The Hall Calls
April 30, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Don Nehlen had to make a very difficult decision to make in the spring of 1987: start strong-armed quarterback Browning Nagle or go with Major Harris – a run-first-throw-second option guy from Pittsburgh that nobody else wanted.
Nehlen didn’t have a crystal ball, but he had a hunch and he decided to go with Harris while encouraging Nagle to transfer to a school that threw the ball more. Nagle went on to have an outstanding college career at Louisville and was eventually a No. 1 draft pick. Harris, of course, led West Virginia to the top of college football while becoming one of the the great players in Mountaineer history.
Today, Harris is one of college football’s all-time greats.
Harris and 15 others were announced this afternoon as the newest members of the College Football Hall of Fame. They will be introduced this winter in New York City and will be officially inducted next fall in South Bend, Ind.
“That is great,” said Nehlen. “No. 1 it’s terrific that he is being honored. People don’t realize what a great award that is until you go to that banquet. He has joined the elite of the elite.”
Harris was one of the game’s innovating players in the late 1980s leading the Mountaineers to the national championship game against Notre Dame and bowl appearances in 1987 and 1989. At a time when the drop-back, pro-style passing game was in vogue, Harris was a dual-threat quarterback who burned college defenses with his arm and his feet.
“He was ahead of his time,” Nehlen admitted. “We ran a lot of option football but in the spread offenses today he would be sensational because he is so strong.”
Harris passed for 1,915 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 610 yards and six TDs as a sophomore in 1988, leading West Virginia to an 11-0 record and a meeting against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the 1989 national championship.
A year later, Harris helped WVU to a Gator Bowl appearance against Clemson by passing for 2,058 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushing for 936 yards and six scores. In 34 career games, Harris accumulated 7,334 yards of offense and averaged 7.2 yards per play.
“That ’88 team was the best football team that I had ever been around or ever coached,” Nehlen said. “We not only won, we blew people away.”
West Virginia won easily that year because it had a quarterback in Harris that teams simply could not defend.
“We did a lot with him because he could do a lot and he never got hurt,” Nehlen explained. “That’s the big thing. When you’ve got a quarterback and he’s carrying the ball 12-15 times a game and 240-pound linebackers are cracking him, it makes you nervous.”
Harris was a two-time ECAC player of the year in 1988 and 1989, and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1988. He was only the second player in FBS history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and rush for more than 2,000 during his career.
Nehlen said it is remarkable what Harris achieved because West Virginia was about the only school that recruited him out of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“Arizona State, I believe, was the only other school to offer Maj a scholarship and he was right in Pitt’s backyard,” Nehlen recalled. “What a story.”
Nehlen once had Harris at camp and it was then that Nehlen came to realize what a special athlete Harris was.
“I watched him and I saw the strength he had and how quick he could get away from people,” Nehlen remembered. “They had a devil of a time touching him because we were just playing two-hand touch and I said, ‘If they can’t touch this guy, how are the going to tackle him?’”
What made Harris so special to his teammates and to all West Virginians was his infectious personality. Harris once collected seven write-in votes during the 1988 West Virginia gubernatorial election.
“When you get around him he always grins and smiles,” Nehlen said. “He makes you feel good because he’s just a fun-type guy.
“That’s the way he played football, too. Football to Maj was a real game. He liked to compete. Football players today lift and run and do all those things and Major’s great workout was to go over to the gym and play a pickup game of basketball. He wanted to compete.”
Major left school a year early in 1990 to pursue a professional career that eventually fizzled out in the Arena Football League.
“He made a mistake going out early and he knows that,” Nehlen said. “I knew it at the time. But he came back and he got his degree and that speaks highly of Major.”
Today, Nehlen is still amazed at how easily recognizable Major Harris is and the weight his name still carries more than 20 years after he last played at West Virginia.
“The thing about Major Harris that is really amazing is his name. The press and the media just loved him,” Nehlen said. “I’m sure those people who voted went through that list and saw Major Harris and said, ‘I’m voting for him.’
“He has such a name even to this day.”
Harris joins Nehlen and nine others with West Virginia University ties in the College Football Hall of Fame. Nehlen was inducted in 2005.
Former WVU coach Bobby Bowden was inducted last year.
Others affiliated with WVU in the College Football Hall of Fame include: Bruce Bosley, Sam Huff, Earle “Greasy” Neale, Ira Errett Rodgers, Ben Schwartzwalder, Clarence Spears, Joe Stydahar and Fielding Yost.
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