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Fred ‘Air’ McNair’s legacy lives on at Alcorn State

As the school’s football coach, he wants to keep the program at its national championship best

The pain is still there for Fred McNair.

As he prepares to celebrate his first anniversary as Alcorn State University’s head football coach, the original Air McNair often thinks about his late younger brother Steve, who adopted the nickname and soared to an impressive collegiate and NFL career.

Steve “Air II” McNair was a legendary quarterback at Alcorn State. In 1994 pro scouts routinely came to Lorman, Mississippi, to see him perform at the small Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) school. He was a running and throwing talent who would finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

“People forget that I’m the original Air McNair,” quipped Fred, who is five years older than Steve. “He followed me and he took off. I’m very proud of what he was able to accomplish. Some people mistakenly called me Steve. In fact, some still call me Steve. It’s always been that way and I guess it will continue. I’m OK with it.”

On July 4, 2009, Steve McNair was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in a Nashville, Tennessee, condominium he rented. He was found next to the body of a young woman, Sahel “Jenni” Kazemi, with whom he was involved in a relationship. The case was ruled as a murder-suicide.

“We had a real open relationship,” said Fred McNair. “We talked about life a lot. One thing that helped me out after his death was that I knew what he wanted from me, what he wanted me to become, a pillar in the community. He loved kids. I was coaching a Dixie Youth baseball team at the time of his death. We were playing in a tournament when I got the call that he had been killed. The [other] coaches and parents were like, ‘Coach, if you want to leave, it’s OK, we’ll forfeit.’

“One of the biggest things that Steve and I always talked about was being there for the kids. Teaching them the right way in life. I thought about it for a moment and said this is what Steve would want. He wouldn’t want me to leave these kids. He’d want me to stay here and try to win this ball game.”

McNair’s team lost, 9-8.

“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” said McNair. “I remember walking [off the field] and I could hear people, black and white, whispering, ‘That’s Steve McNair’s brother.’ To hear those people know who I am, the respect they were showing for him … I will never forget it.”

McNair will also never forget Feb. 2, 2016. On that date, a dream came true as he was officially named the head football coach at Alcorn State University. He assumed the interim title on Jan. 30, 2016, when Jay Hopson left to become the head coach at Southern Mississippi University.

Under Hopson, the first white head coach in SWAC history, the Braves became a powerhouse. In four years, he compiled a 32-17 record and left Alcorn State after having won back-to-back SWAC titles. In 2014, he guided Alcorn State to the black college football national championship.

“We wanted to continue what [Hopson] began,” said Alcorn State athletic director Derek Horne. “He did an outstanding job and Fred was our assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach. [When Hopson left] it was recruiting time, and we had to have someone in place who knew what was going on. Fred was that person.”

When Horne announced there would be a national search for a permanent head coach, McNair was puzzled.

“I wondered what was wrong with me,” he recalled. “I really felt that I was the best person for the job. I had applied for the head coaching job twice before and didn’t get it. I thought this time, it was my time.”

McNair talked with Horne and the muddled situation began to clear.

“When I looked around, Fred was everything that we wanted in a head coach,” said Horne. “There wasn’t any need to bring in someone else. I knew it was a good decision to make him our next head coach.”

Alcorn State's head coach Fred McNair, front left, surveys the field during the second half of an NCAA football game against Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas beat Alcorn State, 52-10.

Alcorn State’s head coach Fred McNair (front left) surveys the field during the second half of an NCAA football game against Arkansas on Oct. 1, 2016, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Arkansas beat Alcorn State, 52-10.

AP Photo/Chris Brashers

McNair’s resume was hard to ignore. He was a homegrown talent. A converted wide receiver, he starred at quarterback for Alcorn State. During his senior season in 1989, he finished fifth in NCAA Division I-AA in passing efficiency. He was a second team All-SWAC selection.

After spending a season with the Dallas Cowboys, he also played professionally in the Canadian Football League, the World League of American Football and the Arena Football League.

The holder of a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Alcorn State, McNair had coaching stints at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and high school gigs in Collins and Mount Olive, Mississippi, before Hopson asked him to join the Braves staff. McNair has been credited with the success of former ASU quarterback John Gibbs Jr. and current Braves signal-caller Lenorris Footman.

“Fred did an outstanding job coaching the quarterbacks at Alcorn State,” said Hopson. “He mentored two very talented players – John Gibbs, who was an All-American, and Lenorris Footman, who was an all-conference-caliber player. He did a tremendous job in that role and continues to do that as the program’s head coach. There is no doubt Fred will continue to do that in the future.”

With the interim title lifted, McNair has continued to guide the program in its championship ways. This past season, the Braves finished 5-5 overall and won their third straight SWAC East Division title. Alcorn lost to Grambling State University in the SWAC title game. Grambling went on win the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl and claim its 15th black college football national championship.

“Fred fit the profile of what we want in our coaches at Alcorn,” said Alcorn State University president Alfred Rankins Jr. “I saw in him the character, work ethic, genuine concern for student-athletes, and coaching ability to lead our football program. The success of our program under Coach McNair has not surprised me. I was confident that Fred would do a good job.”

The McNair family legacy and Alcorn State University are seemingly entwined. They fit together hand in glove.

“From Fred’s mom Lucille’s presence in the stands cheering, to Fred and his brothers, Steve and Tim, scoring touchdowns as players, to now Fred coaching the Braves, the McNair family has definitely played a vital role in raising the profile of our football program and our university,” said Rankins. “Fred’s late brother, Steve, is undoubtedly the most celebrated Alcorn football legend.”

With no more shadows to peer from, Fred McNair is in a very good place. He said he’s thoroughly happy and enjoying his moment. He doesn’t see himself anywhere but at Alcorn State University.

“I’m loyal to this university,” said McNair. “This university gave me an opportunity [to play] and get an education. It gave me a chance to be a head coach. I am here!”

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.