Steve McNair went third in the NFL draft 25 years ago. We may never see another HBCU player go as high.
A look at the numbers and what they tell us
Twenty-five years ago, Steve McNair and the Houston Oilers made history in the 1995 NFL draft. The Oilers, then still two years away from relocating to Nashville, Tennessee, selected McNair third overall out of Alcorn State University. The pick made McNair the highest selected offensive player from an HBCU (historically black college and university) in NFL draft history. A quarter-century later, he still is — and figures to be for quite some time.
Tennessee State defensive ends Claude Humphrey, the third overall pick in 1968, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, the No. 1 overall pick in 1974, are the only other players from HBCUs to be selected as high or higher than McNair.
The 2020 NFL draft is set to begin Thursday. And due to the coronavirus, the draft will look different on TV and the teams’ process for evaluating talent has changed, too. But the odds for HBCU players are unlikely to change much, if at all.
Over the 25 years since McNair’s selection, HBCU talent has faced an uphill battle to hear and see their names called on draft day. In the last five NFL drafts, a total of 1,272 players have been selected. Only 18 — 1.4% — have been from HBCUs. Adding a pandemic on top of an already canceled HBCU combine figures to make the process even more daunting this year.
Being a trailblazer was never on Floyd Reese’s mind in the spring of 1995. The Oilers, coming off a dismal 2-14 season, were in dire need of a franchise quarterback. Which school he came from didn’t matter.
During the summer of 1994, Reese, then the Oilers’ executive vice president and general manager, held several meetings to discuss draft prospects with the team. McNair’s name was constantly mentioned. The Oilers needed a new man under center after part-time starters Billy Joe Tolliver, Bucky Richardson and Cody Carlson combined for 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions during the ’94 season.
Meanwhile, Steve “Air II” McNair — his older brother Fred was “Air I” — was achieving near mythical levels of production in his senior season at Alcorn State. He was a skilled reader of defenses. He had a cannon of an arm. He was tough as nails. There was no player more exciting in college football, regardless of division or level of competition.
Reese understood McNair wasn’t just some big player at a small school. And looking back now, he hadn’t been aware that no other HBCU player had ever been drafted that high.
“I just recently realized that last year or the year before,” Reese told The Undefeated recently. “I was shocked to see that because that was never part of our conversation.”
The entire country knew of McNair’s exploits, even if he was never seen on the Saturday night game of the week. The numbers he was putting up were impossible on video games. Many were calling for him to be considered for the Heisman Trophy. McNair was a phenom.
“I just hope he gets with an NFL team that really wants him,” Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson, arguably the greatest leader of young men in college football history, told The New York Times. “It has been a trend in the NFL to groom your young quarterbacks and I hope it’s no different for him. … Either way, you have a franchise player in the making in this kid.”
Reese understood that Alcorn wasn’t one of the southern powerhouses like Alabama, Georgia or Miami. So he went to a couple of McNair’s games to see for himself what the hype was about.
“Near from the moment I first saw him play, I was enthralled with him,” said Reese.
If anything, the hype around McNair increased. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover. His flair for late-game heroics earned him the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter.” He was the only Heisman candidate to have his own rap campaign song. (Drake’s “Draft Day” was released after Johnny Manziel won the Heisman.) “Just cause I went to a smaller school/ Thought I was a bigger fool,” the song’s lyrics boasted. “Now I’m gettin’ props from the bigger schools.”
The Heisman talk produced a fascinating debate over whether a star from a smaller school should even be considered for the award. Some used the “different league” argument.
“When McNair made his decision years ago to attend Alcorn State, he 99% eliminated himself from the Heisman,” ESPN analyst Lee Corso said in 1994. “It’s impossible to compare his stats against Prairie View to Eric Zeier’s against Alabama. It’s like saying a guy hitting 50 home runs in Double-A is better than Frank Thomas.”
It’s a stance that still follows many HBCU prospects as they embark on their professional careers: that they aren’t good enough to play in the big conferences, and that any success they find in college comes with a disclaimer.
