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The Wayne Harris Era: Coach, father, inspiration

By Rodrigo Verney, December 1 2023—

The Wayne Harris era comes to a close in the chapter of the Dinos book. Although none other than those who lived through it will be able to summarize this man’s incredible career, we can certainly try. 

Harris is a name you would most definitely see at one point on your commute to class or a general stroll through kinesiology. Maybe you can’t recall now. That is because you may have lost it among the trophies and banners on the wall. Harris’s name is displayed in gold on the Dino’s wall of achievements. However, what might now be an unquestionable hall-of-fame career, once started as many of the young guys he coached — an athlete with a passion and a will to overachieve in every possible category.

He had an astonishing record to back those dreams up — joining the University of Calgary Dinos as a duo-athlete in both wrestling and football.

The incredible talent seen in both the mat and the field was properly cultivated by the legendary peers and mentors who surrounded him. Harris was being taught by the great Bill Emsick in his rookie wrestling days, one year after the coach was named USports coach of the year. Emsick was also their football defensive coordinator and helped lead the Dinos to finals play after a solid 7–3 season on Harris’ rookie linebacker year. 

“[This year we have] the best group of linebackers we have ever had at one time,” said Emsick to the Calgary Herald in 1977.

Harris went on to play in the postseason for three out of his five years of play. He graduated not long after. Ending his time as a player to pick up another mantle. Harris couldn’t keep away from his alma mater for too long and came back as an assistant coach in 1989. A title he would have until 2014.

Harris had the pleasure of working for three out of the five head coaches of the program during his time as an assistant. Harris couldn’t have asked for a better mentor to learn the intricacies of the game from as his position put him beside the Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee Peter Connellan. Little did he know at that time that he and Peter would be the only Head Coaches so far to bring a Vanier Cup title home. Peter did it four times and Harris added another one in 2019. 

Harris missed Connellan’s first three, joining the team one year after they were crowned champions for the third time. However, he was more than happy to celebrate their win on Connellan last year as the head coach. The experiences that Harris gained from the Connellan era were more than valuable, it was a blueprint to excellence that was taught to Harris firsthand. The ring wasn’t a consequence of Connellan, however, it was the culmination of both of their work. Harris was learning while proving himself. 

Harris went on to study different styles under Tony Fasano, head coach from 1996 to 2005, and Blake Nill, head coach from 2006 to 2014, both offensive-focused coaches. Fasano was known for his sense of humour and love for the game. This type of passion and determination is essential to have around you as it can help fire the necessary drive to be successful as a coach in the long run. Nill showed Harris many tricks. Harris had the pleasure of helping Nill win his six consecutive Hardy Cup wins from 2008 to 2013. Nill would retire the following season and give Wayne the reins. It would be his first time as a head coach at the university level.

Wayne was ready for the challenge. Desperate to prove himself and setting the pace early in his career, he led the Dinos to an undefeated season and a number-one seed spot in the national ranking for eight consecutive years. This incredible feat landed him CIS coach-of-the-year honours. However, his eyes were set on leading the team to their first Vanier Cup title since 1995. He wasn’t able to capitalize on this perfect season but he knew he still had plenty of time.

The following two years showed bits of his greatness with two Hardy Cup back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017. Although this can already be considered an impressive run to solidify a career, Coach Harris’ mind still lingered on the Vanier Cup. A title he would soon add his name to, this time at the helm of the team.

He would have a taste of winning it all in 2016 when the Dinos went on against the Laval Rouge et Or team for the championship. They fought for as long as they could taking field goal by field goal to amass a 20 to 17 lead. This included an 86-yard pass for a touchdown early on in the game. However, Laval halted the Dinos’ offence and came back to win it all by 31–26. This experience was characterized as a lesson for the Dinos about what it takes to capitalize in the big leagues. This doesn’t mean that they were satisfied in the slightest.

Many consider his 2019–2020 season to be his miracle year. Wayne leads the Dinos to another Hardy Trophy to put on the case after a crushing win against the Huskies. He also had no problem bringing a Canada West Championship home that year. All that was left was that Vanier Cup ring.

Montréal was their adversary and they were home in Quebec City. The game began with a scoreless first quarter which can only ramp up the tension for the second. Sure enough, the Dinos opened the score with two field goals at the beginning of the second. Montreal came back with a touchdown late in the game and the Dinos responded on the same dime with a touchdown of their own. The third quarter was characterized by a single Montreal field goal to bring the difference to just three points. 

The final 12 minutes were all that separated the Dinos from their sixth Vanier Cup and Harris would capitalize on that. Holding the team down and controlling their emotions while trusting them to do what they had to do. It is said that it’s the smallest edge, both mentally and physically, that wins you the biggest titles and after holding down Montreal until the last minute of the game, the Dinos hoisted the Vanier Cup up one more time. 

Trying to retell years of hard work,  will always amount to a spec of dust compared to the sea of contributions this man has had for the game and it will only be as true as my perspective and research will be able to tell you. We will never be able to truly quantify how many lives this incredible coach, father, grandfather and teacher truly impacted. Maybe, there is some poetry to this. As Harris will tell you this might have been his greatest achievement.

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