When the news broke Wednesday morning about the death of Hall of Fame coach Johnny Majors maybe no one was more surprised than one of his many protogés, Jackie Sherrill.
“I was kinda shocked,” Sherrill said from his home in central Texas on Wednesday afternoon. “I talked with him Sunday night and we had talked about how good he was feeling.”
Their relationship was a deep one that started in Fayetteville when Majors was an assistant for Frank Broyles from 1964-67, a four-year run were Arkansas was 34-8-1 with a national title in 1964 and a 30-3 stretch before that last season.
Sherrill had come in from Alabama as a graduate assistant after spending a year working for Paul “Bear” Bryant and playing for the Crimson Tide.
Both liked winning. That was a big part of a relationship that launched Sherrill’s career. When Majors departed for Iowa State after that 1967 season he took Sherrill along as a defensive assistant.
“My wife said to me after we got the phone call this morning that, ‘Coach Majors was probably the biggest father figure in your life,'” Sherrill said. “She’s probably right.”
It started when Sherrill was a star high school player in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Majors was an assistant coach at Mississippi State.
“Rabbit Brown was the main guy recruiting me,” Sherrill said (and you just don’t have enough good names like that in coaching anymore). “Coach Majors came down and watched me play a few times but I decided to go to Alabama.”
Majors specialized in turning teams around. He did it everywhere he went and was a key figure on the staff of turning things around with the Razorbacks from 1963 to winning it all the next season.
“He was able to make players do things they really didn’t want to do,” Sherrill said. “Everybody just liked him, he was a true role model and he got players to accomplish things they didn’t know they could do.”
Majors’ first head coaching job was at Iowa State in the old Big 8 and they were terrible. He didn’t do immediate improvements but he got the Hawkeyes to their first (ever) two bowl games in 1971 and 1972.
“The only games that 1971 Iowa State team lost were to Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado,” Sherrill said. “Those were the teams that finished 1-2-3 in the country.”
Then he went to Pittsburgh, taking Sherrill with him as defensive coordinator.
In four years they took the Panthers from 1-10 to an undefeated national championship season before Majors answered the call at his alma mater, Tennessee, and rebuilt a program that had dropped a little back to a national contender.
“That first year at Pitt we took five busloads of players to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for preseason camp,” Sherrill said. “We came back in three buses.”
His best team with the Vols was 1989 … that he capped by hanging on in an epic Cotton Bowl win over Arkansas in a shootout.
For Sherrill, he sounded glad he had that phone conversation with Majors on Sunday night.
“We were laughing and talking about old times,” he said. “He lived in this house overlooking the Tennessee River, he fell asleep there last ight and didn’t wake up.
“He left his mark on a lot of people in a lot of places.”
Majors, 85, was in Fayetteville during spring practice in 2019 and spent most of his time visiting with people but when the coaches lined up the players for their version of the Oklahoma Drill, Majors quit visiting.
He got as close as he could and was watching closely.
Just like old coaches tend to do.