The other side of the aisle couldn’t understand how a guy who was widely viewed as a first-round pick in the NFL draft couldn’t be seriously considered for college football’s most prestigious award. Especially in a wide-open year with no clear-cut favorite. McNair was “a threat to the established order,” The Baltimore Sun’s Ken Rosenthal argued at the time. And if the previous five Heisman winners — Charlie Ward, Gino Torretta, Desmond Howard, Ty Detmer and Andre Ware — had never become NFL stars despite their big-time college portfolios, then what was the real reason for denying McNair? Especially since HBCU players such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Lem Barney, Richard Dent, Harry Carson, Michael Strahan, Shannon Sharpe and Aeneas Williams had become some of the best players at their respective positions in league history.
“I thought he should’ve won the Heisman,” Reese said. “He was nothing short of outstanding.”
Indeed, McNair torched his senior season. He was credited with 5,377 yards of total offense and 44 passing touchdowns, including seven 500-yard passing games. That mark pushed his career total offense to 16,823 yards — still an FCS record. McNair became the fourth HBCU standout behind Doug Williams, Payton and Rice to receive Heisman votes. His third-place finish is the highest for an HBCU player. No HBCU player since McNair has garnered a single Heisman vote.
Despite McNair’s stellar college resume, doubts still remained about where he should go in the NFL draft. The other big quarterback prospect that year was Penn State’s Kerry Collins.
Reese, a jovial man from the moment he picks up the phone, chuckles when he reminisces about those who doubted him for selecting McNair. Reese can still hear the questions in his head. How do you think McNair would fare at Penn State?
“That’s not the question. Here [Steve] is at Alcorn, but he’s gonna go to Penn State where he has better facilities, a more talented team. Everything he’s got is better. But the real question is — would Kerry Collins have played as well at Alcorn.”
“Steve was one of a kind,” said Reese. “He meant everything in the world to us.”
In the 25 years since McNair’s arrival in the NFL, only two quarterbacks from HBCUs have heard their names called. Florida A&M’s JaJuan Seider was selected in the sixth round in 2000 by the then-San Diego Chargers, but never officially attempted a pass. And in 2006, the Minnesota Vikings used a second-round pick on Alabama State’s Tavaris Jackson. On April 12, Jackson, a 10-year veteran who earned a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, died in a car accident. He was 36, the same age as McNair when he was murdered in 2009.
The story of HBCU football is directly tied to the history of racial politics in America. For years, black colleges, mostly located in the South, were the only option for many black football players. These schools became powerhouses led by players, many of whom, such as Mel Blount (Southern), Willie Davis (Grambling) and Art Shell (Maryland Eastern Shore), would go on to become some of the greatest and most influential players in the NFL’s 100-year existence.
But as Division I programs at predominantly white institutions began to integrate, HBCU football has faced increasing obstacles in graduating players to the pros, including declining enrollment and financial and infrastructure disparities.
In the quarter-century since McNair’s historic selection, there have been 142 draft picks from HBCUs. With help from ESPN Stats & Information, The Undefeated took a look at the numbers and what they tell us about the likelihood of another top-10 draft pick from an HBCU.
It’s getting harder
Those 142 draft picks break down to an average of roughly six picks per year. “That’s actually a lot. That actually surprised me,” an eight-year professional scout told The Undefeated. “I bet you that was more prevalent earlier than now. I bet you that that’s very front-loaded — late ’90s, early 2000s.”
Indeed. Between 1995 and 2005, there were 97 HBCU draft picks, compared with 45 from 2006 to 2019.
Another way to put the 142 selections into context is to line it up by conference and division. Over the same 25-year period, the Power 5 conferences produced these numbers:
|Conference||No. of players drafted|
|Big Ten (FBS)||999|
|Big 12 (FBS)||529|
The 142 draft picks from HBCUs slightly edge out the Mid-American Conference (137) and Conference USA (160). But it’s important to note that HBCU players come from multiple conferences. Breaking the numbers down further provides a more accurate representation of how difficult it is for athletes from HBCUs to hear their names called on draft day. Over that same quarter-century span, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) has had 54 draft picks, the SWAC had 44, the SIAC had 14 and the CIAA had 10.
Size is harder to find than speed
Talk to anyone involved in the draft process and they’ll all tell you the same thing — there aren’t enough big guys to go around. The professional scout broke it down like this: When looking at Power 5 schools versus HBCUs or other teams at smaller conferences, the major difference between the two is the number of big men. “It’s very rare,” he said, “that they ever have a lineman on either side of the ball that can play at LSU. Ever.”
