The Hyatt Regency near the Tennessee campus in Knoxville is the spot to take a friend to dinner in that town, it being a house of class amenities and good food and where, in the dim light of the Volador restaurant, a man can get some privacy. Johnny Majors and his companion found a corner table. Almost immediately the manager and his wife dropped by for a chat. Shortly after, a bottle of wine was sent over from another table.
"The job's a fishbowl," Majors said. "I'm not complaining, it just takes getting used to."
When he arrived from Pittsburgh in December, he said,
in Nashville had begun a series on his life—eight columns across the first sports page. " 'What the heck's going on?' I thought. I was shocked." A 40-page booklet,
Majors of Tennessee
, breathlessly written by F. M. Williams and Jeff Hanna of The Tennessean, was in its second printing. The disc jockeys were playing a number called The Major Change by a country-and-Western singer named Sue Roberts.
It was enough to make him think he deserved it, Majors said. "That's the danger—to think you've found Shangri-La. There is no Shangri-La. It's like Darrell Royal told me before I went to Iowa State. 'Johnny, if they didn't have problems, they wouldn't want you.' "
The problem Tennessee has is that it once had a coach named Bob Neyland, who in 21 years on the job averaged more than eight victories a year, an astonishing feat. Bill Battle, Majors' unfortunate predecessor, once said he had to "live up to Tennessee's standards, which is 10 wins a year." Battle overstated the figure but did not underestimate its portent.
Coaching the Tennessee Volunteers offers a man the fairly suffocating opportunity to have at his disposal a big state school budget, a big tradition, a big stadium, a rich and established recruiting program and an interested, mostly loving and fanatical populace.
In seven years as head coach, Bill Battle won more than 70% of his games—59 wins, 23 losses—and never had a losing season. In 1975, however, his team went 7-5 and last year 6-5 when, for the sixth year in a row, it was beaten by archrival Alabama. "The bottom line," said Tom Siler of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, "is Alabama."
For whatever reason—some speak of a disloyal coaching staff, others of poor recruiting ("Too many scrawny linemen")—Battle found himself in a Shangri-La gone berserk. After a season-opening loss to Duke, exterminators, sent by an unknown benefactor, showed up at Battle's office. A FOR SALE sign was hammered into his front lawn, a moving van was sent around to his house. Battle found himself apologizing to his red-faced secretary for the language used in the mail and the phone calls he was receiving. Battle's "retirement"—at age 34—was speculated on, doubted and, finally, confirmed in November.
Losing—rather, not winning enough—is not just a matter of pride at a big school like Tennessee. It is a matter of economics, of protecting a vast investment. The Tennessee athletic program generates a whopping $4.7 million a year. The football program provides all but about a quarter of that. Majors, who once made $3,500 a year there as an assistant coach—he had to go to Mississippi State and an $8,000-a-year job in order to afford marriage—will make $75,000 a year for the next six. That figure includes a television deal.
Can it be worth it? Is there enough money in the world to make a man happy in an atmosphere of uncompromising expectation?