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Legendary Tennessee coach and player Johnny Majors reflects on his first game during an interview on July 24, 2018.

Knoxville News Sentinel

Johnny Majors, a legendary coach for the Tennessee football team and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, has died. He was 85.

“It’s with a sad heart that we make this announcement,” Mary Lynn Majors, his wife of 61 years, said in a statement shared with Knox News. “John passed away this morning. He spent his last hours doing something he dearly loved: looking out over his cherished Tennessee River.”

Majors guided Pittsburgh to a national championship and undefeated season in 1976 before becoming Tennessee’s coach. In 16 seasons at Tennessee from 1977-92, Majors compiled a 116-62-8 record.

“I think Johnny Majors’ name is synonymous with Tennessee football,” said longtime WNML sports talk host Jimmy Hyams, who covered Majors’ coaching career while he was a sportswriter at The News Sentinel.

Majors compiled a 185-137-10 record in 29 seasons as a head coach at Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

A native of Lynchburg, Tennessee, Majors began his playing career with the Vols in 1953, joining the team as a single-wing tailback. He was named the SEC Player of the Year in 1955 and 1956.  

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Majors rushed for 549 yards and seven touchdowns and passed for 552 yards and five touchdowns in 1956, leading Tennessee to a 10-1 season and an SEC championship. He finished as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, losing out to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung. 

He was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987.

Majors got his first head coaching gig in 1968, hired on by Iowa State. In four years at the helm, he led the Cyclones to a 24-30-1 record. 

In 1973, he left to become coach at Pittsburgh and won a national championship in 1976 with a perfect 12-0 record. He received national coach of the year honors following that season. Majors then returned to Knoxville as Tennessee’s head coach. 

“When they got him to come back off of a national championship at Pittsburgh … it was certainly one of the great, triumphant moments in Tennessee football,” said former News Sentinel sportswriter Mike Strange, who covered much of Majors’ coaching tenure at UT.

During his 16 seasons at UT, Majors led the Vols to three SEC championships (1985, 1989, 1990). He also won the Sugar Bowl in 1986 and 1991. 

“Dynamic on the field. Fierce on the sidelines. Distinguished Tennessean,” the Tennessee football program tweeted in a statement. “We mourn the loss of legendary player and coach Johnny Majors – a man who left an indelible mark on Tennessee Football.”

Majors was forced out as coach in 1992 and replaced by Phillip Fulmer, his former assistant. Majors then he returned to Pittsburgh for four seasons. After retiring from coaching in 1996, he served as the assistant athletics director and chancellor at Pittsburgh until 2007. 

He was inducted into the Pittsburgh Athletics Hall of Fame.

“He led us to our greatest glory and changed Pitt forever,” the Pittsburgh football program said in a statement on Twitter. “Thank you, Coach. Rest in peace.”

Born in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Majors played in high school for his father, Shirley, at Huntland High in Franklin County, Tennessee. After going 1-9 in Majors’ freshman year of high school, Huntland won 70 of its next 71 games — most with Majors or one of his three brothers leading the way.

Majors lived in Knoxville with his wife, Mary Lynn. For years during his retirement, Majors teamed with sportswriter Jay Searcy to organize lunch gatherings, where they’d bring in guest speakers to discuss a variety of topics, including history, science, the arts, and symphony.

“He was such an interesting man,” Strange said. “He was so interested in so many things. He loved college football, knew everything about it, but he was just interested in so many things – the arts. I saw him at concerts. He loved to travel. He just loved to do so many things. He was a very interesting man to me. I feel certain he led a life well-lived.”

A memorial service at St. John’s Cathedral will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for contributions to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra or a charity.

The News Sentinel’s Allie Clouse and Al Lesar contributed to this story.