Calling The Game
A Bulldog standout combines officiating with a business career
Jimmy Harper, one of the great Georgia Bulldogs, can thank three Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for his incredible success as a college football official and a businessman.
It was Ray Graves, a longtime assistant to Tech’s Bobby Dodd before he became head coach at Florida, who was one of Harper’s sponsors for membership in the Southeastern Conference Football Officials Association. And it was Pete Ferris, a former Yellow Jackets end, who got Harper an interview with the brokerage firm of Merrill Lynch. Harper has made them exceedingly proud.
First, his official stats: He officiated more football bowl games (45) and for more years (36) than anyone in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
He has been referee of three NCAA championship games and was an official when the late Paul “Bear” Bryant won his 315th game, becoming, at the time, the winningest college football coach. Last year Harper was honored by the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame for “unprecedented service as a referee of the game.” He retired as an active official in 1995 but continues to serve the SEC as an observer of officials.
Harper owes his start in college officiating to another Yellow Jacket, Joe DeLany. It was DeLany, a star halfback for Tech in the ’50s, who recommended Harper as an official of Georgia high school football when he came out of the service in 1960.
Harper was as respected as a stockbroker as he was as a referee. In 40 years with Merrill Lynch, he has been a perennial leading producer. He is a senior vice president and has been a member of the firm’s elite Chairman’s Club for more than 30 years.
Today, Harper, 68, lives with his wife, Claire, in a home on two acres in Buckhead. They have been married 47 years and have one son, James K. Harper, III and two daughters, Claire Anderson and Beth Fortune. They have 10 grandchildren.
Harper grew up in Thomasville, the son of a football coach, J.K. “Doc” Harper. Although he did not play for his dad, he made the town of Thomasville proud, earning All-State, All-Southern and All-America prep honors at Thomasville High School. He played basketball and baseball, pitching the baseball team into the finals of the state tournament.
He had 11 football scholarship offers but there was no question where he was headed. The whole Harper family had been Georgia Bulldogs.
He played quarterback for the late coach Wally Butts, making the squad as a freshman and earning four varsity letters, (1952-1956). He was twice named to the Academic All-America team.
One of his team captains, Don Shea, says, “He had as much character and courage as anyone I ever saw. He called the plays in the huddle and no one ever questioned him. He gave 100 percent on every play.”
In 1954, Harper’s sophomore season, it was one-platoon football. Harper played 550 out of 600 minutes. Graduating in 1956 with a degree in accounting, Harper joined the U.S. Air Force and spent four years piloting multi-engine airplanes. When he came back to Atlanta and started his officiating career, he rarely saw his Bulldogs play. An SEC rule prohibited referees from officiating games in which their alma mater plays.
In 1984 he refereed his “most exciting game,” the Orange Bowl for the ’83 national championship. It was Miami vs. Nebraska, with Nebraska a two-touchdown favorite and considered the best college football team in history. But in a stunning upset, Miami led until the last play of the game when Nebraska tied it. The Cornhuskers went for two and missed, and the Hurricanes went out with a 31-30 victory and the national crown.
Although Harper was considered the No. 1 referee in America for many years, even he was not perfect. In 1972, during the Tulane-Miami game, he unwittingly gave Miami five downs. “On the fifth down,” Harper recalls, “Miami scored a touchdown to win the game. Nobody knew about it until we got back to the hotel and heard it on the radio. We had a police escort to the airport.”