Johnny Majors influenced many people’s lives during his 29 years as head coach at Pitt, Tennessee and Iowa.
Dave Wannstedt was on Majors’ first team at Pitt in 1973 and following his playing career, was hired by Majors as an assistant coach at Pitt in 1975. Majors died on Wednesday at the age of 85.
Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Wannstedt Wednesday morning to get this thoughts on the passing of his former coach, along with memories and lessons he learned and took with him throughout his professional career.
Wannstedt said the last communication he had with Majors was when he texted him on May 21 to wish him a happy birthday. It just so happens the two share the same birthday.
“My first memories of Coach Majors are that I did not realize that you had to put that much preparation and work into becoming a good football player,” Wannstedt said. “When Coach Majors first came in, the first thing he did was find out who really would give the effort and fight through things and who were mentally and physically tough. It was truly a challenge for a guy like myself, who was a junior and making another coaching transition. Besides the new playbook, the new line coach and everything else that comes with a new coaching change, Coach Majors definitely brought a new culture change from a standout of what he wanted his football team to look like from a physical and mental standpoint.”
Taking on the challenge of enormous challenge of trying to build the program at Pitt, Majors needed to rely on veteran leadership with character and selected Wannstedt as one of his team captains.
“I was kind of a survivor,” Wannstedt said. “When he came in, I think he brought in like 75-80 freshman his first year because it was unlimited scholarships. He planned on building from the ground up and I was kind of in survivor mode. I knew that I was committed and wanted to win at Pitt.
“From a coaching standout point, he always talked about doing the little things. I can remember like yesterday, that one of my assignments was, the play was going on the other side of the line and he wanted me to run across and get the defensive back. I’m thinking to myself why am I going to do that because that guy isn’t going to make the tackle, we’re not going to get 50 yards on this run. But I did it because I was all in and I busted my tail to get across, I made the block and don’t you know that Tony springs a long run. From that day on, it was a turning point in my mind for whenever Coach would say we have to do the little things because that’s going to help us win, 40 years of coaching that example was and is still forefront in my mind.”
Teaching examples and lessons that he learned from his former coach were things that Wannstedt was able to use when he got into coaching, which all started from an offer from Majors to join his staff in 1975.
“I got drafted by the Packers and I came back to have surgery and was doing my rehab at Pitt during the season. While there, we had a conversation about what I wanted to do in my future,” said Wannstedt. “I told him that I wanted to get my Masters degree for sure and although I wasn’t certain, I told him that I might want to get into coaching. At that time you could only have two graduate assistants and he said that he was going to have a graduate assistant opening available. However, he said that he was going to need to know my decision within a month. … One thing led to another and I ended up taking the coaching position. We ended up winning the national championship the next year, he left for Tennessee and Jackie ended up hiring me and the rest is history.”
Wannstedt went on to become a head coach in the NFL along with at Pitt and shares a coaching philosophy that he learned from Majors that he used at everyone of his coaching stops.
“He used to always talk about in critical situations put the ball in your best players hands and give your best players the chance to win when the game was on the line,” Wannstedt said. “When I was coaching at Pitt, when it came down to it, I wanted to get the ball to LeSean McCoy, get the ball to Dion Lewis, whenever I needed a big pass play, throw it up to Jonathan Baldwin. Your best players on your team will make a play and that’s something that I always followed.”
Majors finished his coaching career with a record of 185-137-10 and won a National Championship in 1976 but Wannstedt remembers him most for being the person that was instrumental in building Pitt football.
“From a recruiting standout, I think he came in and did a fantastic job in the state of Pennsylvania along with going out to Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and other places to get great players,” said Wannstedt. “I think he changed things from a facility standpoint and really just came in and improved Pitt and put Pitt on the map football wise from a win standpoint. But in order to win, you need to have players, which came back to recruiting.”
“He understood the big picture in everything that he did and he made Pitt a better football program and that’s what a great football coach is all about.”