**** DISCLAIMER – I’ve heard several versions of this story. It is likely something similar happened, but not this exact version of events. But as always the legend is far more entertaining than the reality.****
It was October 16, 1976 better known as The Third Saturday in October, and Alabama had come to town. Bear Bryant and the Tide were handing down a ritualistic butt-whupping in Neyland’s Cathedral of football. It was Tennessee coach Bill Battle’s seventh and final season at the helm on Rocky Top, and on this particular afternoon he was on his way to a sixth straight loss to the Crimson Tide. The late Battle years were the first time in a generation that Tennessee football had strung together consecutive lean seasons. Losing to Alabama six years in a row was unconscionable, and the proud fans had had enough. At halftime (so the story goes) the Pride of the Southland band took the field, and included an unusual song in its set-list, the Civil War Ballad When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
When Johnny comes marching home again hoorah! Hoorah!
We’ll give him a hardy welcome then hoorah! Hoorah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.
“Johnny” in this case referred to Tennessee legend Johnny Majors, then the head football coach at Pittsburg. Majors was a standout All-American at Tennessee in the fifties, finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting to notorious gambler and Notre Dame legend Paul Hornung. While the Vols had spent the seventies sputtering, Majors was racking up wins at lowly Iowa State and freezing his Tennessee tail off at Pitt. Majors, with a little help from Tony Dorsett, lead the Pitt Panthers to a national championship in 1976. He walked away from his championship team without hesitation when Tennessee made the call. He didn’t even open the counter offer Pittsburg sent him. Johnny came marching home.
Majors spent the rest of the decade flipping the roster and restoring the culture at his alma mater. From 1981-1992 Major’s Vols went 99-39-5 with three SEC Championships and a pair of Sugar Bowl victories. He stopped the bleeding, seized the controls, and pulled his hometown team out of a death spiral. Without the foundation he built and the success he had rebuilding the program, the dominance of the 1990s could never have happened. He saved Tennessee football.
Tennessee needs a savior again. We are back in the death spiral, and it appears its much worse this time. The fact of the matter is, it’s harder to succeed at little old Tennessee than it is at other traditional powers like Texas, Alabama or USC. Tennessee doesn’t have the instate talent that most of those programs have always benefitted from. It takes a really special coach to come here and have success. Tennessee has always won because it has always had distinguished alumni in the coaching ranks, who wanted nothing more than to see their alma mater succeed.
It is going to take a generational talent to turn this mess around. Whether that is a player or a coach, I don’t know. But I do know that this time there is no one in the wings. There is no clear Johnny Majors to march home and save the day. Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins and Cade Mayes are all having massive success at other traditional powers. Tennessee boys aren’t even coming to Tennessee anymore.
More than anything, Tennessee needs hope. At a time when our brightest star in the coaching ranks is Jim Bob Cooter, the prospects of a savior walking away from a national power to be the hometown hero look bleak. Peyton Manning seemingly has no interest in coaching, and who knows if he would be any good.
I have to believe that person is out there. Maybe he’s in 7th grade playing peewee ball in Maynardville, but he’s out there somewhere. Tennessee will be good again, but we are seeing more and more each year that it’s going to take someone special to get us there. In the mean time, we wait like oppressed townspeople in a spaghetti western, enduring as our enemies get stronger by the day and watching the horizon for a white hat.