George Messich remembers Johnny Majors, the former head football coach at Pitt who died Wednesday at age 85, as a master motivator who cared as much, if not more, about his players and their futures as he did about wins and losses.
Messich, the longtime coach at Mapletown High School, played two years for Majors at Pitt and was the starting right tackle on the Panthers’ national championship team in 1976.
“I was shell-shocked when I heard this morning that he had died,” Messich said Wednesday afternoon. “He was an incredible person. He will always hold a special place in my heart. He did so much for me. I respected the man as much as anyone could.”
Majors spent two stints as Pitt’s head coach (1972-76 and 1993-96).
Pitt lured Majors away from Iowa State after he led the Cyclones to an appearance in the Liberty Bowl in 1972. He inherited a program that had fallen on hard times. The Panthers were on a run of nine consecutive losing seasons and were coming off a 1-9 season.
In only four years, he built Pitt into a national champion and did it with hard work, recruiting and good coaching staffs.
“You talk about great coaching jobs that have been done in Pittsburgh sports, and people forget that Pitt’s program was really terrible when he took over,” Messich said. “There was talk that if he doesn’t turn it around then they might drop the program or move down to Division II. That’s how bad it was.”
So Majors brought in 76 freshmen in his first recruiting class, including a slender running back from Beaver County named Tony Dorsett, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1976. The foundation for success was about to be established, but not before weeding out some players who didn’t meet Majors’ demanding expectations.
Messich wasn’t around for Majors’ first season – he was recruited out of Potomac State Junior College in 1975 – but he heard the stories.
“Players told me you would not believe the first year,” Messich recalled. “They said there would be four or five kids who quit during practices because they just couldn’t take it. He wanted to get rid of the ones who couldn’t cut it and work with those who stayed. In the end, it worked.”
Pitt went 6-5-1 in Majors’ first season and the Panthers played in the Fiesta Bowl. The next year it was 7-4, but no bowl game. In 1975, Pitt went 7-4 and routed Kansas in the Sun Bowl.
Messich was there by 1975 and quickly learned what Majors expected from his players.
“For conditioning, we used to have run the steps at Pitt Stadium. After that,” Messich explained, “we had to run the hurdles on the track. You can imagine what your legs felt like after running to the top of the stadium. Needless to say, there were a lot of guys falling over those hurdles.”
Yet Messich said the players didn’t mind being pushed to the limits of their abilities. That’s because they put their trust in Majors, whose motivational skills were instrumental in turning around Pitt’s football fortunes.
“If he told you to get down in a three-point stance and fire out through a brick wall because he believed your could do it, then you would have done it. That’s how much we believed in him. He was fantastic. He was a motivator,” Messich said. “He could get in your face and yell and scream at you during practice, but after practice he could put his arm around you and talk to you.”
Pitt went 12-0 in 1976 and defeated Georgia 27-3 in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. And the Panthers had fun along the way.
“When we went to the Sugar Bowl, we were there for 10 days. You know how many days we had a curfew? Two,” Messich said. “Two nights before the game our curfew was 2 a.m. The night before the game it was 9 p.m. The Georgia players couldn’t believe it because they had a curfew every night.
“Handling our team was something Coach Majors was good at. We had a lot of characters on that team so keeping us in line was a full-time job. But he knew how to handle us.
“When I saw him at a Pitt game a few years ago,” Messich continued, “I said, ‘There’s something I always wanted to ask you. When we were at the Sugar Bowl, we were out on Bourbon Street all night. Why did you let us do that?’ He told me that the coaches figured, if the game goes as it should, we were three touchdowns better than Georgia so he wanted us to have fun.”
Messich says Majors was more than just about having fun and winning games. His interest in the players extended beyond the playing days.
“His big thing was to prepare you for life, when football was over. It wasn’t just football with him. He wanted you to make something out of your life,” Messich said. “I know how much that helped me.”