Photo courtesy of Alcorn State
Steve McNair left Alcorn State owning every game, season, career passing and total offensive records.
On Jan. 8, 2000, a play at the Coliseum formerly known as Adelphia, entered the historical records of the National Football League. The "Music City Miracle" brought the Titans back from a one-point deficit with 16 seconds to play, to a 22-16 victory over Buffalo
. The kickoff return involved a Lorenzo Neal
to Frank Wycheck
to a Kevin Dyson
75-yard touchdown sprint.
Standing on the sideline during that play was a hopeful Steve McNair, who knew victory was still possible. Seconds later, McNair would be jumping and celebrating with his teammates over the improbable turn of events. Maybe for a brief second, McNair was reminded of "The Mount Olive Miracle" that included himself as a junior in high school.
McNair was a graduate of Mount Olive High School in Mount. Olive, Miss. His team's miracle occurred in the state championship game while trailing by less than six points in the final minute. McNair's older brother, Tim, was also involved in that miracle.
"I was playing tight end and was fooling around in practice one day," Tim McNair told The City Paper. "I told him, ‘Let's do this here. I'm going to play tight end and do it like a screenplay. You throw it to me, and I will throw it back to you. And you just run it.' Steve put in another play where we put two receivers over by themselves. One ran a post pattern and one ran a fly pattern. Coach saw that play then put it in the playbook.
"During that state championship game there was about a minute to go in the game and coach called a timeout. Coach told us it was time to put in our play, so Steve called ‘tight end screen throwback.' He threw it to me, I threw it back to him across the field, and he threw it down the field to a receiver for a touchdown. It went for about 65 yards and we won the game."
In addition to Tim, 32, Steve's other brothers include Fred, 34, Jason, 31, and Michael, 15. Fred McNair went on to be a quarterback in the Arena Football League, Canadian Football League and overseas in the World League of American Football. Fred was also an outstanding athlete for Alcorn State (1986-89) and was fifth in the NCAA Division I in passing efficiency.
Tim also entered Alcorn State University, but his collegiate career was put on hold for two years due to his recovery from knee surgery. Steve followed his brothers to Alcorn, where he became the starting quarterback during his freshman season. As a freshman, Steve ranked 12th in the nation in passing, completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns.
While waiting on Tim's return, Steve was padding his statistics with such outstanding receivers as Torrance Small and Cedric Tillman. When he was a sophomore, Sports Illustrated named him the Offensive Player of the Year, a first for a Division I player. Steve was also the nation's leading passer with 3,541 yards and 29 touchdowns. Upon Tim's return onto the field, he played a significant part in little brother's continued success.
"In my senior year, I became his favorite target," said Tim. "Steve was debating on whether he should forego his senior year in college or not. I told him that if he stayed and got his numbers up from the first three years, that he would be a first-round draft choice. Marcus Hinton went down with a stress facture in his leg. Steve told me I needed to pick my game up to play better because I promised him that if he stayed, that I would help him out. So I stepped it up a notch and became his favorite target his senior year."
Tim said that in a five-game stretch, he made 55 receptions for over 600 yards and eight touchdowns. Having a brother in the huddle was unusual and Tim was asked if his sibling gave him special attention.
"Actually he looked at me as if I was a stranger to him," said Tim. "He had that desire to win. Back then, he really didn't care who you were. All he wanted to do was get the job done. I could be talking to him in the huddle, and he'd look at me like ‘you do your job and I'll do mine.' We had an attitude like we didn't know each other on the field. We had to make each other better.
"He made me a better receiver on and off the field. I know that it is hard to believe that a younger brother can make you a better receiver. My first two years, I wasn't the same type of receiver that I was in high school because of my injury. He came to me and said, ‘you need to get that knee out of your head.' He told me as long as I favored that knee, I was never going to amount to anything. Steve said, ‘Just get off your butt and play. I'm not going to show favoritism because you are my big brother.'
