Historically black school, white coach ... how Alcorn State returned to its roots (with a twist) to build a winner

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  • Steve McNair
    Steve McNair
    American football quarterback (1973-2009)

In the spring of 2012, Alcorn State was seeking its fourth head football coach in four years. It was coming off a two-win season where it finished last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

The place was so dysfunctional that it was on its third athletic director that year. Highly qualified coaches weren't exactly begging for the job, so the process dragged on and on and on … for five-and-a-half months. Five-and-half months? No head coach for five and half months? This may have been unprecedented.

Recruiting was shot. Spring football was run by what remained of the old staff. Continuity was non-existent. As June approached, due to NCAA rules, whoever took the job wouldn't even be able to work with whatever players were left until the start of fall practice in August, just one month to prepare for the season opener.

Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson talks to game officials during the Braves' loss to Southern Miss. (USAT)
Alcorn State coach Jay Hopson talks to game officials during the Braves' loss to Southern Miss. (USAT)

Alcorn State has a proud football history, producing nearly three dozen NFL players and winning four Black College National Championships. Its most recent glory came via quarterback Steve McNair, who in the early 1990s used a combination of passing and rushing that helped revolutionize the position. He became a Heisman finalist and would go on to a Pro Bowl career in the NFL, including leading the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl.

It is a historically black university located in rural Lorman, Miss., with a beautiful campus carved out of the deep woods near the Mississippi River. Founded in 1871, it educated generations of African-Americans, from freed slaves right through to the Civil Rights movement, who were shut out of other schools.

So, naturally, it hired a white guy.

Jay Hopson never dreamed of being the first "non-black" head football coach in SWAC history (who would dream that?), but he'd grown up in nearby Vicksburg, played at Ole Miss and had some experience as a high major assistant. He also needed a job after he resigned as defensive coordinator at Memphis in 2011 just two weeks and 106 points allowed into the season. He was more than qualified but kind of lacking career momentum at that point.

"Today, Alcorn creates a day to remember," then school president M. Christopher Brown II said. He saw the hiring as a chance to demonstrate Alcorn was open to diversity; its student body was already nine percent white and featured professors and administrators of all races.

What better institution, Brown argued, to reject race playing a role in granting opportunities than one that for generations educated students who dealt with such discrimination?

Alumni were at first surprised. Most were supportive. Some grumbled. Others made good-natured jokes and figured why the heck not, it's not like anything else is working for football. Around the SWAC not everyone was on board, but it wasn't their decision anyway.

"I don't see black and white, we're all purple and gold," Hopson said at his press conference, referencing the school colors.

It was a cool story, but that wasn't going to win Alcorn any football games.

Hopson, now 46, needed to build a staff of assistants that June, when, in general, hiring for those jobs occur in January or February. He also had to find coaches who didn't mind the extreme challenge of whipping a lousy team into shape in a couple of weeks.

He figured it would help to have some coaches with Alcorn ties, a bridge back to the glory days of the program. Steve McNair, of course, was tragically murdered in 2009. His older brother Fred, however, had gotten into high school coaching and around Alcorn was known as the "Original Air McNair" for his quarterbacking exploits of the late 1980s.

Alcorn State's Jay Hopson talks to LBs Damon Watkins (33) and William Thomas (51) during a game. (USAT)
Alcorn State's Jay Hopson talks to LBs Damon Watkins (33) and William Thomas (51) during a game. (USAT)

"We were at a night practice one time and we were throwing the ball so well, one of my receivers, Terrence Small called it 'Air McNair,'" Fred McNair said. "He introduced that name to me."

It was so catchy it was handed down to Steve and became the center of his Heisman campaign – in 1994, despite playing in Division I-AA, he finished third behind Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter. (With the hindsight of the respective NFL careers, McNair should've won it.)

Fred quickly agreed to become the quarterbacks coach. Hopson also lured Willie Simmons to become the offensive coordinator. Simmons was a quarterback at Clemson from 2000-02 and like most kids of that era knew about Alcorn because of the younger "Air."

