 79-yard touchdown run. Tennessee held on late to win 21-14.
Arkansas, 1990 Cotton Bowl
Tennessee would end up splitting the SEC Championship with Alabama and Auburn in 1989. With a 10-1 regular season, the Vols were invited to Dallas to take on future SEC foe Arkansas — champions of the Southwest Conference — in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Despite letting the Razorbacks back in it after starting the game up 24-6, Tennessee would make enough plays to come out with a 31-27 win. Chuck Webb rushed for 250 yards on 26 carries, and Carl Pickens made timely plays on defense. Both players were named co-MVPs. This game was an instant classic as Majors led the Vols to their first win of the 1990s.
Despite being in the same conference for decades, Tennessee and Florida would not play annually until 1992 when the SEC split into divisions. From 92-2001, either the Vols or Gators represented the East in the SEC Title Game (which was mostly Florida, yada, yada, yada, whatever). But, prior to splitting in East/West, Tennessee and Florida played a home-home series in 1990-91.
In 1990, it was East Tennessee’s own Steve Spurrier’s first meeting with the Vols as the UF head coach. While Spurrier’s Gators ended up having the edge in the series throughout the decade, the ’90s did not start off well for the Gators when they faced Tennessee, being destroyed 45-3.
Virginia, 1991 Sugar Bowl
The last time Tennessee played in the Sugar Bowl, they faced Virginia is what is really an underrated classic. The Vols’ offense was lethargic and turnover-prone for the majority of the game, trailing 16-3 heading into the fourth quarter. However, that is when quarterback Andy Kelly and running back Tony Thompson started to come alive.
Thompson scored Tennessee’s first touchdown; then Kelly connected with Pickens after a UVA field goal to cut the deficit to 19-17. After forcing another Cavaliers’ FG, Kelly marched the Vols down the field, 79 yards in two minutes. With 31 seconds remaining, Thompson took a handoff and jumped over the UVA defensive line to score the game-winning touchdown to give Majors another Sugar Bowl victory, 23-22.
The Miracle at South Bend, 1991
The last true signature win of Majors’ tenure at Tennessee is arguably his most memorable. No. 13 Tennessee made the trip to South Bend, Ind. to face No. 5 Notre Dame in a rematch of the 1990 thriller between the teams in which the Irish escaped Neyland Stadium with a five-point win. Lou Holtz’s squad had one loss and was still in contention for a national title, while the Vols had suffered setbacks against Florida and Alabama after a 4-0 start.
If you’re a Tennessee fan, you know about what happened. The Irish were on their way to running Tennessee out of town, building a 31-7 lead in the first half. The Vols scratched and clawed their way back into the game, going on a 28-3 run and taking a one-point lead late in the game. However, with Notre Dame set up for a short, 27-yard field goal attempt for the win, the comeback looked to be in vain. But, then, Jeremy Lincoln saved Tennessee’s ass with his own, literally. 35-34 win for the Vols. Miracle complete.
Go rest high on that mountain, coach.