From UCLA To NCIS: Mark Harmon Still The Quarterback
By Brian Price
In one sense, Mark Harmon has played the same role for more than 30 years: team leader. From his time as a quarterback at UCLA until now, as producer and star of the CBS hit series "NCIS," Harmon has always treated teammates and production crews with familial respect and loyalty.
"I look at the show as a team," Harmon says. "I've always been a team guy. I'm not in [acting] for the personal part of this, and I wasn't as an athlete either. We're all a family."
In a recent taping of YES Network's "CenterStage" with Michael Kay, Harmon talked about the immense satisfaction he gets from being on a show that provides hundreds of people with dependable jobs.
"All the hard working folks on NCIS knew months ago that they could plan that family vacation or put the down payment on that fishing boat and that in July they have a job to come back to," he says. "That's important to me."
He developed his commitment to teamwork at UCLA, where he helped lead his team to one of the greatest upsets in NCAA football history against the then-two-time defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers. The win, which snapped Nebraska's 32-game win streak, helped the Bruins turn a major corner in restoring the program to national prominence.
The Bruins had finished the 1971 season 2-8-1. The 17-14 win over Nebraska was UCLA's first victory of the 1972 season, and Harmon went on to guide the Bruins to a 17-5 record over a two-year span before graduating cum laude in 1974.
Harmon is very much his own man, but credits his family, particularly his dad, Tom Harmon, for instilling humility and hard work.
"My memories really aren't about the wins and the losses, but rather the relationships and certainly the closeness that it brought my family," Mark says.
Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Michigan, had been the play-by-play broadcaster for Bruins games for several years when his son became the Bruins starting QB in 1972. Now a legendary part of UCLA history, the elder Harmon referred to his son as simply "the quarterback."
"My dad's way of avoiding any bias was to defer to his color commentator, Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban, to fill in any gaps when it came to my play, or, in some cases, to just refer to me as 'the quarterback,'" Harmon says.
Mark Harmon was named a national scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation 19 years after Tom Harmon had been elected to the NFF Hall of Fame in 1954.
"It's pretty special to be in the same history books as my father," he says.
Another figure central to Harmon's athletic achievements is the late Homer Smith. When Harmon joined the team, Smith was running the Bruin offense; he devised an offensive strategy in an inventive way.
"When we first walked out on to the practice field there were footprints painted on the Astroturf," Harmon says. "We spent months stepping in them, just like dance steps [to learn the offense]. I always think that it's fitting that the footprints I was trying to follow were his."
The decision-making process in Smith's wishbone offense forced Harmon to make multiple decisions in very short time periods.
"The basic principle is that on the snap of the ball, you can go left or right and then have eight different options from that point on," says Harmon.
Harmon's ability to get the ball to running backs Kermit Johnson and James McAlister helped establish the top running game in the nation in 1973. UCLA set school records for total yards gained (4,403), average yards per game (400) and rushing touchdowns (56).
Starting center Randy Gaschler appreciated Harmon's pivotal role and willingness to make sacrifices.
"He was getting nailed by defensive players who had 100 pounds on him, yet he never got hurt," Gaschler says. "He only wanted to get the ball to the playmakers and nothing else mattered."
One of the things Harmon loved most about those plays was that "they look like nothing to the public, but are tough yards up inside." He acknowledges that they aren't flashy, but they're the ones that set the table.
Harmon, ever the team player, has taken the philosophy of hard work and a selfless approach into his professional life.
"I'm surrounded with the best talent possible, and my job is still to get the ball to the person who can do the most with it," Harmon says.
Now in its eighth season, NCIS has remained the No. 1 scripted show on television in spite of cast changes, which often derail television shows. But not on Harmon's watch.
"The process of change is a part of my life and I learned it on the field at UCLA," he says.
The NCIS eighth season finale airs Tuesday, May 17 on CBS at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.