Former University of Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors was guest of honor Sunday at one of the Knoxville Symphony League‘s “Elegant Dining” dinners and I, for one, was surprised and touched by some of what he had to say. He and his wife, Mary Lynn, have just returned from a trip to South Africa and Majors seemed to have been genuinely moved by the visit. Here were some of the highlights of his after-dinner remarks to the 22 guests who, along with a half-dozen or so hosts, gathered in Beth and Darrell Thomas’ Whittington Creek living room to hear him:
- “South Africa is a great country with great people,” Majors said. “Looking back, I wonder how could we have done what we did to black people in our country.” Majors said he is from Lynchburg, Tenn., where the African American population is less than three percent. “I played ball with black children when I was a child,” he recalled. “But not in high school and not in college. And when I first started coaching, there were no black players on the team. Then, in 1967, I was asked for the first time, ‘Coach, how do you plan to handle black players?’ And I said, ‘I plan to treat them like I do all the other players.'”
- Another of his observations on South Africa: “South Africa’s economy is good and its people are friendly. Its biggest problem is unemployment, which is published as 25 percent but is really about 30 percent. The wealthy don’t pay the amount of taxes they should, just as they don’t in our country.”
- Majors said he likes all kinds of music and he gave special call-outs to some of his favorites: Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. “But nothing pleases me more than symphony music,” he said. “Ninety percent of the music I listen to is symphony music.”
- Before his return to Knoxville from Pittsburgh in 2007, Majors served on the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He noted that when he coached the University of Tennessee football team, he served on the board of the Knoxville Symphony “before I was handed a one-way ticket out of town courtesy of Joe Johnson and Doug Dickey.” (Ouch!)
- Majors’ father was a barber and a subsistence farmer. He also was a coach to Majors and his brothers.”We didn’t have anything, but we had everything,” Majors said. Majors was named after his mother. His sister, Shirley, was named after their father.
- Majors, who weighed only 150 pounds at the time, was insecure when he came to UT as a prospect. He felt more at home at Auburn University, he said, because the town of Auburn was small with just two pool halls and one movie theater. Knoxville and UT intimidated him, he said, although his father assured him he was good enough to play anywhere. When he played his first scrimmage after selecting UT, he surprised himself by breaking a number of tackles. After the scrimmage, he rushed to a pay phone and called his parents collect. “They miss tackles in college just like they do in high school,” he said excitedly. As he related this story Sunday, he got a little misty-eyed. “I still tear up when I talk about that,” he acknowledged.
- Mary Lynn was the only girl he ever seriously dated.
- He doesn’t believe in running up the score. “Running up the score shows no class,” he said. “I won’t do it. Unlike a former head football coach here.”
This was a great event for the Symphony League. But Darrell and Beth Thomas had a little excitement getting ready for it. They were smoking pork and sausage for the feast and had put the meat in the smoker at 3 a.m. Later Sunday morning, they got up, dressed and went to church. When they returned home, flames were shooting from the smoker. “I think it had just caught on fire when we pulled into the drive,” Darrell said. The meat was saved — but the smoker was a complete loss.
This was not one of those catered affairs. Beth made all the other food that accompanied the meats: asparagus roll-ups, chicken pear gorgonzola tarts, blue cheese port cucumber bites, pesto green beans and tomatoes, tomato tart, feta cheese squares, and peanut butter fudge cake (which was to die for). Here are a few of the dishes:
Darrell was assigned the task of folding the napkins. And what a great job he did! He got on the internet, figured out what shape he wanted, got out the iron and produced about 30 of the prettiest napkins ever — all in about 20 minutes!
Want to read more about Coach Majors? Click here for an interesting story Matthew Everett wrote for Metro Pulse.