"He also told me, ‘If you want the ball, you are going to have to work for it. You work for it, I will get you the ball.' I took that challenge on and the game became fun again. They were looking at me as if I was Steve's little brother and I knew that I was older than him. He said you need to make a name for yourself. So I did that."
Michael Ellis was another teammate of Steve and Tim McNair at Alcorn State. He is currently the offensive line coach at his alma mater. At Alcorn, Ellis was team captain as a junior and senior. Ellis was a three-time, first team All-SWAC member. He was asked about Steve McNair, the teammate.
"Steve was a very good guy and I had fun playing with him," said Ellis. "He was exciting and was never one to shy away from anybody. He was a real team player. He led both ways, by example and vocal. He picked his battles. If he needed to lead by example he would. If he needed to stand up and voice his opinion to players that he didn't think were giving their all, he would stand up and say so. He would take charge when he needed too."
In McNair's senior year, he was a unanimous All-American selection and won the Walter Payton Award for the top Division I-AA player. He shattered the NCAA, conference and schools records completing 304 0f 530 passes (57.4 percent) for 4,836 yards and 44 touchdowns. McNair also finished third in the Heisman Trophy race behind Colorado's Rashaan Salaam and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter.
"I felt like it was a strong possibility that he wouldn't win the Heisman, but personally, I wanted him to do better than Kerry Collins (Penn State) and Jay Barker (Alabama)," Ellis said. "I felt like he was a better quarterback than those two. They were in a lot more high profile programs. I felt like Barker was really there because he went to Alabama and Kerry Collins was there because he was undefeated that year. I just wanted to see him finish ahead of those two.
"I believe he handled all the Heisman talk about as well as he could handle it. You might say that he didn't turn anybody away that wanted an autograph or have interviews with him. I think the way that he handled it was a good PR move. A lot of people would probably frown on him if he didn't do any of those things. I guess that just comes from his upbringing with his mom. He makes a lot of friends wherever he goes. If he weren't Steve ‘Air Go To' McNair, he'd be the same guy."
Photo by Mike Strasinger
Steve McNair was drafted by the then-Houston Oilers in 1995 and led the now-Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl in 2000.
McNair left Alcorn State owning every game, season, career passing and total offensive records. His totals include 928-of-1,673 (55.5 percent) for 14,496 yards in passing, with 119 touchdowns. McNair added 2,327 yards and 33 touchdowns on 375 rushing attempts (6.2 avg.).
McNair's numbers were impressive to the general managers of the National Football League who needed a quarterback for their future. The Houston Oilers were one of them.
The Oilers were coming off a 2-12 season in 1994 and earned the third overall selection in the following spring's NFL draft. Oilers' head coach Jack Pardee had been replaced during the season by then defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher.
Quarterbacking the Oilers in 1994 were Billy Joe Tolliver, Cody Carlson and Bucky Richardson. Houston was looking to the future when they used their first selection on McNair. The Oilers also picked up Chris Chandler from the Rams who became the starting quarterback in 1995.
"Steve was our No. 1 target in that draft," said Titans' general manager Floyd Reese, who is in his ninth season with the Oilers/Titans organization. "We had decided that the most important position on our team was going to be quarterback. He, in our opinion, was the best quarterback in the country. When we had the opportunity to take him, we jumped at him."
The 1995 NFL draft would also include expansion teams Jacksonville and Carolina. Carolina, with the draft's No. 1 selection, traded that pick to Cincinnati who chose Ki-Jana Carter. Jacksonville made USC tackle Tony Boselli the second overall selection followed by McNair. Collins was selected fifth by Carolina.
"It was interesting," said Reese. "Kerry Collins came up that same year and the discussion was between the two. The question that was always asked me, ‘what about Steve playing at Alcorn compared to Kerry at Penn State?' The real question should be, ‘What would Kerry look like at Alcorn?'
