MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s meeting with Clemson in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl reacquaints one-time Southern Conference partners who have only played each other once previously on the gridiron. That lone meeting came in the 1989 Mazda Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Tigers won the game 27-7, but the contest was much closer than the final score indicated. West Virginia was trailing just 10-7 heading into the fourth quarter before the roof collapsed.
“We played well for a while and fell apart at the end,” recalled former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. “They were a better football team than we were, up front especially.”
Clemson’s defense featured outside linebacker Levon Kirkland, 10-year pro Ed McDaniel at middle linebacker, and Chester McGlockton, a young backup defensive tackle that season who ended up scoring the final touchdown of the game when he sacked West Virginia quarterback Major Harris in the end zone and recovered his fumble.
“It was one of those games,” said Harris.
“It seemed like anytime we were rated No. 15 we played 10 and when we were 10 we played No. 5, and all I ever heard about was we couldn’t win a bowl game,” said Nehlen. “Every bowl game we didn’t play somebody as good as us we beat them.”
The 1989 Gator Bowl turned out to be Major’s last as a Mountaineer quarterback, despite Harris still possessing one more season of collegiate eligibility. And Nehlen could sense from the practices leading up to the game that Harris was going to turn pro.
“We were having trouble with Major then,” Nehlen recalled. “He was a mega star, so to speak.”
Prior to the bowl, Harris had just returned from New York City where he finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Houston’s Andre Ware and Indiana’s Anthony Thompson and there were questions about whether or not he was going to re-enroll in school after the bowl game. Plus, he was also nursing an injured elbow that forced him to sit out some of the practices down in Jacksonville leading up to the game, affecting the team’s preparation.
“It didn’t affect me throwing,” Harris said of his elbow injury. “After the game I took the wrap off and I guess the pressure of having the wrap on made all of the swelling dissipate.”
But a sore throwing elbow was the least of Major’s problems. At that time he had a bunch of people in his ear feeding him bad information about his professional football possibilities.
“An agent told his mother that Major was going to get a million dollars if he came out early,” Nehlen said. “I told her he was lying to you. If Major was going to get a million dollars, I’d usher him out of here.”
“There was stuff that I might be leaving,” added Harris. “There was a lot of speculation during the year.”
Harris admits he was a very confused young man at the time.
“When you run into a situation like that and you haven’t totally made up your mind yet, but at the same time you’re doing things that are leading people to believe you might do this or that, I will honestly say as far as with me, it was a situation where I had people in my ear and I think I was getting the wrong information at the time, now that I look back on it,” said Harris.
Immediately after the game, instead of returning to Morgantown with the team, Harris hopped a flight to Los Angeles to meet with an agent, thus completely eliminating the option of returning to school for his senior season.
“I had no money, so I go out there and sign with an agent,” Harris said. “Now when I look back on it, if that agent really had my best interests at heart, he would have told me to go back with the team and he would get up with me later. But when you’re young, sometimes you can get caught up in the mix.”
In the third quarter when the game began unraveling for West Virginia, a baby-faced Chris Fowler, working the game as a sideline reporter for ESPN, pulled Major’s mother out of the stands and fed her a series of leading questions about her son’s professional aspirations. Mrs. Harris, upset with the way the game was going and watching her son under duress for much of the evening, complained about West Virginia’s offensive line and thought it might be in Major’s best interests to turn pro. It was not a good PR moment for West Virginia University.
“I didn’t see it but years later it was brought to my attention,” Harris said. “They said, ‘Maj, your mom said to turn pro.’ She’s seeing her son getting sacked and as a mom, she’s like ‘he can’t get hurt.’ In her mind, she’s probably thinking, well, if he’s going to get hurt, he might as well try and make money and it probably came across wrong.
“It was in the spur of the moment,” Harris added. “I remember once during a boxing match a guy was getting beat up and his mom went up in the ring and started beating on the other guy with a shoe.”
With the benefit of 20 year's worth of introspection, Harris admits he would have done things differently, including the way he communicated his intentions to Nehlen.
“When you have so much respect for a coach, in a sense, and this may sound crazy, but you don’t want to hear from him because it might seem like you are going against him,” said Harris. “It’s almost like being a parent … all to hell with it I’m going to do this. That way you don’t have to hear what they’ve got to say. Now a person could take that as disrespecting a parent, but you don’t want to disrespect them, so you go off on your own and do what you have in your mind to do.”
If Harris had gotten sound advice, he would have taken more time to explore his options before making a final decision.
“It was a situation of I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I think I was being interviewed and I said something like I didn’t want to go to spring conditioning and then I’m turning pro.
“Most of the guys I was playing with were leaving,” Harris explained. “The guys I had played with the year before, when we were playing for the national championship, all of those guys graduated.”
Harris says younger players facing similar issues today have a process they can go through to determine their position in the draft - information he didn’t have access to back in 1989.
“They have a thing where you find out where you’re going and if you aren’t graded high enough, you can go back to school,” said Harris. “They didn’t have that in place when I was coming out.”
As for that Gator Bowl meeting against Clemson, Harris admits the Tigers were the superior football team - with or without all of the distractions leading up to the game.
“The opening drive we came out and I think we just took it down the field and scored, and then after that, they kind of locked us up,” he said.