The Pitt community has lost one of the most accomplished football coaches in its history, as it was confirmed on Wednesday morning that Johnny Majors, who led the Panthers to a national championship on New Year’s Day in 1977, died at the age of 85.
News of Majors’ death was first reported by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, which received confirmation from Jackie Sherrill, a friend of Majors who succeeded him at Pitt after the coach left for Tennessee.
Majors came to Pitt in 1973 after going 24-30-1 at Iowa State between 1968 and 1972. His tenure at Pitt would be more successful, as his teams were ranked every year of his first stint in Pittsburgh and never posted a losing record from 1973 to 1976, going 33-13-1.
Pitt would go 2-0 in bowl games under Majors in the 1970s, beating Kansas 33-19 in the Sun Bowl in 1975 and defeating Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl in 1977 to punctuate a perfect 12-0 season with a national championship. But after the win, Majors accepted a position as the head coach of Tennessee, his alma mater, and he would spend the next 16 years in Knoxville before returning to Pittsburgh.
The coach’s second stint in the Steel City was less enchanted than the first and would prove to be the swan song of his career, as the Panthers went 12-32 and never posted a winning record between 1993 and 1996. He would retire after his second Pitt term, with his record as the Panthers head coach at 45-45-1 and his overall record at 185-137-10.
Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987, and his legacy in football lives on through a coaching tree that includes the likes of Dom Capers, David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer, Jon Gruden, Walt Harris, Jimmy Johnson, Jackie Sherrill and Dave Wannstedt. Legendary players like Tony Dorsett and Reggie White also played under Majors and would enjoy Hall of Fame careers.
In addition, Majors was inducted into the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019 and was recognized not only as the architect behind Pitt’s ninth national title in football, but also as a legendary figure who inherited a 1-10 program and molded it into a national power that would persist for a decade.
Even after Majors' retirement, Pitt coaches like Harris and Wannstedt, who once learned from the great coach himself, would lead the program to great moments. But none since Majors have been able to capture a title.