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Tennessee Football: Could Johnny Majors have won a national championship at Tennessee? It’s complicated.

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If you’re in the business of buying collectibles, former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors’ estate is up for sale. If you’re in the business of debating football history, his name can bring up one of the greatest discussions bantered about since the Vols first snapped a football.

Would Majors have won a national championship had he not been fired as Tennessee’s head coach in 1992 and replaced by Phillip Fulmer, who eventually won a national title for the Vols in 1998?

Let’s start with a few reasons why Majors couldn’t have replicated what his protege did. First, Majors had lost a lot of support from his booster base in his last couple of years at Tennessee. There were personality issues, which likely were some of Majors’ fault. Regardless of who was responsible, the revenue that the Vols relied on to build facilities and recruit wouldn’t have been as strong as during Majors heyday. That would have hurt Majors’ chances had he not changed his ways.

There’s also another reason why Majors, who died in 2020 when he was 85 years old, wouldn’t have won a national championship. Had he been retained for a few more years, he likely wouldn’t have had Fulmer by his side. Fulmer was ready to become a head coach and, despite his long history with UT as a player and assistant coach, would have likely taken another job elsewhere. That wouldn’t have been the only loss from Majors’ coaching staff.

If Fulmer didn’t get the head coaching job in 1992, he could have also taken key assistants like David Cutcliffe and John Chavis, who became his trusted coordinators during his glory days. Fulmer certainly would have tried to take UT’s best coaches. Cutcliffe and Chavis could have stayed at Tennessee and gotten a promotion. However, Majors is known throughout coaching circles as a tough boss to work for, so I’m guessing Cutcliffe and Chavis would have bolted had a move with Fulmer included a promotion at a somewhat comparable school.

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Fulmer was also Majors’ key recruiter so the talent level would have likely dropped had Fulmer headed elsewhere. Majors could have rebuilt a staff, but that’s not easy and no guarantee of future success.

While all that would have been stacked against Majors, he could have still overcome. After all, Majors won a national title at Pittsburgh without Fulmer, Cutcliffe or Chavis. Hard to work with or not, Majors was driven, could evaluate talent and knew football. That’s a pretty good starting point.

Majors’ best chance to win a national championship at Tennessee would have depended on one thing above all else. Majors needed to check his ego a bit. That’s what turned off boosters before his untimely heart issue that led to Fulmer’s opportunity. 

Majors was a bit overconfident in his later years as felt a national championship was on the horizon. Majors had built a great staff and was bringing in elite talent from all over the country. He was, by many accounts, acting like a coach that had already won a national championship when, in fact, he was viewed in Tennessee football circles as a coach that should have already won a national championship or at least more SEC titles. Fair or not, Majors was wearing out his welcome among boosters and fans.

So would Majors have won a championship had he not been fired? Whether he was a great coach or not, which he was, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Majors would have topped Alabama in the early 1990’s and Florida throughout the rest of the decade. While it has long been debated and been a blemish on Fulmer’s reputation, the Vols achieved a national championship by making a head coaching change. Otherwise, the Vols could have slipped further than Majors had built them up. There’s little argument that Tennessee made the right move.

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