‘NCIS’: Why Mark Harmon Didn’t Play Sports Professionally

by Suzanne Halliburton

When Mark Harmon played quarterback for UCLA, offenses didn’t look like what we see today.

The Bruins were a running, smash-mouth kind of team. And Harmon, who later became a beloved TV star, was a dazzling artist of the wishbone. His job was to read a defensive end or a linebacker, and either pitch the ball to a halfback or stuff it in the belly of the fullback. Or, he could keep the ball himself. Maybe he’d pass. In a wishbone offense, a quarterback like Mark Harmon usually would view throwing the ball as an option after plans A, B, and C. But it still was a threat.

Mark Harmon was smart, too, as he helped turnaround a UCLA program that had finished with only two wins the season before he transferred to the program from junior college. Oklahoma, another great wishbone team, also offered Harmon a scholarship. After all, he was the son of Tom Harmon, the former Michigan Wolverine who won the Heisman in 1940.

Harmon helped upset defending national champion Nebraska in his UCLA debut in 1972. The Bruins’ victory snapped the Cornhuskers’ 32-game winning streak. Overall, the Bruins were 17-5 with Mark Harmon at QB. The National Football Foundation named him one of its top scholar athletes in 1973 and invited him to New York for the honor. John Wayne also was there to pick up an award from the NFF.

In two seasons at UCLA, Harmon rushed for 1,504 yards and 14 touchdowns in his two seasons. UCLA operated the top running attack in the country. Conversely, Harmon passed for 845 yards and nine scores over two seasons.

The Same Coach Who Recruited Mark Harmon Invited Him to Training Camp

Chuck Fairbanks, the head coach of the New England Patriots, invited Harmon to training camp as a free agent. After all, Fairbanks was the head coach at Oklahoma, with Barry Switzer as his offensive coordinator, when he recruited Mark Harmon. The Patriots drafted 17 players and brought in many free agents. But Harmon, the wishbone star, wasn’t going to unseat starting quarterback Jim Plunkett, a Heisman winner and former No. 1 pick.

Larry King, the TV personality, interviewed Mark Harmon in 2014. Obviously, Harmon’s athletic career was of interest. But Harmon quickly explained why he didn’t try to continue playing football after he graduated from UCLA.

“I never thought that was in the cards for me,” Mark Harmon told Larry King. “I always wanted to try and play college sports. It turned out to be football. I think at the end of that time I was ready to move on.”

Harmon did move on. He worked in advertising after he finished his degree. Harmon told King he was doing well enough to buy a small house. But he eventually followed his heart into acting.

“I think it all worked out,” Harmon said.

What an understatement. Harmon just finished his 18th season playing Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, the top-rated drama on television.