Johnny Majors, A Legend of the Game

By Marty Mulé

Johnny Majors unlocked a secret of postseason success in New Orleans: let the players have fun on what is supposed to be a fun experience, and bring them along as a football team to a fine point by kickoff time.

That philosophy worked to perfection in the Sugar Bowl, where Majors coached three teams to three victories, including one for the national championship; another representing the biggest upset in the game's 75 years; and a third signaling one of the Sugar's greatest fourth-quarter rallies.

In those games, Majors' Pitt Panthers defeated Georgia for the 1976 national title; his Tennessee Vols, an eight-and-a-half point underdog, upended the Miami Hurricanes (coached by his former assistant, Jimmy Johnson) in 1986; and surged from two touchdowns behind in the final period to nip Virginia (coached by old friend George Welsh) by a single point in 1991.

It's interesting - and probably extremely satisfying to him - to note that Majors' 2-0 ledger as a Tennessee coach is the best of the five men - including a couple of coaching giants - who brought illustrious Volunteer teams to New Orleans in the last 75 years. Gen. Robert Neyland was 0-2; John Barnhill was 1-0; Bowden Wyatt was 0-1; and Bill Battle 1-0.

The one blotch on Majors' New Orleans resume' is the game he played in, the 1957 Sugar. As a triple-threat tailback at the University of Tennessee, Majors finished second as a senior in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Paul Hornung of Notre Dame. Majors' second-ranked Vols were upset by Baylor, 13-7. It was the third time an undefeated, untied Tennessee team went down to defeat in the Sugar Bowl.

But the Baylor game had lasting influences on Majors. One was his life-long affinity for New Orleans, and the second was his coaching philosophy for bowl games: letting his team have fun at the proper time, and slowly bringing the players along until they were ready to play - at kickoff time.

An avid history buff, Majors says what a lot of world-travelers about the Crescent City. "Fortunately, I have been able to travel all over the world in my lifetime,'' Majors said, "but there's only one New Orleans. There's no place like it. There are a lot of things I love about New Orleans. As far as places I like to visit when I am there, I like Jackson Square and the history of New Orleans, particularly around that (French Quarter) area, and I enjoy Cafe' Du Monde, where they have the beignets. I enjoyed getting on the trolley. When I had a couple of hours I would just get on the trolley and take a little ride with my wife and a couple of friends or some staff members and their wives. I like to ride through the Garden District. It is a very, very charming place in many, many ways.

"I love the culture and I love the food. I have never had a bad meal in New Orleans. I love the history of the place.''

A conventional coach on the field, Majors was a bit unorthodox in preparing for a bowl game. He learned what not to do at the 1957 Sugar Bowl.

"We had a great head coach at Tennessee then. Wyatt was National Coach of the Year when I was a senior, and he is in the (College) Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach,'' Majors said in reliving the experience. "We loved Coach Wyatt. He and his staff were outstanding, and they built a great program.

"He didn't like to fly. We took a train to many of our games, and we took the train to come down to New Orleans. It was a very, very interesting two-day trip, one night on the train and when we got there we were pretty isolated about 45 minutes outside New Orleans. We went into town one night as a team, and that first night we went to see Lilly "Cat Girl'' Christine and then Louis Prima. But that was it, and we wanted to see more of the sights than that. I think that affected my preparations when I was a head coach.

"A lot of coaches didn't understand why (when Majors became a head coach) I gave them free-reign early on trips, but what I did was when we were at a site for six days or so I would let the players have a late curfew the first couple of nights, or maybe no curfew, and tell them, 'Look, if you mess up I am going to put you on a bus with a one-way ticket.' They had a chance to let their hair down and have a good time, and we controlled some of the areas they went to. After a couple of days they'd be ready to get down to business. We let them sleep late and enjoy some night life, then the closer we got to the game we'd cut back and they'd be ready to play. New Orleans is a special place and you have to be able to see what's going on and not just practice football every day.''

That was what Majors did when his Pitt Panthers were paired against the Georgia Bulldogs in 1977 Sugar Bowl. Major had Heisman recipient Tony Dorsett and a team that was ranked No. 1. They had so much free reign, that a joke in the press box, when Pittsburgh held a 21-0 lead, was, "Well, I guess they're drinking Bloody Marys down there now.''

