This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
On June 3, 2020, Tennessee football legend Johnny Majors died at his home in Knoxville. As a tailback at the University of Tennessee, Majors earned the Southeastern Conference Most Valuable Player title twice (1955 and 1956) before earning All-American status in the latter season. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy, coming in second to Paul Hornung the same year.
Majors, however, is perhaps best remembered as a coach. After winning a national championship with a perfect record as head coach at Pittsburgh, he returned to his alma mater as head coach in 1977. He led Tennessee teams to SEC titles in 1985, 1989, and 1990 and earned distinction as SEC Coach of the Year in 1985. His coaching tree remains one of the largest and most successful with former assistants like David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer, Jimmy Johnson, Jon Gruden, and Al Saunders. Thirty-three of his assistants went on to be head coaches at either college or professional levels.
Take a look back at a summer memory of Majors’ teammates and more in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
July 7, 1957
The report from The Knoxville News-Sentinel said one member of the 1956 team had already left for professional play. Johnny Majors reported to Montreal for a short stint in the Canadian League, where he would play for the Alouettes only one season. (He then returned to UT as a graduate assistant and backfield coach). But while Majors adjusted to a new climate, former teammates sweated out the summer at home, sweet home.
“Not even the July sun can stop King Football,” the News-Sentinel reported. “Conditioning exercises for the 1957 National Professional Football League season is already under way for a group of former Tennessee Vols who have returned to Shields-Watkins Stadium to prepare for the pro campaign.”
Vols-turned-pros Jack Stroud (New York Giants), Darris McCord (Detroit Lions), Buddy Cruze (Chicago Bears), and Tennessee legend Doug Atkins (Chicago Bears) took to the bleachers to sweat off “excess poundage in daily workouts” in their old home stands.
Stroud, a tackle, prepared for his fifth season with the champion Giants while Atkins, the “Humboldt giant,” prepped for another season at defensive end for the Bears. At the time, the News-Sentinel reported the 6-foot-8 Atkins weighed in at 270 pounds. His size and agility made him an intense defender, able to bat down passes with ease. Tennessee retired Atkins’ No. 91 jersey in 2005 along with Reggie White’s No. 92 and Peyton Manning’s No.16.
Tennessee would retire Majors’ No. 45 in 2012, the most recent number to be honored. His head coaching record with the Vols stands at 116-62-8. When he missed the first three games of the 1992 season following heart bypass surgery, Phillip Fulmer took over, winning against ranked Georgia and Florida. By season’s end, the top position belonged to Fulmer. But that’s another story.
July 10, 2007
In 2003 and 2004, Tennessee pitching coach Fred Corral elevated the status of Vol hurlers among the ranks of the SEC elite. Consecutive sub-3.90 ERAs gave a boost to Tennessee. In 2003, the Vol pitching staff improved to 31st in the nation with a 3.88 ERA. The next season, they would stand at 13th nationally with an improvement to 3.51.
Corral notably signed Luke Hochevar, an eventual No. 1 overall draft pick in the MLB.
“Coach Corral is the ultimate pitching guy,” Hochevar said. “He takes pitching to the next level and pushes his guys to the best of their abilities. There is no one in the country as good as Chief. He hits every aspect of the game from mechanics to the mental approach and knows how to teach it better than anyone I have ever been around.”
The Oklahoma Sooners took notice and offered Corral a job. He left Tennessee to join the institution that beat the Vols in their only College World Series Championship (1951). Major league teams selected eight of his OU pitchers in the MLB draft, and his coaching helped the Sooners reach the Super Regionals in 2006.
Then, on July 10, 2007, Tennessee head coach Todd Raleigh announced Corral’s return to Rocky Top.
“Coming back to the University of Tennessee is very rewarding, not only for me, by for my entire family as well,” Corral said. “I’m very thankful to Todd Raleigh and UT for giving me the opportunity to be a Vol again.”
Raleigh said the addition to his staff brought a wealth of experience and a skill for development second to none.
Corral would later spend five seasons with SEC East rival Georgia, coaching 12 pitchers to the MLB Draft, before making his way to Mizzou where he has coached since 2018.
July 8, 2016
A different kind of hurler made Tennessee Athletics headlines in 2016. Discus thrower Tavis Bailey earned his spot on Team USA for the Rio Olympics at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. He joined three other Vols on Team USA, four total for the Olympic Games. (Kali Davis-White competed for Team Jamaica).
His 61.57-meter throw earned him the silver. He became the 20th male Tennessee track and field athlete to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. A transfer from Lenoir-Rhyne, Vol basketball head coach Rick Barnes’ alma mater, Bailey competed at Tennessee from 2012 to 2015.
— Tennessee Track & Field/XC (@Vol_Track) July 8, 2016
Bailey came in second in the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Championships to end his cap off his collegiate career. He had placed third in 2014. He would not make the top 12 at Rio.
While the 2020 Olympics have been rescheduled for next year, the SEC has yet to announce dates for virtual SEC Media Days to discuss upcoming seasons much in question. The annual event had been scheduled for July 13-16, but COVID-19 will force the conference to take a virtual approach.