By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County football players Clark Duncan and Doug Cooper saw Tennessee Volunteers legend Johnny Majors from decidedly different vantage points, but both admired the view.
Duncan (class of ’77) was in the first recruiting class at Tennessee of Majors, who died at the age of 85 last week. In fact, Majors called Duncan the night before his Tony Dorsett-led Pittsburgh Panthers ran all over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, 27-3, to win the national championship.
“That was special for me,” Duncan said Sunday shortly after attending a private service for Majors. “I knew I was gonna go and assistants had come to the high school and assured me they wanted me to come there. But I needed to hear from the (new) head coach – not that I said that. For him to call me the night before they were playing for a national championship – that was special to hear from him the night before they go win it all.”
Cooper (class of ’72), who went on to be an assistant coach, head coach and athletic director at Unicoi County (1978-2005), first met Majors at coaching clinics in the late ‘70s.
“One time at a clinic he saw Unicoi County on my shirt and he walked up and started talking about the history,” Cooper said. “He mentioned Al Rotella, said, ‘Rotella coached up there, didn’t he?’ I said, ‘Yea, he sure did.’
“When I’d see him down there at coaching clinics and stuff and he found out I was from Erwin, he’d always say, ‘I want to come up there sometime and walk up Rocky Fork. He said, ‘I know that’s a beautiful place and there were a lot of battles in the Civil War fought up there.’ He said, ‘I wanna go up there and walk it and see it sometime.’ … He knew about Jackson-Love Horse Race and all that stuff that happened here in Unicoi County.”
Duncan began starting for Majors at safety during his freshman season. He ended up being on the All-SEC freshman team and was second team All-American (behind Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley). Duncan’s first start came against Memphis State, and he made several big plays, including an interception.
“I do remember Coach Majors seeking me out, actually in front of the team,” Duncan said. “He made reference to a freshman having such a big game and congratulated me in front of the team. So that was huge.
“And then he did come to me after the game and shook my hand and told me he was proud of me. Those were special moments.”
Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy while playing at Pittsburgh for Majors, who finished runner-up to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung for the Heisman in ’56. The Fighting Irish won two games that season, the only season a Heisman winner was on a losing team, and some contend Majors got a rawer deal than Peyton Manning got when he lost to Michigan’s Charles Woodson in ’97.
Cooper’s father was irate when Majors was snubbed, and is said to have never watched another Heisman presentation.
“He swore when Majors lost the Heisman in ’56 to Paul Hornung that he’d never watch it again, and he didn’t,” Cooper said. “He wouldn’t even watch Peyton’s, because he said they were gonna screw him out of it.”
Cooper and Duncan, the head coach at South-Doyle, said they learned a great deal about coaching from Majors, including how to treat people.
“Coach Majors was one of those guys I could pick up the phone and call,” Duncan said. “There were times throughout my career I would call him often, especially when I was at Powell, because that was my early start as a head coach. I’d run across things like, ‘Hey, here’s the situation. How do you handle it?’ …
“I was at a coaching clinic in Gatlinburg – I don’t know how many years ago it’s been – and Coach Majors was speaking, and I honestly didn’t realize until that very moment that what he was saying was what I believed and what I had taught my kids, what I was preaching to my kids for years. It was at that moment I realized how much of an impact he’d had on my life, not just as a person, but as a coach. The greatest thing to me today is knowing after it was over I got to sit down with him and share with him what I heard that day and what it meant to me and how I realized at that moment that his philosophy was my philosophy. I learned so much.
“There were some things I learned from him not to do. I mean that’s just the nature of the beast. But I learned so much on how to treat people and how to coach people and how to build relationships. So for me, it was a defining moment to be able to share with him – regardless of what it meant to him, I know what it meant to me. That was a special time.”
Cooper, who hasn’t missed a Tennessee home game in 49 years, had a friend who was a security guard for Majors and his successor, Phil Fulmer.
“I know one time we were walking out of Stokely Center going up to the practice field and I walked up to him and said, ‘Coach Majors, I really like those new hats,’” Cooper said. “And he said, ‘Well, here, take this one and wear it.’ And I brought it home, put it in plastic and have still got it put up in there.
“My oldest son’s name is Jonathan. I wanted to name him after Johnny Majors, but my wife didn’t want to do that. I took him down to an Orange-White game and we were in line to get a picture signed by him, and the Orange-White game was getting ready to start and we didn’t make it.”
A record spring game crowd made for a long line.
“So my wife and Jon and I were walking off,” Cooper said, “and Coach Majors hollered at me, ‘Coach, is that your son that you’ve been talking to me about?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ And they actually stopped the kickoff of the Orange-White game and he went and got Jonathan. Jon was about five years old. He got a manager to bring a picture and he signed it: From Johnny Majors to John Cooper.
“I said, ‘Coach, I really appreciate it.’ And he said, ‘Well, don’t you wanna take some pictures?’ I was kind of getting embarrassed, but I said, ‘Yea, let’s take some pictures.’ We took two or three pictures, and about the time we stepped off the field they kicked the ball off for the Orange-White Game.”
Duncan chuckles recalling everything from Majors’ demanding, profane practices and historic recall to his stern, steely-eyed greetings.
“I’ve never seen anyone like him,” Duncan said. “I would go to multiple functions, whether it’d be lettermen’s functions, dinners, a reunion for a game, and there was not a time – there’d be several of us standing around him talking, and he would tell you something about you – not just who you were; he knew everybody by name – he knew a specific game and a specific play that he would tell you about. It was amazing.
“I can remember he would always say to me, ‘Clark Duncan, you were a great safety man.’ That’s what he called me, a ‘safety man.’ He said it to me just in talking. And to think he felt that way, because Coach Majors didn’t say something that he didn’t believe. He’s gonna tell you what he thinks. He’s not gonna say stuff just to make you feel good, because there were times he said stuff that didn’t make me feel good on the field, as he did with every player. That he would say that to me was powerful.”
Cooper was at the Sugar Bowl when Majors’ Volunteers routed a powerful Miami team on Jan. 1, 1986.
“The happiest I saw him after a game was the Sugar Bowl after they beat Miami,” said Cooper, who also knew Majors’ defensive coordinator, Ken Donahue, through former Unicoi coach Louis Thompson. “Majors had great coaching staffs at Iowa State and Pittsburgh, too.”
Duncan was always pleased – and entertained – when he heard from Majors.
“When he turned 80, I had texted him,” Duncan said. “I had always called him, but for some reason I texted him, and I did not get a response. So I forgot about it and went on because it wasn’t anything major. But about two months later, my phone rings and it pops up ‘Coach Majors.’ And you’ve gotta know Coach Majors and his tone and the way he spoke to you. I answered the phone and said, ‘Hello, Coach.’ And he said, ‘Clark Duncan. Johnny Majors.’ And it’s just the way he said it, it brings back so many memories just when he says your name. But he called me and said, ‘I’ve turned 80. I refuse to learn how to text, so I’m calling everybody back that’s ever texted me.’ I was about two months out when he got to me. That was hilarious that he would refuse to learn to text. And I called him a few times after that. …
“He did so much for me, not just personally, but professionally. Knowing I could call on him anytime, that was always special that I could do that. He made it clear that his door at his office – it was nothing to go over there and talk to him. I did that several times. To know that he cared about you as a person outside of playing – I think that’s something that I’ve taken from him, too. My door is always open to my former players. I welcome them on campus anytime they want to come. I get phone calls a lot – asking for advice on certain things in their personal lives. That just comes from what I learned from Coach Majors. He was special.”