Pitt football had certainly had success before Johnny Majors took the helm in 1973. Of the Panthers’ nine claimed national championships, eight occurred before 1937.
But in the post-war years, the landscape of college football had changed fairly significantly, and it seemed an open question as to whether Pitt was going to be able to return to those heights.
Western Pennsylvania remained a top breeding ground of football talent, and Pitt had still been able to get at least some of that talent under Majors’ predecessors. Pitt’s 1970 team had six players selected in the following year’s NFL Draft. But they went 5-5.
Clearly, Pitt’s problems went beyond the talent pool. It was the budget, the facilities, the logo and yes, the right man to put it all together that was lacking.
Majors was that man. Majors died on Wednesday at the age of 85. Pittsburgh Sports Now caught up with longtime Pitt play-by-play broadcaster Bill Hillgrove to share his memories of Pitt’s legendary head coach.
“He convinced Pitt that he could win,” Hillgrove said. “He brought in, I think 90-some recruits in that first year. What it did, was it turned into 40 seniors. You show me a college football team of 40 seniors and I’ll show you a team that knows that knows how to win.”
“He knew what the formula was to build a program quickly, and in order to do so, they had to loosen up some purse strings that weren’t available to the coaches before him. And they did. We know the rest is history. … He was long on people skills, a great salesman, probably one of the best I’ve ever been around. The result, four years laters, was a national championship.
“It was fun. He brought a whole fresh perspective to it. He had his sayings. ‘Pin your ears back and ride hard,’ which people really rallied behind. I remember Myron Cope calling them Majors Marauders and saying ‘they’re marauding through Western Pennsylvania grabbing up every good football player they can.’”
Majors’ training camps were notoriously difficult, as former Pitt player under Majors and then successful head coach in his own right Dave Wannstedt recalled. As the team’s broadcaster, Hillgrove was along for the ride in Johnstown.
“It was a little bit of the Junction Boys, about Bear Bryant, where so many buses went to camp and only a couple returned. I think it was best basically that,” Hillgrove said. “John was tough and you had to be in super duper physical condition to play for him. I’ll never forget he took the sign with him. It was behind the desk with him when he was the coach at Tennessee, and it said if you can’t run, you can’t play.”
Majors’ first tenure at Pitt lasted just four years, before he returned to his native Tennessee to coach the Volunteers. But the changes he made at Pitt lifted the program to success for another seven years, creating the most successful modern-era period in Pitt’s football history, even if some of that success came against Majors.
“Pitt played at Tennessee in 1980 and 1983 and beat John Majors both times,” Hillgrove recalled. “I thought to myself, there’s John a victim of his own device. He built it and he turned around to bite him.”