Major Harris gets his number retired by West Virginia, too

WVU Mountaineers Major Harris
Getty Images

When I saw yesterday that the folks up the road from me at West Virginia University had decided to retire the No. 90 worn by former Mountaineers linebacker Darryl Talley, my first thought was, “Well, if they’re retiring Talley’s number, when are they retiring Major’s number?”

They announced it on Friday.

I walked outside this morning to get the newspaper, popped it open, and saw that Major’s No. 9 also will be forever set aside by WVU on November 6.

I still think of Major Harris simply as “Major.” In 1988, if you said that word anywhere within the jagged and random but ultimately unique and memorable borders of the state that many still stupidly think is part of Virginia, everyone know who you meant. I arrived in Morgantown for law school that year, the year Major become a phenomenon, leading the Mountaineers to their first 11-0 season and, but for a shoulder injury suffered early in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, a potential first and only national championship.

Major played even better the next year, but the team around him wasn’t nearly as good. In only three seasons, he became the first college player to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 5,000.

It didn’t help him at the next level. Harris fell all the way to round twelve, with 316 players picked before him before the Raiders put his name on a card. It didn’t help that Harris showed up for the Scouting Combine woefully unprepared for the workouts, wearing blue jeans and a dress shirt. Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been decked out in whatever the state-of-the-art track gear was at the time.

They just didn’t like me,” Harris told Sports Illustrated after the draft.

The quotes from Harris appeared in an article that tried to make sense of both Harris and Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice, whose teams finished with a combined record of 53-13-1, getting the cold shoulder from the NFL. At least Harris got drafted; Rice wasn’t even among the 331 players selected that year.

Here’s what Dick Steinberg, who served at the time as G.M. of the Jets, had to say to SI about Harris and Rice: “What you had was 28 scouts who all saw the same thing — that these are two quarterbacks who do not have NFL passing ability or the skills to develop into NFL quarterbacks.”

Said an anonymous scout (yes, they existed back in 1990) regarding Harris: “He does not throw that well. His accuracy is not consistent, he winds up and throws like a third baseman, and he lacks precision, a quick release and a strong arm.”

In response, watch the highlights.

Is his throwing motion perfect? No. Are there starting quarterbacks currently in the NFL and/or 2021 first-round picks whose throwing motion is the same or worse? Yes.

Said Major’s father, Joseph Harris, at the time, “I think the pros were too busy looking at Major’s faults instead of at his talent.”

What Major may have lacked in high-end passing skills (and he really wasn’t lacking all that much), he made up for in elusiveness. Here’s the signature play of his career, against Penn State in 1988. Now, check out this one, from the following season against the same team. It didn’t count because a lineman released, thinking Harris would be running. Look at how Harris moved, how he bought time. How he kept the play alive long enough to find an open man.

I remember thinking at the time that Major would have maybe fared better in the draft if he’d returned for the 1990 season. But now I know that’s incorrect. Major was simply ahead of his time, by about 30 years. The pro game wasn’t ready for him. He didn’t fit with the way things were done in the NFL, and the NFL remained decades away from realizing the benefit of not making a great quarterback fit an offense but of making an offense fit a great quarterback.

Also, one of the most important skills modern teams crave is the ability to take a bad play and improvise it into a good one. Harris could do that. The league just wasn’t ready for it.

None of that means that an NFL team would have ended up retiring Major’s number, but it’s hard not to think about how he would have fared in the pro game if he’d played in today’s version of it. Chances are he would have been drafted a lot higher. Chances are he actually would have played in at least one regular-season NFL game.

Chances are that those YouTube highlights of him running rings around Nittany Lions also would have included clips of him confounding Bears, Bengals, and Packers, too.

19 responses to “Major Harris gets his number retired by West Virginia, too

  1. As a BC student at the time, I was very aware of Major Harris. Major shoulda won the Heisman in 89. Period. Andre Ware was trash yet the “expert” scouts believed he was better than Harris. SMH.

  2. Seems like yesterday. Around the time when I first started paying attention to football with my dad. Time flies. Side note, we were robbed of so many potentially great careers because old football people never took them seriously. Charlie Ward, these guys, and the list goes on. But they’d waste a pick in a minute on a Kelly Stouffer or Dan McGwire and try to develop them because they were “pocket passers.”

