George Bork or Chandler Harnish? Harnish or Bork? Who’s the best all-time Northern Illinois quarterback? While the victories, plus Harnish’s stats and school records, piled up this fall, it’s the common-sense question.
To me, such debate is the ultimate essence of sports fandom. Talk history. Compare legacies. Open discussion. Whether it’s in the neighborhood watering hole or on talk radio or at the family dinner table, it’s a quintessential debate.
How fortunate is Huskie Nation to have two quarterbacks of this stature? There are unbelievable similarities and contrasts, considerable irony and, best of all, judging by their quotes, admirable, mutual respect between the two gentlemen.
The Stories: It’s May, 1971, and I’m in Darmstadt, West Germany, interviewing for a permanent party assignment with the European Stars and Stripes military newspaper. Five minutes into the interview, legendary Stripes sports editor Jack Ellis asked where I went to school. “Northern Illinois,” I proudly replied. Ellis took the ever-present cigar out of his mouth, turned to his assistant, Klint Johnson, and both responded simultaneously with the same two words: “George Bork.” Wow, I’m on another continent and my new bosses know maybe the greatest Huskie icon ever.
Skip ahead to April, 2006, when I accompanied NIU tailback Garrett Wolfe to Phoenix for the Playboy preseason All-America team photo shoot. I’m chatting with Playboy’s Gary Cole and NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, the long-time Dallas Cowboys scout and director of player personnel who was renowned for uncovering prospects from smaller programs or different sports such as Drew Pearson in basketball and Bob Hayes in track.
“Mike,” Brandt asked, “how long have you been at Northern Illinois?” A long time, I told him. “What was the name of that great quarterback they [NIU] had in the early 1960s? Bork? Yeah, George Bork. Great passer, that kid,” he added. “I can still remember driving to DeKalb from Chicago in August to see him in two-a-days. It was a two-lane road surrounded by seven-foot corn stalks on both sides. Has that changed?” Thankfully, no, except for I-88, I said.
Now it’s spring, 1999, in South Bend at a reception for the new College Football Hall of Fame induction class that included Bork. Somehow I’m fortunate to be in a “huddle” with two of the most prolific throwing advocates in the history of the game – former Northern Illinois coach Howard Fletcher and his San Diego State counterpart Don Coryell, plus Bork and ex-Tulsa All-America QB Jerry Rhome. Wish I had brought a tape recorder.
Rhome told me how thrilled he was to rewritten some of Bork’s national records. No one in the group discussed running the football, believe me.
In the summer in the mid-1970s, Hall of Fame SID Bud Nangle and I updated the record section for the football media guide. Bud pointed to the NIU individual passing and total offense records. “These numbers put up are phenomenal, whether it’s College or University Division,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever be broken.” With each week, Harnish has supplanted Bork in many season and career stats categories.
Early in Joe Novak’s head coaching tenure, he and I were driving to some Huskie function in the suburbs. Out of curiosity, I asked him who was the toughest individual opponent during his Big Ten Conference days as defensive coordinator at Indiana. I expected him to mention somebody like a Tyrone Wheatley from Michigan. Talk about a surprise.
“Mike, that’s easy,” Novak said. “Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. I don’t mean this the way it’s going to sound, but we [defensive coaches] would come up with a pretty good scheme and Harbaugh would shred it. He’d scramble, he’d break contain. Every year we played, he drove us crazy. Harbaugh could beat you with his legs, his arm, and his head.” Sound familiar, Huskie fans?
If you recall that era, Northern Illinois had rejoined the Mid-American Conference in 1997 with Marshall and Buffalo. Behind quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, the Thundering Herd dominated the league and seemed to be on ESPN all the time. “Exactly,” Novak continued, “those guys were big-time playmakers. They made plays. What coach wouldn’t want a quarterback like Pennington or Leftwich?”
In his final NIU signing class in Feb. 2007, Novak recruited such a quarterback. His name? Chandler Harnish, who in five years would develop into that type of playmaker. Wouldn’t Rod Serling appreciate this irony. Novak redshirted Harnish as a true freshman and then retired. The kid would never play a down for him. More irony? Growing up, Harnish revered Indianapolis Colts QB Jim Harbaugh. Honest. And now he plays like him.
The Similarities: First, put their respective Northern Illinois mug shots side by side. With their vintage crew cuts, Bork and Harnish embody the “separated at birth” shtick. These guys are winners. As an upperclassman, Bork’s teams won 18 of 20 games – including the perfect 10-0 campaign in 1963 – and played in two bowl games (Mineral Water in 1962 and 1963) and led the Cardinal and Black to a mythical (AP and NAIA) College Division National Championship in ‘63.
To date, Harnish has compiled a 19-5 record in his past 24 starts, helped beat two Big Ten opponents (Purdue in 2009 and Minnesota in 2010), and – barring injury – will play in an unprecedented four consecutive bowl games (Independence in 2008, International in 2009 (2010), and Humanitarian in 2010). Something Stanford’s Andrew Luck will never do.
Fate? Harnish grew up a Purdue fan and wanted to be a Boilermaker. Bork earned a full basketball scholarship from Michigan, but wanted to play both sports. Look what Northern Illinois did for both and vice versa. Athleticism, you ask. OK, Harnish might be the dual threat, all-purpose QB, but Bork became a two-sport College Division All-America, making Honorable Mention NAIA All-America as a shooting guard in basketball as a junior.
