This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI contributor Lexie Little
An adage holds that no good story exists without conflict. History exists, in many regards, because of good stories and thus, because of conflict. With notable dates surrounding their stories, take a look back at two Tennessee coaches who faced plenty of conflict in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
May 21, 1935
While Jack Daniel’s operations remained dormant in 1935 because of state prohibition laws, which were not repealed until 1938, another Tennessee giant came to life May 21, 1935, in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Halfback, Hall of Famer, and head ball coach Johnny Majors celebrates his 84th birthday this week after many years making Tennessee history, particularly in University of Tennessee athletics.
Majors, a two-time Southeastern Conference MVP and runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy, played at Tennessee from 1953 to 1956, served as a graduate assistant in 1957, coached the backfield in 1958 and 1959, and later served as head coach from 1977 to 1992.
As an All-American halfback, Majors swept into the record books with impressive runs and a penchant for blocking (and throwing) when needed. He ranked in the top 10 with 1,622 rushing yards and earned a 61 percent pass competition rate. His efforts earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame for his role as a player in 1987.
As head coach, Majors led the Vols to SEC championships in 1985, 1989, and 1990. The Vold’ one-loss season in 1989 culminated in a win against Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl before Tennessee snagged a second consecutive conference title in 1990 and a win in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia. Majors also led the 1985 Vol squad to their dominating victory over Miami in the Sugar Bowl.
His tenure ended in 1992 amid speculation that interim coach (and later head coach, now athletic director) Phillip Fulmer conspired with athletic director Doug Dickey and Tennessee Athletics member Bill Johnson to oust Majors following his quintuple-bypass heart procedure, as reported in a Knoxville News Sentinel story. In Majors’ absence, Fulmer had led the Vols to three consecutive wins, and the longtime assistant stood poised to make a run.
When Majors returned to the sideline, the Volunteers climbed to the No. 4 ranking following solid wins against Cincinnati and LSU. The veteran Vol coach seemed better than ever.
Then, chalk filled the loss column, resonating with fans as if it had been scratched with nails.
First, a one-point loss to 1-4 Arkansas stunned the eastern powerhouse. Next, a touchdown from Alabama marked a second-straight loss. The Vols had a subsequent bye to regroup and come out strong. The next game: South Carolina, a match-up notorious for giving men in orange and white fits after a week off. The next game: a loss, 24-23, on a botched two-point conversion.
Goodbye, Majors. Hello, Fulmer.
Fulmer’s first act as head coach was to deny allegations of a coup.
“I want to make it known to all concerned that at no time have I ever demeaned or conspired against John Majors, or given anyone any sort of ultimatum,” Fulmer said in initial statements via the Los Angeles Times. “I was put in the middle of a situation not of my making. I have put my love, my heart and soul into this program, and that is the reason I’m standing here today.”
Majors returned to Pittsburgh where he coached for four seasons in the 1970s and earned a national title with the 12-0 Panthers in 1976. His record proved dismal the second time around, earning only 12 wins in four seasons from 1993 to 1996.
However, Tennessee fans still laud the “Vol for Life” who regularly attends home football games and often finds himself eating a meal among Volunteer faithful at Copper Cellar on Cumberland Avenue.
In 2017, Majors reaffirmed his allegiance to UT despite Fulmer’s appointment as athletic director, a man he purportedly called “Judas Brutus” at a speaking engagement in Arkansas in 2005 as reported by ESPN.
“My allegiance is with the University of Tennessee and the players,” Majors said in an interview for The Tennessean. “I cheer for them no matter what. Who the athletic director is does not affect that in any way.”
Eighty-three years a Vol and counting. Here’s to 84.
May 26, 2006
East Tennessee State University basketball coach and former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes recently drew attention during a heated press conference on May 8 after ETSU stars Jeromy Rodriguez and Mladen Armus both announced they would leave the program following the 2018-19 season.
Both players made their announcements after concussion protocol sidelined them for the College Insiders Tournament. Rodriguez intends to turn pro, and Armus announced intentions to transfer.
Speculation arose when Tri-Cities talk show host Marky Billson said the ETSU sports information department had no knowledge either player would miss the CIT game against Green Bay, leading some fans and insiders to believe the big-man duo remained on the bench because of their intentions to leave the program.
“Questioning concussions is kind of questioning my integrity,” Forbes said. “…I would never put my job in jeopardy, I’d never put the trainer’s job in jeopardy, it’s a three-part deal, and the doctor’s job in jeopardy by coming up with some type of b—s— concussion.”
Forbes’ firm posturing during the interview proved little different from other outspoken basketball coaches like former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, who hired Forbes as an assistant coach on UT’s staff on May 26, 2006.
Forbes coached as a Tennessee assistant for five years after two seasons at Texas A&M where he was praised for his ability to recruit. The two classes he helped bring in during his tenure at A&M both ranked in the top 10 nationally.
“He’s solid and experienced in all areas including recruiting and coaching,” Pearl said of Forbes upon his hire, later saying Forbes “understands the challenges programs face in all aspects of the game” thanks to head coaching experience.
During his first four seasons at Tennessee, the Vols averaged 26 wins per year and made four consecutive NCAA tournaments with three Sweet Sixteen appearances and the program’s first Elite Eighth experience in 2010.
Following his time at Tennessee, Forbes led Northwest Florida State to a 61-6 record during two seasons before heading to Wichita State where he served as an assistant. During the 2013-14 season, Wichita State won 35-straight games to set an NCAA record before losing to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. ETSU hired Forbes as head coach following the 2014-15 season.
Though he may coach in another part of East Tennessee now, Forbes’ fiery presence remains in the consciences of Vol basketball faithful.