Since the tragic death of Steve McNair on July 4, much has been written and said about his legacy as an NFL quarterback. No question, in his 13 years as an NFL quarterback, McNair put his stamp on the game. But let's not overlook the unbelievable legacy he left on college football.
Playing at tiny Alcorn State in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, McNair produced 16,823 yards of total offense in four years -- still a Division I record. His total of 5,799 yards in 1994 remains a single-season record in the Football Championship Subdivision (known as Division I-AA back then).
But the numbers tell only part of the prolific story. The only game McNair didn't start in his four years at Alcorn was the first game of his freshman year -- and he came off the bench in that game to lead a come-from-behind victory against Grambling. He never looked back.
To say that McNair played a sandlot style of football is putting it mildly -- they did everything except draw the plays in the dirt. Alcorn State had a grand total of 10 passing plays and four running plays. McNair lined up in the shotgun 90 percent of the time, and he would then scramble to his right or to his left and make something happen. People say that Brett Favre was good at throwing off balance; McNair was even better, in my opinion.
The 57 touchdown passes he threw as a senior in 1994 were even more impressive when you consider the talent around him. Sure, the competition he was facing didn't compare to a major-college level of talent. But keep in mind who McNair was throwing the football to. As I recall, one receiver was a short, stocky guy and the other was a tall, skinny guy. I doubt either of them was even good enough to make it in the Arena League. But in addition to McNair's uncanny ability to throw off-balance, he was also very accurate. He helped these receivers put up gaudy numbers.
Alcorn State, located in southwestern Mississippi, might be one of the toughest places for a scout to get to. It feels like it is 100 miles from nowhere. So just about any road game Alcorn played in 1994, you'd see a lot of scouts. I got to see him play in person when Alcorn visited Sam Houston State, and there were upwards of 20 NFL scouts at that game. Sam Houston State wisely went into that game with the intent of controlling the football and keeping McNair off the field as much as possible. It worked, as Alcorn State lost the game, 48-23. It was Alcorn State's lowest point total of the season.
McNair appeared taller than the 6-foot-1 3/8 he measured at the combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in the low 4.7s. While he was an amazing athlete who put up some incredible numbers in college, it still remained to be seen after his college career whether or not he could translate his ability into success at the NFL level. He was a true leader, and what I would call a "football player," but his skill as a quarterback was raw.
Before the 1995 draft, the Houston Oilers' braintrust -- coach Jeff Fisher, then-GM Floyd Reese, veteran scout C.O. Brocato and offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome -- went to Mississippi to work out McNair. It was not exactly an optimal situation -- the workout was held in a vacant lot. When they left, Fisher turned to Rhome, one of the NFL's true quarterback gurus, and asked him what he thought.
McNair was probably a two-year project, Rhome said, but he liked what he saw. Knowing he had veteran Chris Chandler on the roster to fill the void, that was all Fisher need to know. The Oilers selected McNair with the third pick in the 1995 draft.
Under Rhome's tutelage, McNair actually was ahead of his coach's schedule, learning under Chandler as a rookie and actually starting four games in his second season. By 1997, McNair was the full-time starter.
I was fortunate enough to spend time with McNair in New York before the '95 draft. I remember sitting with McNair and his mother, along with soon-to-be first overall pick Ki-Jana Carter and his mother. To say McNair was quiet was an understatement. In the couple of hours the five of us sat there, I'm not sure McNair said a single word. But he was smiling the entire time.
McNair would go on to make a lot of other football fans smile with his spectacular play in the NFL. For those who saw him at Alcorn State, it was no surprise.