May 30, 2024

Johnny Majors’ wild first week when Tennessee football hired the coach before signing day

Tennessee football assistant coaches sat in recruits’ living rooms and shrugged their shoulders when asked who the Vols coach would be.

They didn’t know. And there were only 10 days left until signing day.

It was Dec. 1, 1976, and there were reports that former UT star player Johnny Majors would return to his alma mater to coach the Vols. But he was still mulling his future at Pittsburgh, where his Panthers were preparing for the Sugar Bowl to finish off a national title run.

“We can’t tell anybody anything except to stand by,” an unnamed UT assistant told the News Sentinel. “We think we know what the news will be. The prospects think they know too.

“But we’re all just looking at each other and talking about Tennessee football tradition and what a fine place it is to play, no matter who does the coaching.”

Once the suspense ended and Majors officially took the job, there was a wild week of recruiting that took him to raucous high school gyms, front porches across Tennessee, Pitt football practices, the Heisman Trophy ceremony and any pay phone he could find.

As UT prepares to sign its 2024 signing class, let’s look back at how Majors recruited during his first crazy week as the Vols coach in December 1976.

Majors had a week to lock down class
Before 1981, there were two signing days for most conferences, including the SEC.

On the second Saturday in December, recruits could sign a conference letter-of-intent, which restricted them to a particular school in that conference but left their options open if they wanted to choose a school outside of that conference.

So if a recruit designated Tennessee while signing an SEC letter-of-intent, the Vols only had to worry about losing him to a non-SEC school in the late signing day in February, when they made their final choice.

In 2017, the early signing period returned. But now a recruit signs a national letter-of-intent once, and it’s to one school.

Back in 1976, Majors needed to quickly lock down UT’s class by Dec. 11, the SEC signing day, and keep it together until February. But most recruits were mulling other SEC schools, so their December decision would be final.

Time was running out when Majors’ plane landed in Knoxville on Dec. 4.

Majors, a football celebrity, was mobbed on recruiting trail
There was no email in 1976. So Majors, eager to get the full picture of UT’s recruiting, had assistant Robbie Franklin and recruiting coordinator Bill Higdon meet him at the Knoxville airport with files on every prospect.

Majors pored over the players, approving some and declining others.

On Sunday, he met the team and encouraged them to help recruit any high school prospects they encountered. He needed all the help he could get.

But Majors was immediately the Vols’ best salesman.

Majors’ celebrity became evident during a whirlwind three-day recruiting trip across the south, especially in the Volunteer State. The Lynchburg native was the 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up at UT and the national coach of the year at Pitt.

A page from a special section honoring Johnny Majors in the Knoxville News Sentinel the day after he died. The former Tennessee football player and legendary Tennessee coach died on June 3, 2020.
In Hartsville, students skipped class when they heard he was roaming the halls of the high school. Majors popped up in the gym, and the girls basketball practice stopped because players wanted his autograph.

In Humboldt, home of iconic UT player Doug Atkins, someone tipped off the police that Majors was coming to town. They turned on their blue lights and gave him a police escort to a recruit’s home.

In Florence, Alabama, an entire high school office staff lined up to get autographs. After Majors signed one, they returned for four or five more autographs for their friends and family.

But Majors took advantage by commandeering the principal’s phone. He called recruits to confirm visits and called his staff back at campus headquarters to get updates from the road.

There were no cell phones. So assistants would report developments to campus, and that news was relayed to Majors.

He craved information, but it took a network of sources to get it. The only things that slowed down Majors during recruiting were star prospects and available pay phones.

Why a recruit’s mother left the porch light on
On the final night of his three-day trek, Majors called ahead to let a recruit’s mother know when he’d be arriving. She told her next-door neighbor, a Majors fan who had a simple request.

“Just leave the porch light on so I can at least get a glimpse of him,” the neighbor told the recruit’s mother.

When Majors arrived, the recruit’s mother told him the story. So Majors walked next door, rang the doorbell and introduced himself.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Majors,” he said.

It startled the woman. But her surprise turned to elation.

Majors made that kind of impression, but he was running out of time. He and Higdon were on the move from 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day.

They only ate two meals in three days. Majors devoured a can of peanuts at the home of a recruit in Humboldt, and they grabbed snacks on the run.

“We ate two families out of cookies,” Higdon told the News Sentinel in 1976. “One lady gave us a tin of cookies to eat while we were on the plane. Shucks, Johnny and I polished them off in a car on the way to the airport.”

From Heisman Trophy ceremony to recruiting in Maryville
Majors’ first visit was to Maryville linebacker Danny Spradlin, captain of the state title team. He landed that commitment and visited 17 more recruits that first day.

Spradlin didn’t see Majors again until the coach jogged into the football facility on signing day.

Majors had been in New York to accept a national award on behalf of Pitt and to see his star tailback, Tony Dorsett, win the Heisman Trophy. Then he flew to Washington to receive a national coach of the year award.

Then Majors coached Pitt in bowl practice before flying back to Knoxville. In January, the Panthers beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national title.

On signing day, UT inked 16 players, including some that Majors snagged that week. And the Vols added more by the late signing day in February.

Perhaps UT’s biggest victory was that some recruits stalled signing at other schools so they could give Majors a chance. And it paid off.

Lipscomb offensive lineman Jay Williams was leaning toward Alabama. But Majors flipped him to UT, and Williams became a three-year starter.

Kingsport offensive guard Mark Rosenbaum canceled a trip to Kentucky and turned down UCLA to sign with the Vols.

Florida coach Doug Dickey, who previously coached UT, visited Erwin defensive back Clark Duncan to keep him away from the Vols. But a day later, Duncan signed with UT and became a four-year starter.

How Majors rebuilt Vols from that first signing class
It was a solid signing class under the circumstances, and those players helped UT end a five-year bowl drought in 1979. But that first week also set Majors’ frenetic pace for recruiting.

A year later, Majors signed the 1978 class, one of the strongest in school history. Its centerpiece was running back James Berry, who spurned Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma for Majors’ rebuilding project at UT.

Many years after that, James Berry instilled a love for the Vols into his sons – Eric, Evan and Elliot. All three played for UT.

In 2023, safety Eric Berry was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame alongside dozens of Vols, including Majors.

Adam Sparks is the Tennessee football beat reporter. Emailadam.sparks@knoxnews.com. X, formerly known as Twitter@AdamSparks. Support strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.

Get the latest news and insight on SEC football by subscribing to the SEC Unfiltered newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *