Oct. 14, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
It's already been a busy football season for Johnny Majors.
This weekend, the UT Athletics Department is hosting the 1956 Tennessee Volunteers football team as legends of the LSU game before Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Neyland Stadium. Majors, of course, was an All-American tailback on the squad that won the SEC championship
But for Majors, it's the third reunion he has celebrated since Sept. 10. The College Football Hall of Famer already has had get-togethers with the 1971 Iowa State football team he coached to its first-ever bowl game, as well as the 1976 Pittsburgh national championship team coached by Majors the season before he returned to Tennessee.
That's three reunions in three different states in 35 days.
"Every five years is a reunion year for me." Majors said. "And I always go to all three reunions for the 1971, 1976 and 1956 teams I was so lucky to be a part of. I love them. We already had great turnouts for the first two, and we're expecting 90 percent of those who are able to travel from the '56 team to be here.
"That gives you an idea how close we were and how close we've remained through those years."
During the 10-game run, Tennessee outscored its opposition 268-75 and compiled wins such as 35-7 at Auburn and 34-7 over Maryland, along with shutouts of Alabama (24-0), North Carolina (20-0) and Georgia Tech (6-0). The Vols swept their final three opponents, Mississippi, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, by a combined 74-21 margin.
"If there is ever a team game, football is it -- 11 men on every play doing their job," Majors said. "And most of your great teams are primarily senior and junior teams. Ours was as good of an example of that as you would ever see."
Tennessee that year started seven seniors who were members of Gen. Robert Neyland's final recruiting class in the fall of 1952. In addition to Majors, Neyland signed ends Buddy Cruze and Roger Urbano, tackles John Gordy and Charles Rader, guard Bruce Burnham and center Bubba Howe.
"We had seven seniors who were steady, weathered, had gone through the tough times and gone through the tough rebuilding under Coach (Bowden) Wyatt," Majors said. "All of us had played as sophomores. Freshmen were ineligible back in those days."
Tennessee's four juniors of note were guard Bill Johnson, wingback Bill Anderson, blocking back Stockton Adkins and fullback Tommy Bronson.
"All four of those were exceptional juniors, exceptional juniors," Majors said.
"Wyatt and his staff were as great of builders of downtrodden programs as any head coaching staff in the history of football," Majors said. "Coach Wyatt was one of the few coaches in football history to turn three different programs around."
His progress at Tennessee was swift. Wyatt lost his first two games on the UT sideline in 1955 but proceeded to finish 6-3-1 that first year and set the stage for coaching his alma mater to the 1956 SEC championship.
"Being prepared by the right people gives you a tremendous amount of confidence, and that was Wyatt's staff," Major said. "They knew how to get it done, and that became the foundation of my coaching career."
Wyatt is one of the few members of the College Football Hall of Fame elected as both a player and coach. The Kingston native died in 1969 at the age of 51.
As a senior, Majors rushed for 549 yards and threw for another 522 in addition to 221 return yards. Cruze was the leading receiver with 20 catches for 357 yards. For their efforts, both Majors and Cruze were named All-Americans in 1956.. Johnson was an All-America choice in 1957.
"We were believers, and we had a great coaching staff," Majors said. "There was no messing around with those coaches. They were a great staff, like a wolf pack. They talked the same language, they were demanding, they knew fundamentals, they demanded effort -- and we responded.
"As a result, we were a well-oiled and confident team in 1956."
He remembers it so fondly because the play was captured in a framed 8-by-10 photograph that hung on above Wyatt's desk.
"It was a four play, a tailback wedge right over the strong tackle down around the 2-yard line that resulted in a touchdown," Majors said. "It showed all 11 players in the picture, and all 11 of us were stepping with our right foot at the same time in the first instant that the ball was snapped.
"We were as well-drilled as The Rockettes, only not as beautiful."
In addition to Saturday's pregame presentation on the field, returning team members also are getting together for a Friday night dinner as well as tailgating and postgame activities. And don't be surprised if you see the group roaming beneath the east stadium stands, reliving old times.
"If you can survive East Stadium Hall with your confidence still intact, you've got a pretty tough hide," Majors said with a laugh at the former football dorm. "It brings back memories of living with a bunch of football players giving you a hard time, kidding you and teasing you about what you're wearing or embarrassing you in front of your girlfriend.
"The special thing is it's just a special group, made up of a bunch of loyal, team-oriented individuals who have stayed in contact through the years. Really, it's just a matter of reliving some of the greatest days of our lives."