Majors impacted Turchetta’s football career
Tom Turchetta hadn’t seen Johnny Majors in 10 years, but they lived near each other in Tennessee, would talk occasionally and had planned to arrange lunch sooner than later.
Instead, Turchetta received a message last Wednesday from Majors’ wife, Mary Lynn, that the coach had passed away.
His last season was 1996 at Pitt — Turchetta was on the staff, one of his five years with the Panthers — but Majors still led an active life.
“I would touch base with him once every couple months since we all left Pittsburgh, just to see how he was doing and staying in touch,” Turchetta, the former Bishop Guilfoyle standout who captained Miami in 1971. “His schedule was chock full from the minute he got up and until he went to bed.”
Turchetta texted Majors on his birthday (May 21), “and he called me shortly thereafter. He was incredulous that he was 85.”
Majors spent his last night as he often did these last few years — sitting on the deck of his back porch in Knoxville admiring the Tennessee River.
It flowed like his 29-year career that produced a record of 185-137-10 and earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Majors took Iowa State two consecutive bowls games in his first head-coaching stop and went 116-62-8 in 16 seasons at the University of Tennessee, his alma mater, where he was runnerup for the 1956 Heisman Trophy to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung.
In between those stops, however, is when he made his biggest impact, leading Pitt to the 1976 national championship — the Panthers’ ninth such crowning but first since 1937.
The Panthers’ 12-0 run, led by Tony Dorsett, capped Majors’ first Pitt stint at 33-13 before Rocky Top came calling.
“The championship in 1976, he bridged the gap between the Jock Sutherland national championship teams and rebuilt the Pitt program into national contenders,” Turchetta said.
Majors did the same job with the Volunteers, Turchetta said, adding, “Tennessee had fallen on hard times, and he laid the foundation for when Tennessee went into its glory years in the mid-1990s.”
Majors interviewed Turchetta (then at UTEP) for an assistant’s job with the Vols in 1991, and when he got the Pitt job, he kept Turchetta as one of two holders from Paul Hackett’s last Pitt staff.
Turchetta coached with Majors four seasons before Walt Harris took over in 1997.
The second time around for a decorated coach rarely matches the first, and Majors was no different, going 12-32.
“When he came to Pitt in ’72, the rules were different, and they signed like 70-plus players to scholarships,” Turchetta said. “Our number limitations when he came back the second time didn’t allow us to do that.”
Nonetheless, Majors will always be a beloved figure at Pitt.
“When you’re coaching, half the people love you, and half the people don’t,” Turchetta said. “When you’re done coaching, everybody loves you.”
After he retired, Majors remained in Pittsburgh, making appearances with the Golden Panthers and representing the university before moving to Knoxville.
“He always had that twinkle in his eye,” Turchetta said. “At the end of his coaching career, people would ask if he’s still on top of it, and when you talked football with him, the guy knew what he was doing. He was a real tactician.”
Majors was buried Monday in his hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Turchetta plans to attend a public ceremony when it takes place in the coming weeks.
A 30-year college assistant at a half-dozen schools before landing at Pitt, Turchetta was the head coach at two Tennessee high schools before he retired in 2016.
Turchetta, 71, said he learned practice organization from Majors as well as people skills.
“One night we were Altoona for a Golden Panther meeting at the Calvin House, and he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand,” Turchetta said. “Coach Majors took care of me. He was gracious to my family — to my mom and dad. He gave me responsibility and didn’t look over my shoulder. When I needed a reference, he talked to the superintendent down here for 40 minutes about me. I can’t say enough good things about him. I love him dearly. I was a grunt — one of the guys who worked for him. But he always made me feel important.”
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.