By David Knox
“My earliest memories are of warmth,” John Majors wrote in “The Heritage of Moore County Tennessee 1871-2004” and he carried his own warm feelings toward his native Lynchburg until his passing from this life on Wednesday, June 3, in Knoxville.
Mr. Majors, 85, was a Lynchburg legend and a football giant, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and a charter member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. But to those in Lynchburg who knew him he was never anything other than a friend.
“It’s with a sad heart that we make this announcement,” Mary Lynn Majors, his wife of 61 years, said in a statement released by the family. “John passed away this morning. He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River.”
Metro Mayor Bonnie Lewis said, “Without a doubt, Lynchburg has lost a favorite son. John loved his hometown and would make contact with as many folks as possible during his visits. He always took time to meet and greet folks and he loved to tell stories.
“Not only did he make his rounds when he visited, he often worried or thought about folks and would occasionally call me to ask about specific people. One time he called me to ask about Judy Terjen’s mother, Mary Avon Motlow Boyd. He said he was thinking about her and he shared a wonderful memory.
“When he was a young boy, his family lived on the corner (where the library is now) and Mary Avon’s house was down the street, across from her daddy’s (Lem Motlow). When her husband would travel with work, she would hire John to come stay with them so they wouldn’t be there alone. He said, ‘That was one of the best jobs I ever had. She paid me 50 cents and I got to sleep in a bed by myself!’ He added, ‘At home I had to sleep in the same bed with my brothers and we shared covers and I often didn’t get my own pillow.’”
Mr. Majors was born May 21, 1935, in Lynchburg, the son of Shirley and Elizabeth Majors. Shirley Majors coached football, first as a high school coach, including Lynchburg High School, and then at the University of the South. All five of his sons played college football: three at the University of Tennessee, one at Florida State, and one at the University of the South.
John Majors started his high school career at Lynchburg, but joined his dad at Huntland a year later – after John beat Shirley’s Huntland team in 1949 — and graduated from there in 1953.
He then enrolled at the University of Tennessee and became an All-American tailback under coach Bowden Wyatt. The 1956 Volunteer team won the Southeastern Conference Championship. That year, Mr. Majors was named the SEC’s Most Valuable Player and made every All-American team. He was runner-up to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung for the Heisman Trophy.
After graduation in 1957, Mr. Majors joined the UT coaching staff as a student coach. In 1960 he served as an assistant coach at Mississippi State University before joining the coaching staff of Frank Broyles at the University of Arkansas in 1964. There he met fellow staff member Doug Dickey. In 1968 he became head coach at Iowa State, where he led the Cyclones to two postseason bowl games and was named Big Eight Coach of the Year in 1971. In 1973 he accepted the head coaching position at the University of Pittsburgh. When he arrived at Pitt, the Panthers had won only one game the previous season. That fall, Mr. Majors produced a 6-5-1 record, followed by a 7-4 record in 1974 and an 8-4 record in 1975. The 1976 team, with Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, won the national championship.
In 1977 Mr. Majors returned to the University of Tennessee as head coach. He first led the Vols to the Astro Bluebonnet Bowl against Purdue in 1979, and thereafter, he and the Vols seldom missed a postseason bowl. At Tennessee he posted 115 SEC victories, a feat which placed him among the top ten all-time SEC coaches for wins, and UT won three SEC championships during his tenure. In 1993 Mr. Majors returned to Pitt and retired from football in 1996.
In 1973 the Football Writers Association and the Walter Camp Foundation honored Mr. Majors as National Coach of the Year, the same year his father, Shirley Majors, won honors as Small College Coach of the Year. In 1976 both the Football Writers Association and the American Football Coaches Association named him National Coach of the Year. Mr. Majors is a charter inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He was selected to the All-SEC team picked by sports writers and broadcasters for the years 1950 through 1974.
Mr. Majors contributed several pages to the Moore County history book, but didn’t write much about his own athletic accomplishments. Mostly, it reflected how fond he was of his hometown.
“My earliest memories are of warmth – warmth of family, the warmth of friends, the warmth of community – in Lynchburg and Moore County,” he began. “Lynchburg was the kind of community where doors were mostly left unlocked twenty-four hours a day and mothers looked after their neighbors’ children as well as their own.”