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So long to a true Tennessee legend

6/3/2010

I’m often reminded by friends that I have the best job in the world.

I actually get paid to watch and write about sports and rub elbows with the likes of Nick Saban, Tim Tebow and Pat Summitt.

I’ve been to Super Bowls, Final Fours, BCS National Championship Games, all the major bowl games. I even got a chance to visit the White House and meet the president once because of my job.

The blessings and benefits of doing what I do are like a stream that flows on forever.

But the best part of my job is getting to meet and know people like Haywood Harris.

Sadly, we lost Harris on Wednesday. He was 80.

He never scored a touchdown in Neyland Stadium, never signed any million-dollar coaching contracts and never made any tackles on the Third Saturday in October.

In fact, he wasn’t particularly comfortable in the spotlight, instead devoting much of his life to making sure the spotlight shown down on all the coaches and players he so proudly served during a nearly 50-year association with Tennessee as sports information director and assistant athletic director.

As former Voice of the Vols John Ward used to say as only he could, Harris was a pro.

Ward and Harris were also the two men most responsible for making Tennessee a statewide program back in the 1960s and 1970s and carrying the Big Orange banner from East Tennessee all the way to the banks of the Mississippi River.

Harris was a terrific writer and knew how to promote his university. He was even better when it came to cultivating people. It didn’t matter if you were from Newport, Tenn., or New York City.

It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat (OK, maybe he did grunt a little bit under his breath if he found out somebody leaned to the left).

The bottom line: Harris always made you feel like somebody and was there to facilitate. He was the consummate ambassador for the University of Tennessee, which is why Gen. Robert Neyland had the foresight to hire him in 1961 as sports information director.

Harris was much more than just a PR guy, too.

Rarely was there any decision of importance made within the athletic department over the next 40 years that Harris wasn’t consulted.

He had such a keen perspective on how everything fit together, which is the reason he was as well respected by the surliest coach as he was by the most cynical columnist.

In his final days, the outpouring of people who either visited Harris or called to check on him spoke volumes as to what he had meant to so many people.

John Majors, Phillip Fulmer, Roy Kramer, David Cutcliffe, Peyton Manning … they all came by or called.

I had a chance to visit him, too.

I told him thanks then and I say it again here.

As a student at Tennessee in the mid-1980s and a Daily Beacon cub reporter with big dreams and not much of a road map on how to get where I wanted to go, Harris was always there to encourage, critique when it was necessary and guide me in his kind, but direct manner.

It’s the way he treated everybody.

I’m proud to have known Harris. I’m even prouder to have called him a friend.

He was truly a Tennessee treasure.