FAYETTEVILLE – They remember Johnny Majors in Tennessee as a Vols College Hall of Fame Player and 1956 Heisman Trophy runner-up and Vols head coach going 116-62-8 from 1977 to 1992.
They remember Johnny Majors in Pittsburgh head coaching Pitt’s Tony Dorsett led 1976 Panthers to a 12-0 national championship season.
And some in Arkansas remember Johnny Majors as the defensive backfield coach for Frank Broyles’ 1964 national champion Razorbacks.
Bill Gray certainly does. Gray and Ken Hatfield, a fellow Helena native later Arkansas head coach, were Majors’ starting cornerbacks on that 1964 team.
It was the first of Majors’ four Razorbacks seasons before starting in 1968 at Iowa State a 28-year head coaching career that went to Pittsburgh, Tennessee and back to Pittsburgh.
Majors died Wednesday at 85 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Always a quarterback that included a 5-5 1963 season with Broyles switching back and forth between sophomore Jon Brittenum, Gray, and Fred Marshall, Gray was destined just to be the backup quarterback with Broyles determined to establish Marshall and redshirt Brittenum, the quarterback of Arkansas 10-1 1965 Southwest Conference championship team.
Majors saw it differently. He saw a man playing man to man basketball defense as ideal to play man defense in the secondary.
“Majors was the reason I played defense,” Gray said. “We were in the offseason class before my senior year. Most of us football players in high school played basketball, too. So we’d play basketball before our Fourth Quarter class and he saw me and from that thought I could play man to man defense for him. That’s why he asked for me. So that’s what I did. Majors told me who I would guard each week. The rest of them played zone.”
Gray, player both ways did his quarterbacking part early when Marshall threw two first game interceptions and was injured during the opener before coming on to be an undefeated starter.
“They didn’t feel like he would be ready the second game so I started the second game at quarterback and played defense on passing downs the second and third games,” Gray said. “The fourth game they felt he was ready to go. He didn’t have to be too ready. We shut out the last five before the Cotton Bowl.”
Between a 14-13 victory over Texas and the 10-7 Cotton Bowl victory over Nebraska, Arkansas blanked Wichita State, Texas A&M, Rice, SMU and Texas Tech.
Majors was part of a legendary Arkansas defensive staff headed by the late Jim Mackenzie, the defensive coordinator who died head coaching the Oklahoma Sooners, and the late Arkansas icon Wilson Matthews.
Though by experience the junior partner on that staff, Majors certainly had input. Gray recalled he was a piece of that input against Darrell Royal’s Texas Longhorns.
“They didn’t throw much those days but they’d have one really good receiver like we had Jerry Lamb,” Gray said.
Because of his speed, that’s the receiver Gray typically covered.
“We played Texas and Coach Royal runs the power sweep to the strong side and they split out the weakside receiver,” Gray said. “On Monday when we had our meeting he (Majors) said ‘Bill you go to the tailback side.’ I said, ‘Coach I think you got that wrong. The guy’s split out on the other side.’ He said, ‘No, you go to the tailback side.’ I was a little quicker than Ken and they thought I could get to the corner before that guy could turn up which is exactly what happened. And we stopped their running plays like that.”
What was Majors’ coaching style?
“Johnny’s motor runs real fast,” Gray said. “He’s constant motion. Constant talking. He never slowed down, just go 100 miles an hour. That’s the way he was with us. The bad thing with that he never got tired. He’d about run us to death on defense without realizing we didn’t have much left to go. All of a sudden he’d remember and say, ‘Hey, guys! I’m sorry. Take a break.’ But I loved playing for him. He was just a great guy.”