On the gridiron, both performed in “spread” offenses that emphasized their particular strengths and talents. While current head coach Dave Doeren’s no-huddle attack seems pretty popular in today’s FBS level, Fletcher’s innovative “Blitz-T” or “shotgun” in the 1960s transcended revolutionary status. It was decades ahead of the curve. Woody Hayes scoffed at the radical number of pass attempts in the day.
Leadership? You could see the urgency from the Huskie Stadium stands as Harnish rallied his team from a 17-point deficit against Ball State. Doeren saw the fire in Harnish’s eyes during pregame warm-ups at Toledo before the classic 63-60 victory. In the IIAC title-clinching game at Central Michigan during Bork’s senior year, he directed a 72-yard TD march by completing 10 of 15 passes.
The Contrasts: Style of play, obviously. At 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, Bork was a pure passer in a sophisticated, finesse offense. Fletcher told him never to run the ball. Period. In four varsity seasons, Bork carried it only 118 times for a loss of 380 yards.
By comparison, this season alone, the 6-2, 221-pound Harnish epitomizes the QB option-run with 1,203 ground yards in 155 attempts. In the Ball State game, No. 12 moved into the all-time Northern Illinois top 10 career rushing list and eclipsed the school’s best-known running QB, triple option wizard Stacey Robinson. While Robinson would kill teams on the perimeter, Harnish finds running lanes in the heart of enemy defenses and posts TB-HB numbers.
Throwing mechanics? To say the least, Bork was unique. He grasped the ball at its tail end with his fingers so that the palm of his right hand would not touch the leather of the football. Bork threw – as described in Sports Illustrated – “with the wrist-snapping motion of a man firing darts.” A more traditional passer, Harnish worked diligently to improve his technique, footwork, and vertical passing game.
Bork might be Tom Edison to Harnish’s Steve Jobs. Becoming the first single-season 3,000-yard passer (3,077 yards and 32 TDs on 244-of-374 passes in 1963) at any level in NCAA history, Bork was the standard-bearer for the new generation at his position. By graduation, No. 11 set at least 16 national passing records. I picked up an old media guide (2004) and saw that Bork still held 27 Northern Illinois marks. He recorded four 400-yard passing games. In those pre-BYU years, no QB was completing 43-of-68 passes for 416 yards – as Bork did in that 1963 contest at Central Michigan – let alone contemplating it.
In the uptempo world of contemporary football, only a handful of all-purpose QBs can claim membership in the exclusive single-season 2,000-yard passing/1,000-yard rushing club – including Harnish, Cam Newton of Auburn, Vince Young of Texas, Denard Robinson of Michigan, Brad Smith of Missouri, Colin Kaepernick of Nevada, and Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan. Talk about fame by association. With Harnish at the controls, Northern Illinois generated 710 yards total offense this year vs. Ball State and 697 more vs. Western Michigan. Stats-wise, gaining 229 yards on the ground and 203 in the air in just 41 snaps vs. WMU could be Harnish’s 43-of-68 display. And with 2,594 passing yards and 22 TDs on 194-of-303 at this juncture, Harnish could become the Huskies’ second single-season 3,000-yard passer.
The Competition: Yes, student-athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger now than in the 1960s. FBS vs. the College Division. OK, the recent Big Ten opposition trumps Winona State in 1963. Answer me this: Compare Central Michigan from both eras. And, frankly, not to be a wise guy, there are some suspect defenses in the 2011 MAC.
Bork and his accomplishments extended beyond the College Division. Being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame from a mid-major in its pre-Division I years, garnering Heisman Trophy votes and enough support to make Honorable Mention All-America on the major-college AP and UPI units, or playing in the North-South Shrine Game as a senior still rates as a quantum leap. Repeat unanimous First-Team Little All-America for Bork was a given, the other honors were superlative (and well-deserved).
Stats are stats, I understand (it’s why we have SIDs). But the modern-day athletes have an advantage. In Bork’s day, not only did you play nine regular-season contests (compared to 12 now), bowl games did not count in your statistics. I know, the NCAA went from cumulative yardage totals to averages to determine statistical champions in 1970. Imagine if the 1963 Northern Illinois team played 14 times, Bork – base 341.9 yards-per-game average – would’ve thrown for 4,786 yards – 4,786!
The Conclusion: Bork or Harnish. How does one gauge program historical perspective? Bork and the 1963 team literally ushered NIU into the major-college ranks. Old-timers referred to Huskie Stadium in 1965 as “The House That Bork Built.” What would Bork’s legacy be with all of Harnish’s eye-opening ESPN exposure?
You know that national media types are fickle. They drool over those overhyped QBs and TBs from the glamour BCS programs. Which makes All-America tailback LeShon Johnson’s amazing Heisman exploits (sixth in the 1993 balloting) almost inexplicable at a mid-major. Are postseason awards based on NCAA numbers or NFL potential? If only Chandler was a Ben Roethlisberger 6-foot-5. Due to his size, Bork wound up with the CFL Montreal Alouettes (1964-67). No doubt in my mind, Harnish will be in an NFL camp this spring. As much as Harnish has accomplished so far, what an interesting December he faces – the Northern Illinois postseason, the trip to New York (National Football Foundation dinner), an all-star game, etc. I’m envious.
Bork or Harnish. Not Bork vs. Harnish. These are our guys. As a lifelong Northern Illinois fan, I’m proud of both. My personal ranking right now? Bork No. 1 and Harnish No. 1A. In my eyes, it’s that close. Cop out? Not necessarily. The Huskies can play three more times this year and there’s the NFL in Chandler’s future. Facts and opinions can change. Most of all, competitors like a Chandler Harnish or a George Bork don’t quit with time left on the clock.
• Mike Korcek is a former Northern Illinois University sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle.