HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Johnny Majors wasn’t biting. At least not directly.
Never mind that Phillip Fulmer, who some believe betrayed Majors 16 years ago when he succeeded his boss as Tennessee head football coach, is fighting for his coaching life with a 1-3 season record.
Never mind that Majors was ousted midway through the autumn of 1992 despite winning 53 games in his final six seasons. (Just for the record, Fulmer won 52 games in the six seasons before this one.)
So while Majors certainly had his opportunity to bash Fulmer as he spoke to the Huntsville Quarterback Club on Tuesday night, he only once mentioned his former offensive coordinator by name.
Even then, he said only, “I wouldn’t put myself in comparison with Phillip Fulmer on anything. I’m above that.”
That was pretty much right after he declared, “What’s happening there now I’m not going to get into.”
And he mostly didn’t. He talked about his childhood up the road in Lynchburg, Tenn. He talked about his football coach father, Shirley, and his grand mother, Elizabeth. He talked about the national championship he won at Pittsburgh and being the youngest head coach in the country when he took the Iowa State job in the mid-1960s at the age of 32.
He told the crowd of 200 or so that Tony Dorsett, his Heisman Trophy running back at Pittsburgh, was the best four-year player he ever coached and that former UT quarterback Tony Robinson was “the most outstanding talent I ever coached at quarterback.”
Majors even talked about losing the 1956 Heisman Trophy to Paul Hornung by the narrowest margin (at that time) in history, a defeat that stung many Big Orange fans for the simple reason that Notre Dame — where Hornung starred — finished 2-8 while UT went 10-0.
“Back in 1979, when Notre Dame came to Knoxville,” Majors said, “Paul was doing radio and television work for the Irish and he wanted to interview me for a segment. At the end of interview he said he wanted me to say something to all the thousands of people who thought I should have won the Heisman instead of him.
“I said, ‘No, Paul, I thought Jim Brown (who finished fourth) should have won it.’”
But every now and then Tuesday night, Majors brought up his 16 years in Knoxville, where he again resides.
“We moved back 13 months ago,” he said. “Moved back to the same neighborhood. In fact, we moved right across the street from where we lived before.”
But it’s what happened before that can still make Majors boil.
“You mean the season of my ignominious demise?” Majors said with a grin. “The season when, while I was recovering from my heart surgery, a few people whom I won’t name were operating on my back.”
We repeat, of course, that what’s happening there now he’s not getting into.
“I’m not going to say what I hear,” Majors said. “I’m not going to get into that. I have nothing to offer. I’m not in a supervisory position. But they (Fulmer’s staff) had success early because of the program we left them.”
It’s never that simple. Yes, Fulmer’s first seven seasons (72-14) were far better than his last eight (71-31). But Majors never won more than nine games his last three years, even if he did win back-to-back SEC titles in 1989 and 1990.
Did Fulmer hasten his exit? Probably. But no one knows for sure and Majors’ insistence on returning too quickly from open-heart surgery left him vulnerable.
“That was, by far, the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me in my professional life,” he said. “It was a complete shock. I was promised a new seven-year contract. I was lied to.”
So given all that, and Fulmer’s current struggles, isn’t there anything Majors would like to say about the current Vols coach.
Said the former coach: “Frankly, I think (defensive coordinator) John Chavis has saved his job for 10 years.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...