"Because are you telling me that Steve wouldn't be better in a big-time program, with a big-time coach, all the equipment, all the fields and all the support you can get compared to going to Alcorn? How many games would Kerry win at Alcorn, would be the question?"
In 2001, McNair recorded career highs in passing yards (3,350), touchdowns (21), passer rating (90.2) and average yards gained per pass (7,770). This season he is in reach of becoming only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 18,000 yards while rushing for 3,000 yards. He would join Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young.
Has McNair reached his peak and excelled in his expectations?
"I think not," answered Reese. "He hasn't gone past his expectations. I think last year he got to where we hoped he would be which was finishing second in the AFC in rating. That was a big step. That put him among the upper echelon. I think the key now is for Steve to take that last step, which is to become one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the NFL."
Jeff Fisher became the Oilers interim head coach during the 1994 for the final six games of the season replacing Pardee. Interim was removed from his title as he was named head coach the following January. The 1995 NFL draft would be his first as a head coach.
"We looked at both [McNair and Collins] of them very closely," said Fisher. "Steve's uncanny ability to make something out of nothing and the big play capability impressed us. His scrambling ability, leadership and the things he did with the team to come back and win games. And, of course, a lot had to do with the interview we had with him at the university. As far as potential, he had as much as we had seen in any quarterback in years."
McNair was placed on the inactive list as the third string quarterback for the first eight games of 1995. Chandler was the starting quarterback, but McNair's game experience increased in 1996 seeing action in nine games (four starts). McNair became the Oilers' starter in 1997 when Chandler was traded to Atlanta.
"There are different philosophies with bringing along a young quarterback," Fisher said. "We wanted him to learn gradually and not shake his confidence. The game is complex and we wanted him to have the opportunity to learn behind a veteran quarterback take his time and not have any pressure. We felt like he could have started immediately."
Fisher believes that McNair's best years are ahead of him.
"I think he still has roam to grow," Fisher said. "Steve's success is going to be measured by the success of the team and he still has roam to grow. He's improved significantly the last few years as a leader, quarterback and a runner. I think anytime someone reaches their peak, they are selling themselves short. He still has room to grow and improve. He will always strive to play the perfect game."
At Mount Olive High School McNair was also a Super Prep All-American and All-State. McNair tied a Mississippi state record with Terrell Buckley (Miami Dolphins) for career interceptions with 30 from his defensive back position. As a senior, he alone picked off 15 passes. Most major colleges recruited him as defensive back.
"It was disappointing to me," said McNair. "Because I wanted to go to a bigger school. I wanted to play in a Division I school. Recruiters decided they wanted to put me at cornerback. They felt like I was a better athlete at cornerback than quarterback. I knew in my mind that I wanted to play quarterback, and that's what I choose to do. I'm absolutely satisfied with the decision I made.
"Alcorn State wasn't my first choice, but they were the team that gave me the chance to play quarterback in my first year and I took advantage of it. Now, I own a lot of records over there and both my brothers Fred and Tim."
McNair was the first quarterback chosen in the 1995 NFL draft with the Oilers third selection. He was confident of a high selection, but his college background was a concern to him.
"I was very scared at the draft," said McNair. "They invited me to New York and coming from a small school, you always have those thoughts in the back of your mind. I was wondering if they are really going to pick me high because I came from a small school. I didn't expect to be a No. 3 pick, but I was so happy that the Oilers took me and I'm trying to live up to that expectation."
McNair was also was drafted by the Seattle Mariners baseball team. Where would McNair be today if he had chosen to sign a major league baseball contract?
"I could wish that I was up there with Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds," laughed McNair. ‘Who knows? I look back on those games, and see the money they are making. Now, I say, ‘did I really make the right decision?' But I don't second-guess myself. I think I made the right decision and I'm happy for those guys in baseball."
City Paper correspondent Bill Traughber chronicles Titans QB Steve McNair's college career at Alcorn State, the Oilers' choice in the 1995 NFL draft, and McNair's rise to prominence as an NFL quarterback.