“If Major Harris played in the spread offenses of today, he would’ve been the greatest quarterback to ever crap on the ground.” That’s a quote from my dad, a 1977 West Virginia University graduate, who had the pleasure of watching Major Claybourne Harris quarterback the Mountaineers from 1987-89. “He was Michael Vick before nationally televised games were everywhere.”
I love when sports teams’ fan bases debate their team’s Mount Rushmore. For the young lads, many might start with Pat White and Steve Slaton and finish it off with Geno Smith and Tavon Austin. But for the old grads, they’re all going to start with Major Harris.
There are schools like Alabama that don’t retire any player’s number, and then there are those, like West Virginia’s week one opponent, who have retired many. I tend to prefer somewhere in between, as only the most legendary should be immortalized. In college football, a sport in which practically every one and two-digit number is used, retiring that player’s number doesn’t always mean that number won’t be worn again. Retired jersey numbers just become more revered.
Like Ira Errett Rodgers and Sam Huff before him, West Virginia should retire Major Harris’s No. 9 jersey, and the school should do it this year, during the 30-year anniversary of West Virginia’s 1988 squad that played for a national championship.
Harris’ passing numbers weren’t gaudy like Geno Smith’s and his rushing numbers were less than half of that of Pat White’s, but more important than the statistics were Major Harris’ qualities as a player.
For one, Harris had a cannon, and many of the fans who came to watch his pregame warmup had the opportunity to witness his arm strength on full display. He would toss ball after ball over the field goal post’s crossbar, all while kneeling from the opponent’s 40-yard line.
Harris had a killer juke, too. You can find no better proof of it than during one of the most iconic plays in West Virginia football history. If you’re a WVU fan, you know all about “The Play” against Penn State in 1988.
It was arguably Harris and West Virginia’s biggest win during his three-year career, as a national audience (and a packed house at Mountaineer Field) witnessed the Mountaineers win their second game against Penn State in 33 years. The ’88 team finished with 563 yards of total offense and rung up more points on a Joe Paterno-led team than any other WVU squad ever assembled.
That win vaulted the Mountaineers into the national championship picture, boosting the national perception of the program. And while the team did have talent elsewhere, it was obvious to those in Morgantown that Harris was the one who made the team elite. That was never more clear than when Mike Stonebreaker separated Harris’s shoulder in the first quarter of the national championship game on January 2, 1989.
For the younger readers out there, think about Colt McCoy versus Alabama in the 2009 national championship game. The scenarios played out identically.
If there are two statistics that illuminate Harris’ greatness, it’s that he finished as the nation’s leader in passing efficiency and passing yards per attempt without playing in a spread offense. He slung it deep, and he slung it well.
He finished with a 25-10-1 career record, passing for 7,334 yards and rushing for 2,161, while accounting for 59 total touchdowns in three seasons as a starter. Six of those losses came by a combined 17 points. Despite losing all three of the bowls games he participated in, he got West Virginia to a national title game, something the program hasn’t achieved since he took his pads off. He’s a rightful member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
It’s impossible to say for certain whether West Virginia’s rise as a national contender in the late 80s has had any correlation to the program’s success over the last 15 years. Regardless, the greatness of Major Harris marks the beginning of the modern era of success for WVU football.
Harris should be on everyone’s Mount Rushmore of WVU football, and his number should be enshrined at Milan Puskar Stadium. There’s no more meaningful opportunity than to honor him this year, during this particular season.