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Marvin Harrison Sr. is son's toughest coach, but Junior gets it: HOF dad knows best

Marvin Harrison Sr. "picked at everything" while teaching Marvin Jr. But that push and wisdom from Hall of Fame dad helped get Junior to the NFL.

Jarrett Bell

With all due respect to the coaches Marvin Harrison Jr. will encounter during an NFL journey that begins with the Arizona Cardinals, it stands to reason that the budding star wide receiver will never have a coach as tough on him as his Hall of Fame father.

“Not at all," Harrison Jr. told USA TODAY Sports, riding in an elevator shortly after the Ohio State product became the highest-chosen non-quarterback in the NFL draft with the fourth pick overall. “Not a chance."

Some of the messages the rookie has filed away from Dad:

“You’re never too good at anything."

“There’s always something to improve on."

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“Be as complete as you can be."

“Continue to work hard every day – especially in the offseason."

Bottom line, Harrison Jr. concluded: “He picks at everything."

Consider this one of the gifts the two-time All-America selection possesses, in addition to explosiveness off the line of scrimmage, sure hands and nerves of steel when scrapping for contested catches. He has the push and wisdom from a man who has been there, done that, at an amazing level.

The elder Harrison, 51, was not only inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, he was named to the NFL’s All-Time Centennial Team in 2020. Credibility intact.

“If I didn’t know him, (shoot), I’d say he was the real deal,” Harrison Sr. told USA TODAY Sports. “But as a dad, my job is to criticize. So the thing that I do, I point out the things that I think he can do better. He and I know what those are. He is the complete package, but I’ve got to find the weaknesses.”

As we chatted backstage while his son conducted a news conference Thursday night, I told Harrison about a recent conversation I had with Cris Carter, another Hall of Fame receiver. Carter raved about the precision he saw in Harrison Jr.’s game – which was one of his dad’s calling cards while tearing through defenses as Peyton Manning’s go-to target with the Indianapolis Colts.

Harrison did not seem impressed. He rolled his eyes.

“My job is to eliminate weaknesses,” he shot back. “Or find something he can improve on, I should say.”

What made Harrison Sr. so special

During his heyday, there was no better route-runner in the NFL than Harrison and no better chemistry between a thrower and catcher than what he and Manning demonstrated with remarkable consistency. At 6-feet, 185 pounds, he was like dynamite in a shoebox, nowhere near as physically dominant as, say, Terrell Owens. The best defensive plans revolved around trying to bully him at the line of scrimmage.

Yet usually, cornerbacks weren’t able to lay a hand on Harrison because of his uncanny quickness. And with Manning slinging the ball through tight windows (while Reggie Wayne threatened on the opposite side of the field), they seemed to have a sixth sense. Harrison burned them deep, short, across the middle, with quick outs and with double-moves alike. And so often with he and Manning illustrating what perfect timing looks like.

“Marvin’s greatest gift, which he honed, the ability that made him a Hall of Famer, was that the stem of every route looked the same,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame GM, told USA TODAY Sports. “It took months and years to develop that.”

Polian, who drafted Harrison from Syracuse with a first-round pick (19th overall) in 1996, chuckled when told of Harrison’s intensity in molding his son. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Polian said. “It’s the same guy I saw for years. He and Peyton were the perfect marriage. Two perfectionists. Not enough reps, routes or practices. That’s him.”

The former GM, however, was undoubtedly struck to hear that Harrison actually opened up for a few minutes in talking about his son. “That was probably the first interview you had with him,” Polian suggested.

Almost. Harrison was, well, notorious for his reluctance to speak to the media. During all the years Harrison starred for the Colts and for all of my attempts, Harrison granted me all of one interview – a 15-minute session while standing in the hallway at the Colts' headquarters, which took something like six weeks to pull off.

So yes, it was a pleasant surprise that Harrison was so loquacious at the draft.

Dad does know what he's talking about

As you can imagine, he beams with pride when talking about his son, who at 6-4, 205 pounds, has been called a bigger version of his dad.

“You’re always going to be more proud of a son, as opposed to when you do something yourself,” said Harrison, who caught 143 passes in 2002, which stood for 17 years as the NFL’s single-season record. “It’s fatherhood, and with the parents involved, you can see the young man he’s become, let alone the football player. That’s more important than anything.”

Harrison was asked when he realized his son demonstrated the special talent that could take him to the NFL. Marvin Jr. was always a competitive kid, father assured.

“It was a little different because I demanded so much from him,” Harrison said. “You know kids – they don’t always understand. It’s, ‘Why is my dad this way?’ The more important question is, when did he realize, 'Oh, (shoot), he knows what he’s talking about.’ As opposed to him being a special talent, it was when he figured that out.”

Although the elder Harrison remembers a turning point coming when his son was in high school, Harrison Jr. insists he always hung on his dad’s words.

“No matter if he was a good football player or not, I always trusted him, that he was going to point me in the right direction,” Harrison Jr. said.

In any event, this surely played out during the pre-draft process. While he attended the league’s scouting combine, meeting with teams and undergoing physicals, Harrison Jr. didn’t participate in the on-field drills and testing. That’s not unusual for a highly rated combine prospect such as Harrison Jr., who caught 155 passes for 2,613 yards and 31 touchdowns in three seasons at Ohio State.

Yet it wasn’t normal that Harrison Jr. also refused to participate in the on-field work during Ohio State’s pro day, leaving teams without as much as a 40-yard dash time. It was all part of the plan laid out by the Hall of Fame father.

Incidentally, when the elder Harrison was on the runway to the draft, he timed in the 4.3-second range in the 40-yard dash for a private workout for the Colts, which Polian remembers as “the single-greatest catching workout I’ve ever seen.” And a preview of an NFL future.

Preparing for NFL season, not the draft

Fast-forward to this year’s draft process for the son.

“The plan was basically, in December and January, it was more about, ‘Let’s get ready for the season, not get ready for the combine,' " Harrison Sr. explained. “We worked on football and worked on being the better football player.

“Even if he ran a 4.2, do you think he’s going to Chicago?” Harrison added, referring to the No. 1 pick overall that the Chicago Bears used to select USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

“No matter what we did, we weren’t going to be one, two or three. No matter what. OK, maybe three. But you’re not going to be one or two. So I said, 'June, we can go out here and do all the combine (drills), do everything everybody wants us to do, and we’re not going to go nowhere (higher in the draft). It’s going to be the same spot. Let’s go a different route.’

"The different route was we’re going to train and rest and get ready for this season, because it’s 22 games, no matter how you cut it. So it’s what you do with your time.”

Father knew best. After the three quarterbacks were drafted in the first three slots, Harrison Jr. was the first non-quarterback off the board – and the highest-drafted receiver ever from Ohio State, which has such a rich history as a wide-receiver factory.

And no, for the low profile during the draft process, there was not a chance that Harrison Jr. would skip showing up in Detroit.

“It’s a lifetime opportunity,” he said during a community event the day before the draft. “You only get to walk across the stage and shake the commissioner’s hand once. So take that opportunity.”

The son is undeniably now positioned to make a name for himself, but it’s fair to wonder if there’s added pressure because of his father’s brilliance – on top of the Hall of Famer's critiques.

Let Daddy have the final word.

“I don’t know if it is,” Harrison Sr. said. “If there is pressure, there is no pressure. He is the pressure. It’s like, ‘I’m that good, I am the pressure.’ Those are his words.”

Maybe so. Yet spoken convincingly from a rather credible source.

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