Johnny Majors finally received the ultimate honor from his alma mater Saturday.
In a move the vast majority of Tennessee football fans felt was overdue, Majors became the eighth Vol player to have his jersey retired.
A sell-out crowd roared its approval in a ceremony on the field at Neyland Stadium before Tennessee and Florida kicked off. Majors' No. 45 will be displayed on the rim of the upper deck alongside the other retired numbers.
"It's pretty difficult to properly say what it means to me,'' Majors said in a pregame phone call to WNML radio.
"I owe a lot to a lot of people and I couldn't name them all.''
The honor for the small-town Middle Tennessee native who made a name in college football both as a player and coach was officially approved by the UT Athletics Board on Saturday morning.
"It is only fitting to honor such a distinguished playing career," said Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart in a university release. "Johnny Majors is one of the greatest players in the rich and storied tradition of Tennessee football, and we are proud to bestow this honor upon him."
Majors, 77, is a native of Lynchburg. He played for the Vols from 1954-56. He was twice the SEC Player of the Year and an All-SEC selection at tailback. Major was a unanimous All-American in 1956, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
After coaching Pittsburgh to a national championship in 1976, he came home to UT and coached from 1977-92, compiling a 116-62-8 record. His teams won or shared SEC titles in 1985, 1989 and 1990.
Majors was forced to resign during a turbulent 1992 season which began shortly after he underwent heart-bypass surgery. A contract dispute figured in the acrimony, as did the rising popularity of Phillip Fulmer during his three-game stint as interim head coach.
The divisive ending left Majors at odds with the program, or at least with certain leadership figures. The frost began to thaw over the past several years.
Until 2005, the only retired numbers belonged to four players who died in World War II: Bill Nowling, Rudy Klarer, Willis Tucker and Clyde Fuson.
The number-retirement criteria announced by UT in 2005 weighed equally on not only collegiate but also NFL honors, essentially excluding any ex-Vols from consideration besides Peyton Manning, Reggie White and Doug Atkins, who were honored that season.
Majors' pro career consisted of a partial season in the Canadian Football League, which he abandoned to turn to coaching.
After Hart took over as athletic director last September, the criteria became subject to review. Majors is the first honoree under the revisions.
Tennessee said the No. 45, currently worn by linebacker A.J. Johnson, would remain in circulation in the future "based on the new criteria for these types of honors."
Tennessee said all future retired jerseys would also remain in circulation, but the previous seven numbers that have been retired will continue not to be worn unless "specific permission" is granted by the honoree or surviving family members.
Mike Strange covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Strangemike44.