When Dave Borbely first walked onto Tennessee’s practice field after being hired as a graduate assistant in 1984, he wasn’t 100% sure if head coach Johnny Majors actually knew who he was.
Tennessee was coming off a 9-3 season, capped by a win over Maryland in the Citrus Bowl, and Borbely had just spent the season as the freshman defensive line coach at Penn. The Vols provided Borbely with his first major college football opportunity in 1984, and while Majors might not have known him at first, that quickly changed.
“I can’t tell you that we were real close, but coach Majors was all business,” Borbely said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “And he was all football. The thing he always preached to us as graduate assistants was enthusiasm, fundamentals and the kicking game. I think he’s famous for that, and he didn’t just say it, he truly believed in that.”
Majors was born in Lynchburg, Tennessee and starred at Huntland High School under his father Shirley’s tutelage before enrolling at Tennessee in 1953. He was a two-time SEC MVP, UPI Player of the Year in 1956 — an award won by Tony Dorsett and Hugh Green — and the runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy.
And it was a controversial Heisman ceremony with Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung winning the award. Still to this day, he’s the only Heisman Trophy winner to earn the award despite a losing season — 2-8 in 1956.
Majors achieved his first — and biggest — coaching success at Pitt, 16 years after getting his start as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1957, in his second stint as a head coach. His first three seasons at Pitt from 1973-75 were solid, but it was the 1976 squad led by Heisman winner Tony Dorsett that cemented a place in history.
Pitt completed an unbeaten 12-0 season in 1976, defeating Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship game.
Majors would return to Tennessee following the season, and he would spend the next 16 seasons at Tennessee as the head coach — compiling a 116-62-8 (57-40-3 SEC) record and three SEC championships.
Borbely arrived in Knoxville toward the midway point of Majors’ tenure at Tennessee, serving as a graduate assistant and learning under then-Tennessee offensive coach Phil Fulmer — who would go on to be named as the Vols’ offensive coordinator and eventual head coach.
Borbely reconnected with Fulmer before last season’s game in Knoxville, catching up with a former mentor, and he’s hopeful that there will be a reunion this season. However, it wasn’t just Fulmer on Tennessee’s staff. Walt Harris, who later served as a Pitt head coach following Majors’ second tenure at Pitt, and Ron Zook were both top assistants under Majors at Tennessee.
Majors returned to Pitt following his tenure at Tennessee, and while the second chance at Pitt from 1993-96 wasn’t nearly as successful, his impact on the program is undeniable. And his impact on both Tennessee and Pitt led the two-game series to be named the Johnny Majors Classic.
“We are honored to join the University of Tennessee in celebrating the life of coach Johnny Majors,” Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said in a press release in 2021. “Beyond the victories, coach Majors made such a huge impact on the lives of his players. That’s his greatest legacy and the University of Pittsburgh is incredibly proud to be part of it. We look forward to being with the Majors family when we visit in September.”
Majors’ impact on Pitt and Tennessee is clear, and his impact on Borbely — at both schools — is long-lasting. Whether it was spring ball, training camp or a random practice during the season, Borbely always made sure that when a play was over, he was sprinting to the pile of players, grabbing his guys and coaching them up on the way back to the huddle.
“You didn’t want to be one of the guys caught not doing that,” Borbely said.
With the Pitt-Tennessee matchup just days away now, a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Acrisure Stadium set for a national audience on ABC, Marcus Minor said there have been a few short stories to regale the offensive line room about the type of man Majors was. But in a way that would make Majors proud, Minor said Pitt has been using the valuable time before Saturday’s kickoff to completely and utterly prepared for the Johnny Majors Classic.