Major Harris led West Virginia to the doorstep of a national championship in 1989.
WVU Sports Communications photo
This weekend, Harris joins 23 others being officially enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame. Festivities are already underway with a celebrity golf scramble, block party, parade and pep rally taking place today in South Bend, Ind. The enshrinement dinner and show will air on ESPN Saturday evening beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Harris was the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 yards and pass for 5,000 during his three-year Mountaineer career. In 1988, he led West Virginia to an 11-0 regular season record and a meeting against No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship. That year Harris completed 105 of 186 pass attempts for 1,915 yards and 14 touchdowns while also rushing 134 times for 610 yards and six scores. West Virginia had the nation’s No. 2-ranked scoring offense in ’88 averaging 42.9 points per game.
A year later, Harris almost singlehandedly guided WVU to the Gator Bowl, leading the team in passing (2,058 yards) and rushing (936 yards).
“Major Harris went a long way to destroy all of the stereotypes that a black player could not play quarterback,” said ESPN’s Mike Patrick.
“The guy was just a great play-maker who always seemed to find ways to come through in the clutch while making everyone around him better,” noted ESPN college football writer Bruce Feldman, who first joined ESPN The Magazine in 1995.
With the possible exception of Jeff Hostetler, no Mountaineer player before Harris has come close to receiving the extensive media coverage Major did during his playing says. Harris arrived at the same time ESPN was transforming college football into one of America’s most popular sports. Eight times Harris appeared on national television during his WVU career, including five appearances on the Family of Networks.
“I remember seeing Don Nehlen during Major’s redshirt freshman year when I was in Morgantown working a game and he said, ‘Mike, wait until you see the kid I’ve got for quarterback next year. He’s a good one,’” Patrick recalled.
The one Harris moment etched in everyone’s minds came against Penn State in 1988 when he faked out the entire Nittany Lion defense for a 26-yard touchdown. Patrick, who grew up in nearby Clarksburg and has closely followed the Mountaineers during his long and successful broadcasting career, fully understood the meaning of that touchdown run and subsequent victory to Mountaineer Nation.
“For all of the long suffering WVU fans to watch the way he played in that game took 25 years of frustration away,” Patrick said. “The play was an option to the right, he went left – he went in the wrong direction – and it was him against 11 white shirts. Eleven to one wasn’t good odds and he made one of the greatest runs of all-time. The circumstances and who it was against, that is what made it so special.”
There was another Harris play stuck in Patrick’s mind. It came during Major’s freshman year in 1987.
“He took a snap from center, scrambled around the backfield and a receiver was way down the field wide open 55 or 60 yards away and basically quit running because he felt the quarterback wasn’t going to throw the ball to him,” said Patrick. “Well, Major stopped on a dead run and threw it down the field about 10 yards over his head.”
Perhaps no one covering college football today has a better understanding of the history of the sport than Ivan Maisel, who worked for the Dallas Morning News in the late 1980s during Harris’ playing days. Maisel believes Harris was primarily responsible for turning West Virginia into a national football program in the late 1980s.
“Major Harris may not have been the first hybrid quarterback of the modern era – we now expect quarterbacks to have the ability to run and to pass – but in the late 1980s, Harris became a revelation,” Maisel said. “Defenses didn’t know how to handle him. His stewardship of the Mountaineers in those wonderful seasons of 1988-89 turned West Virginia from a regional team into a national team. The Mountaineers have been taken seriously ever since.”
ESPN columnist Mark Schlabach has a similar appreciation for the history of the sport, having graduated from the University of Georgia and spending two years covering college football for the Washington Post. Whenever Schlabach plays Mountaineer football word association, Major Harris is usually the first name that comes to his mind.
“When I think of West Virginia football I think of two players: Sam Huff and Major Harris,” Schlabach said. “Harris was light years ahead of the more mobile quarterbacks we see today. He had a rare combination of passing and running skills and nearly led the Mountaineers to the national championship.”
ESPN’s Pat Forde covered college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal in the late 1980s and was on hand to see Harris perform his magic against the Cardinals in 1989.
“Major Harris was, first and foremost, just a joy to watch,” said Forde. “He played quarterback with nerve and verve and charisma. He conjured big plays out of big trouble. He showcased great athleticism and great leadership and he really helped put West Virginia football on the map, taking the program to the brink of a national championship. When I think of Mountaineer football, he’s still one of the first two or three names that come to mind.”
Major Harris is the 11th person with WVU ties to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
The Sporting News’ Tom Dienhart also covered Harris while he was working in Pittsburgh at the Post-Gazette.
“In many ways, Major Harris was ahead of his time in his ability to control a game with his arm and his legs,” Dienhart said. “He was a true difference-maker, a leader and trend-setter who literally carried West Virginia to the precipice of the national championship. Few players have so dominated the way Harris did for WVU.”
Those influenced solely by Harris’ unsuccessful post-collegiate football career fail to understand his true impact on the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez has said on several different occasions that the genesis of his revolutionary no-huddle spread offense occurred in 1989 when he was a graduate assistant on Don Nehlen’s coaching staff and he saw all of the different ways Nehlen was using his best player.
Back in the 1980s, Major Harris – in Maisel’s words – was a revelation. Today, players like him are merely an expectation if you want to have a winning football program.
“I’m not sure any player made more of an impact for one team during the 1980s,” Schlabach said. “Just as importantly, Harris’ performance with the Mountaineers opened the door for later African-American quarterbacks like Charlie Ward, Michael Vick and Pat White.”
“I’ll ultimately remember Harris as the first dual-threat quarterback who paved the way for the likes of fellow Mountaineer Pat White, his impact on the current game, and what we’ve come to expect from the quarterback position can’t be underscored,” added CNNSI.com college football writer Cory McCartney.
“Major Harris took your breath away with the things he could do on the football field,” Patrick said. “I am so happy for him on this wonderful day.”
Mike Montoro contributed to this story.
1989 West Virginia University promotional video. Produced by MSN.