Iowa State Cyclones

Football coaching legend Johnny Major dies

Former Cyclone head coach was 85 years old

Former Iowa State football coach Johnny Majors died recently at age 85. (ISU Sports Information)
Former Iowa State football coach Johnny Majors died recently at age 85. (ISU Sports Information)

AMES — Johnny Majors, the man responsible for turning around Iowa State football and leading it to its first bowl game, has died.

He was 85 years old.

“Johnny Majors is one of college football’s all-time greatest coaches,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said in a news release. “Johnny came back every year and it was a pleasure for our players to get to know him and understand his legacy at Iowa State.

“He was one of the most important figures in Iowa State football history.”

At the age of 33, Majors was hired to take over the Iowa State football program before the 1968 season. Majors faced a giant rebuilding project. The Cyclones were a combined 4-15-1 the two seasons before his arrival.

In his third season (1970), the Cyclones made progress, recording a 5-6 mark, setting up a breakout season in 1971.

Majors improved the Cyclone recruiting efforts yearly in his tenure in Ames, and behind four All-Americans and many future NFL players, the Cyclones had the talent to compete in the rugged Big 8 Conference heading into the 1971 campaign.

Iowa State raced out to a 5-1 mark and ended the season at 8-3, securing a bid to the Sun Bowl, the school’s first postseason appearance.

Led by All-American George Amundson, who rushed for a then-school-record 1,260 yards, the Cyclones scored 40 or more points five times during the year, including a 54-0 thrashing of Oklahoma State, the largest winning margin vs. a conference opponent in school history at the time.

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In Majors’ final season in 1972, the Cyclones made it to their second straight bowl game by participating in the Liberty Bowl, finishing the season with a 5-6-1 mark. One of the highlights of the season was a 23-23 tie against No. 3 Nebraska in Clyde Williams Field, ending the Cornhuskers’ 24-game winning streak vs. league opponents.

Majors announced his resignation following the Liberty Bowl contest against Georgia Tech to take over the head coaching duties at Pittsburgh.

Majors ended his five-year coaching tenure at Iowa State with a 24-30-1 record. He coached 12 Cyclones who earned first-team all-Big 8 honors, including Amundson, who was the Big 8 Player of the Year in 1972 and the school’s highest NFL draft pick (No. 14 in 1973).

Some of Majors’ top Cyclone players played in the NFL, including Amundson, Matt Blair, Otto Stowe, Merv Krakau, Keith Krepfle and Ike Harris.

Majors continued his coaching excellence at Pittsburgh (1973-76, 1993-96), winning the 1976 national title with a 12-0 record. He later coached at his alma mater Tennessee for 16 seasons (1977-92).

In all, Majors was a head coach for 29 seasons, compiling an overall mark of 185-137-10. He led his teams to 16 bowl berths and captured three SEC titles at Tennessee. Twice he was honored as the national coach of the year: Walter Camp (1973) and AFCA/Sporting News (1976).

An All-American at Tennessee in 1956, Majors was a two-time SEC MVP. He was the runner-up to Paul Hornung in the 1956 Heisman Trophy balloting.

Majors was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1987 and was enshrined into the Iowa State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999.

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Majors never wavered on his admiration of Iowa State throughout the years. The coaching legend annually made a return trip to Ames to reunite with his former players and staffers.

“When we left our driveway on Ontario, before going to Pittsburgh in a station wagon and a U-Haul trailer behind us, I will never forget Mary Lynn (Majors’ wife) saying, ‘John, I don’t know what the rest of your career will be like, but nothing can ever top the last five years at Iowa State,’ and to this year it is true,” Majors said during one of his many visits to Ames.

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