"I grew up idolizing Steve McNair," Simmons said. "Just like every other guy playing quarterback that's African American."

So there was a romantic challenge to this. That wasn't going to help Alcorn win any games either, though. Not with just a few weeks of camp to prepare.

"We weren't able to recruit," Simmons said. "We had a couple guys, transfer guys. We had to take who was here. Then we basically had to install the whole offensive, defensive and special team schemes in 30 days to play a game."

Alcorn won it anyway, beating Grambling 22-21 and offering a beacon of hope.

More importantly, as the coaches scanned the practice field during that time period they noticed a 6-foot-6, 220 pound, mobile, strong-armed quarterback named John Gibbs Jr. He was a freshman from Houston and one of the recruits that bothered to stick with a program even when it didn't have a head coach.

Why?

"I knew Steve McNair went here," Gibbs said. "I knew he was a great quarterback so I figured, why not follow in his footsteps?"

Gibbs is not Steve McNair. He is like Steve McNair but, especially as a freshman, while he can run and pass, he isn't as elusive a runner and not as good of a passer. Then again, who is?

"There won't be another Steve McNair, on any level," Simmons said. "The things he did on the football field were unbelievable."

Gibbs was the future though. He started eight games as a freshman and Alcorn managed to eke out four victories. It was a notable achievement, proving a couple of things.

First, Hopson and his late-hired coaching staff knew what they were doing. Second, no one cared that a historically black school had a white coach. After the initial media buzz and a few complaints, it rarely came up. As Gibbs noted, every player had played for a white coach at some point.

"Whether he was green, black, orange, blue, or whatever color he is, we're going to treat him for who he is," Gibbs Jr. said. "We just abide by the rules and play."

"White, black, we're all here," said Simmons. "Alcorn hired who it thought was the best guy for the job. If it was 1967, that might have been a bigger deal than it is today."

Alcorn State's John Gibbs Jr. runs with the football against Southern Miss. (USAT)
Alcorn State's John Gibbs Jr. runs with the football against Southern Miss. (USAT)

And on the recruiting trail, success was found. Better players started coming in. Coaches were able to fit needs and schemes. Race wasn't mentioned. Player development was.

"The only thing I hear on the recruiting trail is Coach Hop and his staff is doing such a great job," Fred McNair said. "And that sounds fine to me."

They did fine enough that Alcorn went 9-3 in 2013. Gibbs threw for 21 touchdowns, and the fledgling offense that managed a meager 177 points in 2012 went off for 441.

Then came this fall, with Gibbs getting better and better and surrounded by better and better talent. He's thrown for more than 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 874 yards and 11 more scores. The offense has produced 534 points. Alcorn went 9-3 again.

"We lost three games by 16 points," Hopson said. "We felt like we had the opportunity to be undefeated … John [has] been a tremendous player for us and has done an incredible job leading."

Crowds returned to campus to watch the excitement. It's not just that the Braves are winning. It's how they are winning, with this big, fast quarterback, and the cool story of the Original Air coaching potentially the Next Generation Air.

"John talks about how he wants to be like Steve McNair," Fred McNair said. "He talks about the records he can break and all that kind of stuff. Hey, records are made to be broken. All you can do is just keep working."

Gibbs is just a junior, but like his hero, he's already caused NFL scouts to start flocking to Alcorn.

"You can't really compare them," McNair said. "But the growth in John is there, and we're just going to keep pushing until we can't push anymore. In the past we had a Steve McNair, and in the future now we have a John Gibbs."

Alcorn won the outright SWAC title in 1992 and a co-championship in 1994 behind Steve McNair. Since then it hasn't been a walkover, but it hasn't been impressive either.

Down in Houston on Saturday, it will face Southern for the league crown again.

The moribund days of losing seasons and coaching uncertainty and rushed game plans are over.

An unorthodox hire, the brother of a legend, a recruit inspired by that legend, it's all panning out.

"Honored to be here," Jay Hopson told the media this week, hyping up what two years ago would've seemed like a pipe-dream championship game appearance.

At Alcorn, it's old and new and new and old, the past and the future echoing to each other.

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