Former Tennessee kicker Alan Duncan recalls playing for Johnny Majors
By: Joe Davis
(Junior Staff Writer)
The All Vol Call in Show
Former Tennessee kicker Alan Duncan was at Tennessee from 1976-1980 and was drafted in the 7th round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1981. After his football career ended, his family spent 16 years doing ministry work in South Africa before returning to East Tennessee in 2008. Duncan has been a volunteer coach with Carson Newman since returning to Tennessee.
Duncan played for coach Johnny Majors during his time at Tennessee. Following the recent “Johnny Majors Classic” I wanted to speak with some of Majors’ former players, and get a feel for what it was like to play for the legendary coach.
“I grew up in Kenya,” said Duncan. “My parents were missionaries, so I played soccer and rugby, and hadn’t played any football. I walked-on at the invitation of coach Bill Battle, I think mainly because he’d never gotten a letter from anyone in Kenya looking for a scholarship. I was the 13th string kicker when I arrived. The starter had had a bad year the year before, and everyone in the state who could kick came out that year. That was Battle’s last year. He was the one who had given me a chance, but i'd end up playing for Coach Majors. I can tell you from a bird's eye view about his first few weeks on campus,” Duncan added with a laugh.
“He (Majors) had just won the National Championship with Pittsburgh.” said Duncan. “They (the staff) were a bunch of tough, hard-nosed coaches, and felt like Tennessee had gotten soft. They were not Battle fans, and they felt like the program wasn’t where it needed to be. We didn’t have this great facility like they have now. We had “the bubble” . It was two tennis courts and half of a football field with old turf from when they had re-turfed Neyland, and there wasn’t a single thing in there that said “Tennessee” on it -- nothing. They set trash cans up and gave us gray t-shirts and shorts”.
“They said, ‘We want 15 scholarships, so we can get some decent athletes in here, and we can’t take your scholarship, but we're gonna run ya’,” Duncan recalled. “If you puke on this turf, you’re in trouble. If you go out that door, we got your scholarship. In two weeks, they had 15 scholarships”
“It was the roughest two weeks of my life,” Duncan exclaimed. “Sprints, sprints, and more sprints. They ran us incredibly hard. We had to wrestle. I ended up wrestling an Idaho state wrestling champ who wound up playing nose tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”
Duncan recalled how hard-nosed Majors was, but how much he loved and appreciated the coaching style.
“He was very tough, but I loved him and he loved me,” said Duncan. “I worked my way up to the second string. The starter had a mediocre season my redshirt sophomore year, and Coach Majors said he was willing to give me a chance. We ended up signing the number-one kicker in the country, so I had to get hungry. I had to really work hard, but he told me if I was the best kicker coming out of fall practice ‘we’ll start ya,’ and they gave me the job. I was very grateful.”
“He was just a great coach,” Duncan added. “Just look at his coaching tree; it’s amazing actually. Names such as Jon Gruden, Jimmy Johnson, Phillip Fulmer, and Jackie Sherrill all were assistants to Coach Majors.”
“I’ll always remember him saying, ‘practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect,’” Duncan said with laughter. “I heard it every day.”
“There was no such thing as being late,” Duncan added. “15 minutes early for meetings was the standard, and you knew it. He feared absolutely no one. He knew what he wanted out of his players. He’d rip on his coaches too, he knew what he wanted out of them as well.”
Duncan recalled the impact that Majors had on him, and continues to have.
“Coach Majors had a lot of respect for me as a missionary kid and believer in Christ,” he said. “He always wanted to have discussions on theology, and he was a really smart guy. He’d really thought it through. But when I think about the impact he had on me, to think he took a chance on a kid who was from Kenya, spoke Swahili and was mostly a soccer/rugby player, I can’t believe he took a chance on me. I have often told Coach Majors I’m thankful he took a chance on me and I remember him telling me ‘I like the look in your eyes.’ Duncan recalled.
Duncan went on to tell one of his favorite stories about coach Majors.
“My wife and I lived in South Africa for 16 years, and I missed a lot of football,” he said. “I’d see him, and he’d see me, and immediately talk about my five-field-goal game against Kentucky, telling me I had ‘ice in my veins.’ He was 87 years old, and sharp as a razor. They let all us old players run through the ‘T’ at the Florida game. They had given us these ‘VFL’ shirts with our name and number on the back. I’m standing there with Dale Schnidman and Coach Majors says, ‘I’m 80 years old and I don’t wanna get knocked over. Dale I want you on one side and Duncan you on the other.’
“Coach Majors puts this shirt on, and it’s on backwards. He has his name and number on the front, and I said, ‘Dale we can’t let him go out here with his shirt on backwards.’ Dale looked at me and said, ‘I ain’t telling him.’ So I think I’ll be smooth about it and let him know. I said, ‘hey coach I think the number and the name go on the back.’
“Coach has his coat in his arms, and he hasn’t put it back on yet. He looks at me and says “Duncan, I've not got dementia! I know exactly what I'm doing. When I run through that ‘T’ and there's about 300 of us with these ‘VFL’ shirts, who do you think they’re gonna take a picture of? They're gonna see ‘Johnny Majors #45’ and you and I are going to be on the front page of the newspaper.”
“On the front of the Tennessee website the next day, there was me and Coach Majors running through the ‘T’,” Duncan added. “He was always great to me”.
“When I think about Coach Majors, he’d always say he was looking for someone with tenacity. He would go over those game maxims and really emphasize that we just don’t quit. He’d remind us to ‘ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK.’ He would tell us that it was better to try and fail than fail to try. That’s what I took away from him.”
“When I think of him, I think of tenacity,” Duncan said in finality. He was just gritty and tough. Never wavering, and never quitting. Straight ahead; that’s Johnny Majors -- straight ahead.”