At the end of the game the Panthers were drinking in the scoreboard, which read: Pitt 27, Georgia 3, a score which made Pittsburgh the undisputed No. 1 team in the land.

In a way, that victory completed a circle that began with Majors' first memory of the Sugar Bowl, sitting near the living room radio as an 11-year-old with his father, then a Tennessee high school coach and barber, and listening to the 1947 duel between Charlie Trippi of Georgia and Choo-Choo Justice of North Carolina. Later he recalled hearing the exploits of Texas' Bobby Layne and Alabama's Harry Gilmer.

As much as University of Tennessee football got into Majors' blood, so did the Sugar Bowl. He's left a definite imprint on the game. Not just by his record, but by his influence.

Jimmy Johnson, who coached Miami to a national championship before taking the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl; Jackie Sherrill who succeeded Majors at Pittsburgh, where he brought another Panther team a Sugar Bowl victory; and Larry Lacewell, a top assistant on some of those Arkansas Sugar Bowl squads, were all among his disciples, learning the trade under Majors at his first head coaching stop at Iowa State.

"Larry Lacewell, Jimmy Johnson, Jackie Sherrill were on my first staff up there. Man, they had all the answers.''

Marty Mulé is an award-winning sportswriter who covered national and Southeastern Conference sports, including the Sugar Bowl, in his 33 years at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is now a free-lance writer.


May 30, 2015
MAY 30-31 2015
AAU Volleyball Super Regional

Location: Loyola UniversityThe Allstate Sugar Bowl will sponsor an AAU Girls Volleyball Super Regional for the sixth straight year on May 30-31, 2015. The event will be held at Loyola University and the Hilton Rivercenter. The 2014 tournament featured 70 teams and over 700 young athletes from seven different states playing multiple matches over the two-day event. with the winners in each division earning free entry into the AAU National Championships at the Disney Sports Complex in Orlando. For more information, please visit the Louisiana Volleyball website.

Allstate Sugar Bowl Volleyball
MAY 30-31 2015
Junior Team Race Regatta

Location: Lake PonchartrainThe Sugar Bowl Football Classic has been a part of the national sports scene for over 80 years, welcoming fans from around the country to the city of New Orleans each New Year’s season. However, there is another Sugar Bowl event which has been in existence for just as long, and within its own arena, it’s recognized as one of the premier national yachting events - the Sugar Bowl Regatta.

2015 Regatta Events
Junior Team Race Championship: May 30-31
Great Oaks High School Regatta: November
USODA Optimist Mid-winters: November
High School: December
PHRF, One Design, Race of Champions & Board Boats: December
Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate: December

The Sugar Bowl Regatta has always been one of the premier yachting events in the United States," said Barton Jahncke, Olympic Gold Medal winner and multiple Sugar Bowl Trophy winner. "It has given young sailors, from the Optimist class through high school and intercollegiate levels, the opportunity to learn how to compete at a very high level. The Regatta is extremely well-organized and is held in high regard by national and international competitors alike."

Established in 1934 by the Midwinter Sports Association to be part of a winter carnival of sports offerings in conjunction with the football game, the Sugar Bowl Regatta is the only non-football event that has continued for the entire 81 years of the organization. Track and field (see sidebar) has always been a part of the bowl activities in various forms, but not with the same format as 1934.

The "Race of Champions" (ROC) has been a premier Sugar Bowl Regatta event involving competition among Gulf Yachting Association one-design boats since Davis Wuescher of the host Southern Yacht Club (SYC) captured the first title in 1934. Since that time, the regatta has expanded to its current form that includes many additional classes such as Performance Handicap, Rhodes-19s, Finns, Lightnings, Flying Scots, many Board Boat classes, and several J-Boat fleets. The Sugar Bowl also sponsors the Optimist Mid-winter Championship, the Great Oaks Regatta, and high school and intercollegiate sailing competitions.

The ROC began as a Gulf Yachting Association inter-club competition sailed in the then-popular wooden-hulled gaff-rigged Fish Class. Over the years, boat designs changed and eventually the ROC organizers adopted the Flying Scott, a new fiberglass design that remains the boat of choice today.