This isn’t to say there aren’t quality linemen at smaller schools, in particular HBCUs. Hugh Douglas, a 1995 first-round pick from Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio, was a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end and Rookie of the Year. Five-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion Robert Mathis is 19th all time in sacks with 123 in his 14-year career with the Indianapolis Colts after coming out of Alabama A&M in 2003. South Carolina State’s Javon Hargrave recently signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. And offensive lineman Tytus Howard was a 2019 first-round pick out of Alabama State by the Houston Texans. But it’s still uncommon for a lineman to be drafted from an HBCU. In the last 25 years, it’s happened only 59 times.
“[Scouts] aren’t gonna come to an HBCU like they do the Power 5 to look at a kid that’s 6-foot-6, 310 pounds because we, for the most part, don’t get those type of kids,” said Andrew Faison, associate head coach at Norfolk State University. “They come to HBCUs to look at a lot of our skill guys. We get the same type of talent in terms of kids who can run. If you can run, you can run. Take Darius Leonard from South Carolina State or Tarik Cohen from North Carolina A&T or Division II schools like Trenton Cannon from Virginia State that’s with the Jets. Those kids can run. S.C. State and A&T are sort of your living witnesses.”
Here are the numbers since 1995 broken down by position:
|Position||No. of players drafted|
Early-round selections are rare
“When you go to HBCU schools, if you get a guy to go third-round, that’s pretty good,” said Faison. “You get a guy to go first or second round, that’s fantastic.”
Of those 142 picks, only 18 have gone in the first or second rounds. Here are the eight first-round picks over the last quarter-century:
|No. picked in first round||Position||Athlete||School (Year)|
|3rd||QB||Steve McNair||Alcorn State (1995)|
|16th||DE||Hugh Douglas||Central State Ohio (1995)|
|16th||DB||Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie||Tennessee State (2008)|
|21st||WR||Sylvester Morris||Jackson State (2000)|
|22nd||DB||Tyrone Poole||Fort Valley State (1995)|
|23rd||DB||Rashard Anderson||Jackson State (2000)|
|23rd||OT||Tytus Howard||Alabama State (2019)|
|29th||OT||Jamain Stephens||North Carolina A&T (1996)|
Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins (Bethune-Cookman, 2005), quarterback Tavaris Jackson (Alabama State, 2006) and linebackers Justin Durant (Hampton, 2007) and Darius Leonard (South Carolina State, 2018) were all second-round picks. There were no first- or second-round picks from 2009-2017.
Don’t expect these numbers to improve in the coming years, either. “If anything, I think it’s gonna get worse with what just happened now with the TV [deals],” the scout said, referring to deals such as SEC TV and the American Athletic Conference’s 12-year TV deal with ESPN set to begin in the 2020-21 season. Those deals make it harder to recruit the best high school players to HBCUs that already can’t match the exposure or facilities offered by schools in bigger conferences.
COVID-19 makes it even harder to be seen
This point isn’t reflected in the data, but its impact on the evaluation process is undeniable. The NFL was set to hold its inaugural combine for HBCU draft prospects who didn’t receive invites to the national combine in Indianapolis. But the event was canceled due to the coronavirus.
In all, 51 players — including the MEAC Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in Florida A&M’s Ryan Stanley and North Carolina Central’s Darius Royster, and the MEAC’s leading receiver in touchdowns, South Carolina State’s De’Montrez Burroughs — missed the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of pro scouts.
“Canceling the HBCU combine is going to hurt our schools for sure. That was their combine. Because now the only thing scouts and teams have to go by is what they see on tape,” said Faison. And sometimes tapes can be more mirage than accurate. “Because when they put that highlight tape on, it’s gonna be all good plays!”
“Any prospect that did not go to the combine — I don’t care if they’re at James Madison University or Norfolk State — if they’re a good player … and missed out on their pro day … to run or work out in front of scouts, that’s going to be detrimental,” the scout said. “We’re hurt, too. There are diamonds in the rough that we want to get a second or even third look at who might impress us and have an impact on our team. It sucks all the way around.”