COLUMBIA | Thirty years ago this month, Johnny Majors’ coaching tenure at the University of Tennessee came to an end after a loss at South Carolina. Perhaps ironically, the loss came at the hands of a former UT assistant who Majors had fired in his first season as head coach in Knoxville: Sparky Woods.
Reflecting back on the way things played out, Woods — who is now an assistant to Mack Brown at North Carolina — doesn’t harbor a vengeful spirit against Majors or at the way things transpired at Tennessee. But as he reflects back on the way it all played out, he can’t help but note the irony of one of the biggest wins of his coaching career.
Football, like life in general, often goes in circles. For Woods, who grew up in East Tennessee and played college football at Carson-Newman, the 1992 win over Majors and Tennessee represented the closing of one of those circles.
Woods broke into the coaching profession when he was given his first job by Bill Battle. He was a graduate assistant at Tennessee when Battle was fired despite going 59-22-2 in seven seasons. Majors, a former Heisman Trophy runner-up at Tennessee, had won a national championship at Pittsburgh, and the winds of change were blowing in Knoxville. A 6-5 season and an eighth-place finish in the SEC in 1976 provided decision-makers with the ammunition needed to make that change.
Woods laughs as he recalls the way things went down after Majors was hired.
“I loved Coach Battle,” he said. “He was great. (But) I wanted to stay (at Tennessee). I was a fan more than anything.”
Majors loaded up the coaching staff and drove them to Neyland Stadium, where he was unveiling new uniform combinations. It was a cold winter day in the middle of the 1977 recruiting season, and Majors stood on the field with players who were modeling the prospective uniforms while his staff stood at the top of the stadium.
“I grew up in Oneida. I didn’t want to change anything about Tennessee,” Woods said. “That was my school at the time.”
One of the players on the field, wearing No. 66, had on an orange helmet, an orange jersey, and orange pants.
“I remember we all said, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope we don’t pick that. It looks like a Halloween costume,’” Woods said. “And old stupid me said, ‘Why would you change the uniform?’”
From the field, Majors yelled up at his staff. Then he marched to the top of the stadium.
“I don’t know why he looked past those other 15 coaches but he looked right at me and said, ‘How do you like 66?’” Woods said. “I had just told everybody I didn’t like it. And so I said, ‘Well, I don’t like it.’ And he looked right at me and said, ‘Well your ass don’t matter anyway!’”
Woods laughs as he thinks back on that moment. But it turned out to be a defining moment for him. He was fired from Majors’ staff, and wound up at Kansas as an assistant under Bud Moore. That started a trajectory through the ranks that ultimately landed him at Appalachian State as offensive coordinator in 1983. After one season in that role, he was named the Mountaineers head coach. Appalachian State quickly became a power in the Southern Conference, amassing a combined record of 20-5-1 in 1986 and 1987, before Woods left to accept the head coaching job at South Carolina.
It wasn’t a good time to be the head coach at South Carolina. Sports Illustrated had broken a story about alleged steroid abuse within the football program, and four coaches had been indicted by a federal grand jury.
“It was probably the worst timing to go there,” Woods said. “(But) at 35 years old, how do you turn that down? So I took it, knowing it was probably going to be hard.”
Woods had some initial success in Columbia, with winning seasons in 1989 and 1990. But then the Gamecocks transitioned into the SEC in 1992, and started 0-5 in their first season in the conference.
South Carolina ended that 1992 season on a high note, winning five of its last six games, including a 24-13 win over arch-rival Clemson. The turnaround started with a 21-6 upset of No. 15 Mississippi State.
It was on Halloween afternoon that Tennessee visited Williams-Brice Stadium. The Vols were ranked No. 16, but were coming off back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Alabama. Majors, who had missed the first half of the season after undergoing emergency heart surgery in August, was on the hot seat. His offensive coordinator, Phillip Fulmer, had performed well in an interim role, driving the Vols into the national championship conversation before the loss to Arkansas on a last-second field goal and a subsequent loss to the Crimson Tide, which would go on to win the national championship.
With a brash young quarterback named Steve Taneyhill leading the offense, South Carolina defeated the Vols that afternoon, 24-23. Mose Phillips scored on a touchdown pass from Heath Shuler late in the game, breaking more than 10 tackles en route to the end zone. But the Vols opted to go for two and the win rather than an extra point kick and the tie, and Woods’ defense stopped them short.
It had been 15 years since Woods had been let go from his first coaching job by Majors — 15 years since Majors had responded to Woods’ disapproval of a uniform combination by telling him “Your ass don’t matter anyway.” Less than a week later, Majors was fired.
“Not to be vengeful in any way,” said Woods, who added that he later got to know Majors and that Majors was good to him. “But I thought years later, I did matter when they brought him in there and did to him what happens to us all eventually.”
And because football often goes in circles, it was Tennessee that helped end Woods’ tenure at South Carolina the following season. In what Woods called the most disappointing loss of his coaching career, the Gamecocks went to Knoxville and were soundly beaten by Fulmer’s first team, 55-3. Woods was fired later that season.
Meanwhile, how’s this for irony: Majors’ orange helmet uniform combination was never worn by Tennessee — not in 1977 and not in any season since. But this Saturday, when the Vols travel to Williams-Brice Stadium to face South Carolina, on the 3oth anniversary of the loss that cost Majors his job, they’ll finally debut that orange helmet. Josh Heupel’s team is slated to wear orange helmets for the first time in school history when they face the Gamecocks.