As reported in 1949, "Mid-winter visitors have often expressed surprise that yachting and rowing are part of the Sugar Bowl sports carnival. In most parts of the world, these are summer sports, but with New Orleans’ mild winter climate, they are year ’round recreations. The yacht races, conducted by the Southern Yacht Club, America’s second-oldest yachting organization, [and now the New Orleans Yacht Club as well] are staged on the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. To witness events of this type in many cities, it is necessary to travel miles by auto or rail, and then board a yacht in order to reach the race course, but in New Orleans, a few minutes’ drive from the heart of the city brings one to a grandstand seat on the lake front, where races are in plain view to all.

As a staple of the Sugar Bowl’s repertoire, focus was given to the regatta events immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. The 2006 Sugar Bowl Football Classic was moved to Atlanta for the year and through strong efforts and dedication to tradition, the Regatta Committee was able to hold the intercollegiate races on Lake Lanier in the Atlanta-area thanks to the Lake Lanier Sailing Club and the Georgia Tech Sailing Team. The balance of the Regatta was miraculously held on Lake Pontchartrain.

"The regatta has been an integral part of the Sugar Bowl’s activities since its inception in 1934," the organizations chief executive officer Paul Hoolahan said. "It was a very symbolic victory for us to keep the event going even with all of the difficulties resulting from Katrina."

The Sugar Bowl Regatta has featured multiple Olympians, including Gilbert T. Gray, a Southern Yacht Club skipper who captured Olympic Gold in the STAR class in 1932. In 1968, G. Shelby "Buddy" Friedrichs, Jr., with crew Barton Jahneke and Click Schreck brought home the gold from the Mexico City Olympics in the Dragon class. Johnny Lovell, who took silver in the Tornado class in the 2004 Athens Games is quoted as saying, "I think Lake Pontchartrain is one of the most challenging places to sail in the United States. You have a strong north breeze with a steep chop or a light shifty southerly breeze, or both in one race. Also, placement [in the fleet] can change the dynamics of racing on the lake because of the land effects."

The Sugar Bowl Race of Champions trophy has become a nationally-prestigious prize in sailing. The aforementioned Gilbert T. Gray won it in 1941, 1946 and 1947, becoming the first sailor to win it three consecutive times (the regatta was not contested during World War II). That record nearly fell in 1989, however, when John Dane III took top honors from 1986-88 and was poised to win another in 1989. Dane, in addition to all of the talented skippers, had to battle intemperate weather conditions which may have played as much of a role as seamanship in the outcome.

While the Sugar Bowl Regatta can usually boast of the mild New Orleans climate, 1989 will always be remembered as "The Year the Lake Froze Over."

"All I remember about it was how bone-chilling cold it was," recalled Dane. "That experience always made me aware of my clothing every time I go on the water again, even now."

That, in other words, means frequently. Dane has sailed all over the world, and almost two decades after his uncomfortable episode, Dane became America’s oldest Olympian, sailing in the Beijing Games at age 58 in 2008.

Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles with a mean depth of 10-16 feet. "The winds out on the lake are shifty," Dane said. "And because the lake is so shallow, the water conditions can range from flat to rough and choppy, which all forces one to adapt."

With the 1989 sailors battling the challenging weather conditions, Scott Sonnier of Southern Yacht Club, was trailing Bay-Waveland’s Rod Stieffel when he decided to split from the fleet just into the final leg. The move opened Sonnier to the wind and he and his crew of Michael James and Jennifer Lovell went to the lead over the swelling waters, snatching the Sugar Bowl Race of Champions with a score of 5.5 points and denying Dane his record fourth-straight championship.

"While we always have incredible competition out on the water for our event, we also always offer a taste of the great culture and hospitality of the city of New Orleans to all of our visitors," said John David, many-time participant and frequent Regatta Committee Chairman. "I think that combination makes the Sugar Bowl Regatta one of the most enjoyable events of its kind in the world."

Throughout the years of the Sugar Bowl Regatta, one thing has remained the same. Sailors from all over the country relish the opportunity to compete in a challenging New Year’s event in the wonderful city of New Orleans.
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