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100 Moments: "Big John" Was Larger Than Life


Courtesy: Tennessee State Sports Information  
Release: 08/31/2012
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Courtesy: Tennessee State Athletics
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The 100 Moments of TSU Athletics presented by Taco Bell® series continues by recognizing one of the most well-respected coaches in Tennessee State history.

In 1963, TSU hired John Merritt to become the school's 14th football head coach. Merritt coached the Tigers for 20 years and amassed over 170 wins for TSU.

Over the course of his career, Merritt continued to enhance the university's rich football tradition- completing four undefeated seasons, winning six national championships and four black college football titles. Along with an excellent staff of assistant coaches which included Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman, who had accompanied Merritt to TSU from Jackson State in 1963, he implemented a wide open pro-type "T" offense with multiple sets.

In 1967, Merritt's team achieved a national defensive record for allowing opponents a paltry average of 2.15 yards per carry, and a year later he was Coach of the Year. Merritt's team received the Associated Press and the United Press International small college championships in 1975, and by 1979 he had a record of 130-25-5. Merritt modestly downplayed his role in the team's success and attributed the team's winning record to "the Good Lord."

The more games Merritt won and the more players he sent to the National Football League, the more attention Tennessee and Tennessee State University gained nationally. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter called to congratulate Merritt for his 200th victory.

The city of Nashville named John A. Merritt Boulevard (old Centennial Boulevard between Twenty-eighth and Forty-fourth Avenues) in his honor in 1982. By then, Merritt was in failing health. From 1963 until 1983, when he resigned, Merritt compiled a record of 172-33-7 at TSU and 232-65-11 overall.

During his career, Merritt built a powerful program that produced NFL stars like "Jefferson Street" Joe Gilliam (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ed "Too Tall" Jones (Dallas Cowboys), Claude Humphrey (Philadelphia Eagles) and many others.

This season marks the 14th annual John A. Merritt Classic played at LP Field in honor of the late coach.

This year's John Merritt Classic honors all of the players that played under "Big John" from NFL Hall of Famer Richard Dent to one-year letter winners. Every single student-athlete that Merritt coached could speak to his legendary personality and each was a part of Merritt's success. While coaching Merritt instructed his players on how to be winners, the players were ultimately the ones who performed on the field.  

For 2012's John Merritt Classic, lets all pay tribute to the man who accomplished so much during his life, but let's also celebrate the successes of the student-athletes whose lives he touched.

The 100 Moments of TSU Athletics presented by Taco Bell® highlights some of the greatest moments in honor of Tennessee State's centennial celebration. A new moment will be released each weekday for a total of 100. These moments were chosen by the TSU 100 Moments committee, which consists of alums from various departments. TSU has so many great moments, not all can be represented in these 100.

Sports Information Assistant Alex Mitchell contributed to this article.

Follow TSU Athletics on Facebook.com/TSUTigers and Twitter @TSU_Tigers.

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