John A. Merritt, one of Tennessee’s most successful football coaches, was born on January 26, 1926, in Falmouth, Kentucky, the son of a stonemason, Bradley Merritt and his wife, Grace. After completing grade school, he moved to Louisville to live with an aunt in order to be eligible to attend Central High School, where he played football. Merritt joined the U.S. Navy after graduation. When he returned from military service, Merritt earned a football scholarship to Kentucky State College. In 1947 he married Maxine Owens, and they had a daughter, Bonita (Bonnie) Merritt Traughber. After receiving his college degree, Merritt entered graduate school in 1950. He coached football at Versailles High School and Jackson State University before coming to Tennessee State University.
TSU’s President Walter S. Davis hired Merritt in 1963. Over the next twenty years he continued to enhance the university’s rich football tradition, completing four undefeated seasons and winning six national championships and four black college football titles. Edward “Too-Tall” Jones, Waymond Byrant, and Joe Gilliam were among the many outstanding players Merritt sent to professional football. Some twenty-three Merritt-coached players distinguished themselves in the NFL, including six who played in the Super Bowl. In addition, twenty-nine assistants, three head coaches, and five athletic directors played for Coach Merritt.
John Merritt compiled thirty straight winning seasons. 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 his team achieved a national defensive record for allowing opponents a measly average of 2.15 yards per carry. He was Coach of the Year in 1973. Merritt’s team received the Associated Press and the United Press International small college championships in 1975. 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. 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. Coach Merritt died on December 15, 1983.
Not only was he considered a great coach, college professor, and family man, but “Big John” Merritt was a “people person.” Men and women of all ages, races, and colors loved and respected him. He commanded the support and loyalty of local politicians and leaders for the TSU football program. He took care to see that “my boys” got their lessons and graduated. Merritt believed “A black kid doesn’t understand how to win just for the sake of winning. He has to have a reason to win . . . The same damn thing holds true here at Tennessee State University.” (1) John Ayers Merritt knew how to win and how to teach generations of college students to win.