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Former Pitt Coach Johnny Majors Remembers '76 Championship Season

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Harry Cabluck
/
AP
Then-head football coach for the University of Pittsburgh, Johnny Majors, calls a first down from the sideline during a home game on Nov. 7, 1973.

The University of Pittsburgh's football team is enjoying another winning season so far. The Panthers are third in the last four years. But it wasn’t always this way for Pitt. The program had bottomed out in the early 1970s and the Panthers won just one game and lost 10 in 1972. That was the season before the arrival of legendary coach Johnny Majors who led a dramatic turnaround. By 1976, Pitt went undefeated and won the national championship.

This season, the university is marking the 40th anniversary of that national title, the ninth in the program’s history, and invited the 81-year-old Majors to be an honorary captain for Pitt’s homecoming game versus Georgia Tech.

As he prowled the Panthers’ sideline last Saturday, Majors’ profile was easily recognizable, even from the upper reaches of Heinz Field. It never gets old for Majors, who clearly loves the game and celebrated in the locker room with the Pitt players after Chris Blewitt kicked the game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.

As he made his way from the stadium to the parking lot, Majors could barely walk 20 feet without someone shouting out a greeting or asking him to stop for a selfie. Each time, the old coach obliged.   

“This is a great city and I love the people,” said Majors. “They were so good to me and I come back now and I‘m not like a stranger. People say ‘Hey, Johnny! Hey, coach Majors, how are you?'”

Majors was born and raised in Tennessee and was an All-American halfback at the University of Tennessee where he also won the Southeastern Conference Most Valuable Player award in 1955 and 1956. He famously finished second to Paul Hornung in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in ’56, even though many felt Majors was more deserving of the award that goes to college football’s best player.

So what was it like for a man like Majors, who grew up and worked in small towns in the deep south, to adjust to living in a large northeastern city like Pittsburgh?

“It certainly wasn’t dull,” he said. "I’d never been around mixed ethnicity like this and all the humor and different type of conversations with Polish, Jewish, Irish Catholics and Greeks. And it was just exciting as heck.”

Majors' first look at Pitt’s athletic facilities in December of 1972 did not excite him nearly as much and made him realize that the challenge ahead was even more formidable than he might have imagined.

“The locker room was dank. It was just in bad shape,” he said. “They didn’t have any sign of a weight room. They had one universal machine in the middle of the dressing room floor that three of four people could work on at one time.”

In addition to putting in a request for facilities upgrades, Majors immediately began aggressively recruiting as many talented new players as he could.

“I was young and energetic and I knew how to recruit,” said Majors. “We hit the road hard and we recruited 73 players the first year and it helped turn our program around.”  

But almost as quickly as Majors swooped into the Steel City and took the Pitt football program to new heights, he was gone. After four meteoric years culminating in that national championship, a job offer came that he couldn’t refuse.

“I was offered the (head coaching) job at Tennessee,” said Majors. “I wanted to stay more than I wanted to go back to where I played football and grew up. But it was hard to turn down going back to my alma mater. That was the toughest decision of all time for me.”

Majors would spend the next 16 seasons at Tennessee. He returned to Pittsburgh to coach the Panthers from 1993 until 1996, but was unable to conjure up the same magic, enduring four straight losing seasons before retiring as a head coach.

But now, decades later, Panthers fans fondly remember Majors and the indelible mark he left on the Pitt football program.