  3. It is very hard to win an NFL championship with a running back at QB. Many have tried, almost all have failed. That was true then and it remains true today. Harris should be recognized for his college accomplishments, but blaming the NFL for not seeing him as starting QB material is not valid.

  4. Incredible athlete. But he was never going to make it as a passer. The guy from those days who didn’t get a fair shake was Flutie.

  5. I missed the part about how Harris went to the CFL and proved everyone wrong (3 TDs and 3 picks as a backup) Maybe he was just not that good or did not have what it took. He did have 9 TDs and 9 picks in the Arena League so the scouts were apparently 100% accurate. He did have a QB/RB record in the arena league until Michael Bishop broke it.

  6. “Showed up at the Scouting Combine woefully unprepared…” but wasn’t drafted to be the leader of a team because they just didn’t like me. Perhaps the decision makers saw someone who lacked an essential quality to be a leader. No one who walks into a job interview woefully unprepared is surprised when someone is chosen.

  7. I can still hear Woody saying “Here comes the Major!” The greatest QB to ever wear the Blue & Gold. To the gentleman claiming Major couldn’t pass, he would’ve lead the NCAA in passing efficiency, but fell 5 attempts short his junior year. The NFL in the 80s & early 90s didn’t give black QBs a fair shot, look at the path Warren Moon had to take. Would’ve loved to see him have a chance in today’s game & then as well. Major was & is the one of the greatest Mountaineers ever! Lets Goooooooooooooooo Mountajneers!!!

  8. According to my records…Harris was 1-2 vs. PSU. His win was versus that juggernaut 5-6 Nittany Lion squad. C’mon man…lol !!

  9. Kelly Stouffler was awful and yet 2 teams wasted a first round pick on him.

  10. Why dies it have to be a conspiracy? I watched most of major’s games at wvu and loved watching him but never looked like an nfl qb at all. And then to hear him showing up for his combine interviews that way I’d say is a pretty big deal as well

  11. Whipping Penn States ass in 88 was so much fun. 41-8 at the half, Nehlen coasted in the 2nd so the little pedo enabler wouldn’t get too upset. I still see him complaining about the fans storming the field, like a whinny little worm. Should’ve been more worried about Sandusky than fans storming the field.

  12. realfootballfan says:
    July 3, 2021 at 10:26 am
    Seems like yesterday. Around the time when I first started paying attention to football with my dad. Time flies. Side note, we were robbed of so many potentially great careers because old football people never took them seriously. Charlie Ward, these guys, and the list goes on. But they’d waste a pick in a minute on a Kelly Stouffer or Dan McGwire and try to develop them because they were “pocket passers.”

    *****************************************

    Thank you for that comment Sir! I thought it was ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS that Charlie Ward after winning THE HEISMAN TROPHY & NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP was NOT considered a ” top pro QB prospect ” because he was only 6′ 1″ !!! Lol Yet Doug Flutie at 5 9 and some change was tall enough….

  13. Charlie Ward had a noodle arm and was never a great nfl prospect. Not everything is a conspiracy.

  14. As a season ticket holder, it was a great era for Mountaineer football. Major was ahead of his time: he could have been another Warren Moon or Randall Cunningham if the dual-threat QB was popular back then. I still have vivid memories of his head fakes and pump fakes and watching the entire Penn State line jump frantically trying to block the short pass, while Major sends it instead 50 yards to Calvin Phillips or Reggie Rembert for the score. Never mind that electric play where Major ran solo through the entire PSU defense for the score. The most exciting player WVU ever had. Go Mountaineers!

  15. Old Crow says:
    July 6, 2021 at 9:19 am
    As a season ticket holder, it was a great era for Mountaineer football. Major was ahead of his time: he could have been another Warren Moon or Randall Cunningham if the dual-threat QB was popular back then. I still have vivid memories of his head fakes and pump fakes and watching the entire Penn State line jump frantically trying to block the short pass, while Major sends it instead 50 yards to Calvin Phillips or Reggie Rembert for the score. Never mind that electric play where Major ran solo through the entire PSU defense for the score. The most exciting player WVU ever had. Go Mountaineers!

    ———————————————

    So Warren Moon got to the NFL in 1984 and Randall Cunningham in 1985. Harris didn’t leave WVU until the spring of 1990. How exactly was he ahead of his time in becoming another one of them when both were stars in the league years before Harris left school?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.