Curtis McGhee, Billy West Recall Playing for the late Johnny Majors at Pitt
WHEELING – Johnny Majors was tough, demanding, charismatic and old school.
Those are just some of the traits that were the first to pop into the minds of many of Majors’ former players during his illustrious coaching career, which included two stops at Pittsburgh and a long, successful tenure at the University of Tennessee. Majors died Wednesday at age 85.
Billy West and Curt McGhee got to experience it all up close and personal for the majority of their careers at Pitt, which was Majors’ second tour of duty with the Panthers.
“Curt and I were part of his first class when he got back to Pitt,” West — a Buckeye Local product and OVAC Hall of Famer — recalled. “Coach Majors was a great guy. He was a very caring coach.”
West had been receiving Division I interest from numerous schools, but it took Majors landing the Pitt job before the Panthers reached out to him.
“Coach Majors came down to Buckeye Local with the running backs coach, sat down and started recruiting me,” West said. “It was an honor to play for him and he was just a joy to be around.”
With Majors’ coaching and guidance, West put forth a brilliant career at Pitt. He still ranks ninth on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,803 yards and he led the team in that category in 1994 and 1996.
West, who now resides in Florida and works for a company that’s based in Pittsburgh as a regional manager, carried Majors’ belief in fundamentals with him into the career world.
“Coach Majors was like a teacher and he prepared his teams like you’d prepare someone for life and that was by stressing the fundamentals and what many would think are the little things,” West said.
McGhee became part of the Panthers signing class of 1993 just a few weeks before fall camp opened.
“I had received letters from Coach Majors when he was at Tennessee and Pitt wasn’t really recruiting me at all until he got back there,” McGhee recalled.
Pitt had already received a letter of intent from West and Majors decided to send a couple of assistant coaches down to Wheeling Island Stadium to watch the former Panther take part in the OVAC All-Star Game that summer.
During that game, noticed a defensive back playing for the West Virginia squad, who happened by McGhee.
“I performed well in that game and the coaches came in the locker room after the game and asked about me to make sure I was the same guy they were sending letters to when they were at Tennessee,” McGhee said.
Unfortunately, by that time, Pitt had exhausted its number of scholarships, so it extended a walk-on opportunity to McGhee, who had really thought basketball or baseball was going to be his path toward college athletics.
“I hadn’t really considered football, but when they offered me the opportunity and chance to play, I took it and went to camp,” McGhee said.
Thanks to his ability, work ethic and a few injuries ahead of him, McGhee earned early playing time with the Panthers and with that came a scholarship for the second semester he was on campus.
“I remember Coach Majors yelling, ‘McGhee, get in there! Show us what you can do,” McGhee said. “I guess I proved I could play football because the rest became history.”
McGhee admits that if it’s not for Majors getting the Pitt job, he’s unsure how his future would have played out.
“Without him, I’m probably not at Pitt and I could have gone in a different direction,” McGhee said. “He was always pushing me to be the person I could be.”
McGhee, finished his career as one of the top 20 tacklers in Panthers’ history all time, spent much of Wednesday connecting with former teammates to share stories of Majors.
He and West actually told a similar story about Majors’ old-school style. Each practice, he would sit up in the bleachers with a bullhorn and many of the players didn’t realize how closely he was observing what was occurring on the field.
“He’d be about 20 rows up in the stands with his feet kicked up,” McGhee recalled. “As soon as you thought he wasn’t paying attention, he’d come out of the stands telling you, in detail, about what you’d done wrong. I think most of the guys on the team can hear his voice from that bullhorn in our sleep. He was rough on you, but I’ve taken some of those coaching philosophies and applied them my coaching style today.”
West laughed when told of the story that McGhee mentioned about Majors and added, “(Coach Majors) made so many corrections that I can pretty much confirm that he wasn’t sleeping most of the time. He was always engaged.”
That’s simply additional proof of Majors’ impact on his players.
Majors made an impact not only on the players he coached, but also their families. He signed a photograph for West’s grandmother, which became one of her most valued possessions until her passing several years ago. It included a special message from Majors.
“My grandmother cherished that picture. She had in her living room for as long as I could remember,” West said. “I am proud to now have that picture in my home.”
Also at Pittsburgh, Majors coached St. Clairsville graduate Darren Dombrowski and Bellaire product Keith Pitts.
During his career at Tennessee, Majors coached Cadiz High graduate and OVAC Hall of Famer Jani Trupovnieks. He played along the Volunteer offensive line from 1978-1981.