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The quarterback who never lost, OU's Jimmy Harris, dies at 76

by Berry Tramel Published: August 9, 2011

Jimmy Harris finally lost one.

The quarterback who never lost a game, the oil man who rarely lost a deal, the charming Texan who seldom lost a conversation, lost the one we all will lose.

Lung cancer got him, Monday night, at the age of 76, a number that will startle those who knew him unless they saw him in his final days. Harris always looked 20 years younger than he really was; always looked like he belonged to Barry Switzer's era, not to Bud Wilkinson's.

I first met Harris on the streets of St. Louis, at Wilkinson's funeral in 1994. Harris was with his old Sooner pal Jerry Tubbs. No offense, Jerry, but Harris looked like your son.

But the fountain of youth is not what makes Harris a seminal figure in Oklahoma history.

Harris hasn't played Oklahoma football in 55 years and didn't even make all-Big Seven when he did. But few Sooners leave a legacy to match Harris'.

In a Norman Rockwell era, on a Norman Rockwell football team, the kid from Terrell, Texas, had style.

“He had a flair about him that was just national champion confidence,” said Gerald McPhail, Harris' teammate on the 1954 and 1955 Sooners. “A ‘here I am, come on guys, let's go get it now.' He made everybody feel confident. He had that air about him that was really special.”

Harris started 25 OU games at quarterback. He won them all. Basically ruined the position for everyone who ever followed. Steve Davis went 32-1-1 as a starter; got booed in the game he lost. Jack Mildren was the best quarterback OU ever had, but the Sooners didn't win championships and Mildren never was fully appreciated. Jason White won a Heisman Trophy; some wanted him benched that season in the second half of the Sugar Bowl.

In large part because Harris won them all. Led a team that made losing a foreign concept. The Sooners won 47 straight games, from early 1953 to late 1957, and Harris quarterbacked more than half those wins, while leading two national-title teams.

Harris was ahead of his time. Brash. Self-assured. Nothing like his coach, the stately Bud, who nevertheless formed a father/son-like bond with the boy who was 10 when his father died.

Before Switzer and Boz and Jamelle Holieway, there was Jimmy Harris.

"Jimmy led by doing,” said Bob Burris, an all-Big Seven halfback at OU in 1955. “He was cocky, but he could do it.”

Said another teammate, Byron Searcy, “Very self-confident. The kind of person you need when the chips were down.”

For instance, that 1956 Colorado game I wrote about a few weeks ago, when OU trailed 19-6 at halftime, took the second-half kickoff and faced 4th-and-2 from the Sooner 28-yard line. Harris, who called the plays, ignored protocol and called a running play. Wilkinson let the gamble stand, and Clendon Thomas battered for a first down. The Sooners rallied to a 27-19 victory.

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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