John Ayers Merritt was born in Falmouth, KY on January 26, 1926. He was the son of Bradley and Grace Ayers Merritt. His father was a stonemason. The family lived on Licking Street for a period of time before moving to Fourth Street. Merritt attended the “colored” schools in Falmouth for his earliest education. When he reached high school age, he moved to Louisville to live with an aunt, making him eligible to attend Central High School where he graduated in 1943. While a student, Merritt played guard on the football team.
He served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, being discharged in 1946. After this, he was awarded a scholarship at Kentucky State College (later named Kentucky State University) in 1947. Merritt earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1950 and played offensive guard on the school’s football team. It was here he earned the nickname, “Big John”. In 1952, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky. At this point, he was appointed head football coach at Versailles High School in Woodford County, Kentucky.
In 1953, Merritt began his college coaching career as the head football coach at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Through the 1962 season, his record was 63-37-5. He led the team to back to back appearances, 1961 and 1962, in the Orange Blossom Classic with the Jackson State Tigers defeating Florida A & M in the 1962 game. The A & M Rattlers, coached by Hall of Famer Jake Gaither, were the highest ranked team in Black College Football during that era, and this victory gave the Tigers their first Black College National Championship.
Merritt had ten highly successful years coaching at Jackson State before accepting a position at Tennessee State College (known as Tennessee A & I until 1968) in Nashville, Tennessee where he would remain until his retirement in 1983. While at Tennessee State, he had 21 straight winning seasons, including four undefeated seasons. With help from his assistant coaches, including Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman, who came with Merritt to TSU from Jackson State in 1963, Merritt implemented a wide open pro-type T offense with multiple sets. In 1967, his team achieved a national defensive record for allowing opponents an average of 2.15 yards per carry.
The TSU Tigers were national champions among historically black colleges seven times during Coach Merritt’s tenure (1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1979 and 1982) and earned the school’s first-ever NCAA Division I-AA playoff victory in 1982 after making it as far as the quarterfinals the previous year. Additionally, TSU earned four Midwest Athletic Association titles during Merritt’s career.
Merritt took the TSU Tigers to five post-season bowl games comprised of four trips to the Grantland Rice Bowl and one to the Pioneer Bowl. The first bowl game, in 1965, pitted the Tigers against the Ball State Cardinals and resulted in a tie. They returned to the Grantland Rice Bowl in 1966, 1970, and 1971, winning each time. (The Grantland Rice Bowl existed from 1964 through 1977 and was for, what was later known as, Division II teams. It was named for Grantland Rice, an early 20th century American sportswriter known for his elegant prose, and was originally played in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.) In 1972, the Tigers went to the Pioneer Bowl. (This Pioneer Bowl was played between 1971 and 1982 as a regional final or as a play-off game for Division II or I-AA teams before returning in 1997 - 2012 when it was played between historically black colleges and universities.) The TSU Tigers earned the Associated Press and the United Press International small college championships in 1975.
During his coaching career, he had over 30 consecutive winning seasons. When he retired, his overall record was 215- 64-9, third best in the nation at that time, behind Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, and Eddie Robinson at Grambling University. In 2018, he was ranked #38 among the winningest coaches in College football, wedged between Woody Hayes at #37 (Ohio State) and Christ Ault at #39 (Nevada).
One source stated that Merritt sent over 200 players to the NFL. At least twenty-three of his players distinguished themselves in professional football; six playing in Super Bowl games. Among them were: Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Joe “Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam, Claude Humphrey, Willie Richardson, and Richard Dent – all household names in the 1960s and 70s.
A former player, Gene Bright, referred to Merritt as a “hulking, larger-than- life original who smoked big cigars, dominated the room, won football games with great regularity and watched over his players like a gruff but benevolent dictator.” He also referred to Merritt as a mentor who helped him advance his education and get his first college coaching job.
The Falmouth Outlook, dated 12 Nov 1971, was not sent to Coach John Merritt, although he had a subscription. Editor Warren Shonert personally delivered it, and an apology for it being late, on Saturday of that week instead. The secondary headline for that issue read “Pendleton- Falmouth Group Going to Nashville, Tenn. Saturday to Honor Native Son, John Ayers Merritt” and, of course, the paper’s arrival would ruin the surprise. The fifty-member group was headed to the W.J. Hale Stadium on the campus of TSU to take part in John Ayers Merritt Day. They planned to arrive by the 2 pm game time.
At halftime, Merritt’s mother was brought onto the field. He introduced her to the crowd. This was the first time she had seen a game when her son was a coach. Mayor Max Goldberg brought a greeting from Falmouth to the crowd. A committee composed of Mayor Max Goldberg, County Judge Ambrose Fields, Eddie McGee, Bill Graves, Jim Kimble, Attorney Bob Bathalter, and Warren Shonert of the Falmouth Outlook had been formed to organize the event and they were introduced at the half-time festivities as well.
Many honors were bestowed upon Merritt that day from the folks of Pendleton County. During the half-time program, and on behalf of the Governor of Kentucky, Wendell Ford, Shonert presented Merritt with a Kentucky Colonel’s Commission. Harry Crozier, of Falmouth, presented Merritt with the game ball. The coach and his family left the game after the half-time program, leaving his assistant coaches at the helm. TSU was victorious over Wisconsin State, 54-7.
Later that evening, a dinner was held in his honor with the homefolks in attendance and more gifts and honors were presented to Merritt. The Falmouth Outlook ran additional coverage the following week.
In 1982, the city of Nashville honored him by renaming a portion of Centennial Boulevard (between 28th and 44th Avenue) John Ayers Merritt Boulevard. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994. The John A. Merritt Classic, started in 1999, honors him. It is only one of the two football Classics solely hosted by a single institution to raise funds for scholarships and other related needs for students. The Classic also provides a weekend community outreach through various activities.
In all, Merritt was humble, often giving praise to God for his success. He acknowledged the abilities of his staff and players often and minimized his role in the success of his team. His life was a lesson in patience, tenacity, and overcoming adversity.