The name Jimmy Harris will mean very little, if anything, to the current generation of Oklahoma football fans.
For those of us, however, who saw the great Sooner teams in the 1950s play with him at quarterback, it represented college football at its best. Oklahoma was the Alabama of college football back then, and Jimmy Harris was a big part of the Sooner’s mid-century success.
Harris played quarterback for Bud Wilkinson’s undefeated Oklahoma teams from 1954 through 1956. He took over the starting quarterback duties in the second game of the 1954 season, at the front end of the Sooners’ incredible 47-game winning streak. The Sooner starter, Gene Calame, suffered a broken collarbone against TCU in OU’s second game that season. Harris came on to lead OU to a come-from-behind 21-16 victory after trailing 2-0 at halftime.
Harris started 25 games at quarterback for the Sooners and will forever be remembered as the Oklahoma quarterback who never lost a game, going a perfect 25-0 in three seasons and leading OU to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and ’56.
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But quarterback wasn’t the only position Harris played for the Sooners. The native of Terrell, Texas, located approximately 30 miles east of Dallas, played at a time when platooning was not in vogue like it is today. Players saw action on both offense and defense. When Harris wasn’t leading the Oklahoma offense at QB, he could be found at defensive back, chasing down ball carriers and covering receivers. And that’s not all. he also returned punts.
In fact, one of his greatest plays as a Sooner came on a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in Oklahoma’s win over TCU in his sophomore season.
After Oklahoma, Harris was a fifth-round NFL Draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles and played four NFL seasons with four different teams. In 1958, he was traded by the Eagles to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for QB Norm Van Brocklin, who led the Eagles to the NFL championship in 1960.
Harris’ individual stats were not overwhelming by any means. His career rushing yardage was nearly 500 yards more than his passing yards. He passed for more than 100 yards in a game just once in three seasons, but the Sooners didn’t throw many passes then, preferring to keep the ball on the ground.
Harris was never in the running for a Heisman Trophy, like three other recent Sooner quarterbacks who have won college football’s most coveted individual award. In fact, he never made All-American or was named to the All-Big Seven Team, according to a 2011 article by Oklahoma City Oklahoman sports columnist Berry Tramel.
In Jim Dent’s 2001 book, “The Undefeated: The Oklahoma Sooners and the Greatest Winning Streak in College Football,” he recounts a personal letter Bud Wilkinson sent to Harris, in which the legendary coach wrote:
“When (I’m) interviewed, I always try to avoid the question, ‘Who is the best player you coached?’ If the reporter persists, I always say someone you have not heard too much about. He played both ways. He started 33 games. We won all 33. The man is Jim Harris.”
What Harris did best was win, and he did that better than any Sooner player in his era or after. Oklahoma was 31-0 in his three varsity seasons. Only one other Oklahoma quarterback comes close to Harris 25-0 record as the starter. Steve Davis was 32-1-1 between 1973 and 1975. (The one loss was in 1975 to unranked Kansas while OU was ranked No. 2 in the country, and the tie was a 7-7 draw with top-ranked USC in Davis’ sophomore season.)
Harris died in 2011, at the age of 76, from lung cancer.
In his 2011 column honoring Davis’ life and career as an Oklahoma Sooner, Tramel began with the lead sentence: “Jimmy Harris finally lost one.”
Tramel wasn’t totally correct. It wasn’t just Harris’ loss. It was a loss for every Sooner football fan.