An article of faith

By Tom Mattingly

Every year as October yielded the stage to November, attention across the expanse of Big Orange Country turned to one of the best-known famous motivational phrases in all of college football, courtesy of John Majors.

“They Remember What You Do in November.”

When he was head coach at Tennessee, he always said it, to the point everybody believed it to be true. Signs were posted all over the Neyland-Thompson Center.

It was a mere seven words, but it was an article of faith.

As a Vol tailback in 1956, Majors, named the SEC’s “Player of the Year” for a second time, led the Vols to a 10-0 record and the SEC title, winning four times in November and once in December.

The highlight was a 6-0 win at Georgia Tech on Nov. 10, one of the greatest Tennessee wins of all time. There were also wins over North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Majors, the Heisman runner-up that season, had a steady hand on the throttle for a team that scored 275 points and gave up just 88.

There were several classic moments on the Majors coaching resume at Tennessee that proved the truth of the adage.

There were four wins in five tries in November 1978, when fans started catching on to the Majors magic. There were more wins than losses by far in the ensuing years, leading up to the magic season of 1985 that Vol fans still proudly discuss. The month started with a 31-14 loss at Notre Dame, where the Vols led at halftime, but finished with wins over Duke, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.

Then came an undefeated month of November 1985, with five wins in five tries. Backup quarterback Daryl Dickey did nothing but win in replacing the injured Tony Robinson. Things looked bad when Robinson went out with a knee injury late in the Alabama game. No one really knew what was ahead for the Vols.

The Vols refused to lose, winning against Rutgers, Memphis State, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, with three shutouts in that five-game span. The result was the SEC title, setting up that remarkable match-up with Miami in the Sugar Bowl.

Bradley County’s Chris White, who seemed destined for another year on the bench, got his chance at safety and earned All-American honors with an NCAA-leading nine interceptions, one for a score. He had two interceptions and blocked a punt in the Ole Miss game.

A record crowd of 97,372 showed up for the Vanderbilt game, a 30-0 Vol win that clinched the Sugar Bowl invite.

On Jan. 1, 1986, it was Tennessee 35, Miami 7. A couple of major highlights included walk-on tailback Jeff Powell “roaring down the greensward” for a score, as John Ward intoned on the Vol Network.

Ken Donahue’s defense, led by the inspirational Dale Jones, put the clamps on the Hurricanes, 32 net rushing yards, with the Vols also claiming four interceptions, seven sacks, and four lost-yardage tackles. The Louisiana Superdome sounded like Neyland Stadium South.

“The championship teams I have been involved with in the past may have had more experience, strength, and speed at certain positions,” said Majors, “but, as a group, this is the most remarkable one in terms of improvement since spring practice and since a period of reconstruction at midseason.”

In the SEC championship year of 1989, the Vols defeated Mississippi, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to bring home the conference title again. The Vols edged Arkansas in the 1990 Cotton Bowl. The Vols had a tenuous couple of weeks against Alabama and LSU, when the pass defense sprang a leak, but when the multi-talented Carl Pickens joined the secondary, order was restored.

In 1990, even after the Vols lost a close one to No. 1 Notre Dame, the Vols found the wherewithal to win in each Grand Division of the state to close the season, triumphs over Ole Miss in Memphis, Kentucky in Knoxville, and Vanderbilt in Nashville. Then came a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia, despite the Vols trailing 16-0 at the half.

In an inspiring story, running back Tony Thompson came off the bench when Chuck Webb banged up a knee against Pacific and was lost for the season. Thompson answered the bell, gaining 1,261 yards, earning All-SEC honors, and leading the SEC in rushing.

He was also named team captain. Majors made the announcement in late November and seemed very pleased with the selection. Fullback Roland Poles was named alternate captain.

No one can argue with three SEC titles in a six-year period and some of the most exciting players in school history. It was a never-to-be-forgotten time.

Is the adage about success in the month of November really true?

The answer is easy. John Majors said so.