It’s been quite a hectic offseason for veteran Alcorn State head coach Fred McNair, who last weekend served as a guest lead analyst on Sirius XM’s broadcast of the HBCU Legacy Bowl and continued to rebuild his Braves’ coaching staff after an uncharacteristic 6-5 season – a winning season but not up to McNair’s goal to constantly amplify his alma mater.
But make no mistake: As McNair readies to enter a fall season from a position other than first place in his Southwestern Athletic Conference Division for the first time, there’s no shortage of incentive.
Yet it’s an approach McNair has deployed long prior to Deion Sanders’ arrival at Jackson State University, which last fall claimed the SWAC title before the Tigers suffered a blowout-loss in the Celebration Bowl.
“I’m always motivated, because we’ve got high expectations around here,” said McNair, a former record-setting Alcorn quarterback who’s posted four-straight winning seasons. “We reach for the stars, and everything we do as a coaching staff, it’s to try to get our kids to play above themselves.
“Yes, we were kind of disappointed this year, going 6-5, never got our defensive linemen healthy from the first game, and we stayed banged up that game on to the end against Jackson State. But we don’t make excuses, we try to find solutions and that’s what we’re doing.”
To that end, McNair has almost completed a staff overhaul. A key piece of that configuration is new-old defensive coordinator Cedric Thomas, who led the Braves’ defense within the past decade, advanced to the take the head coaching job at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and then spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Football Bowls Subdivision Group of 5 program Southern Mississippi and last year as head coach at Mississippi Delta Community College.
“Coach Thomas did great job when he was here in 2016-17,” McNair said of the two years that Thomas helped the Braves earn consecutive first-place finishes in the SWAC East. “I reached out to him, and he didn’t hesitate and said, ‘Coach, I’m ready to come back.’
“We’re trying to hire position coaches now for the D-line job, linebackers and safeties before we get into spring camp.”
Those final hires would complete a staff reconfiguration that has also seen McNair elevate Jason Phillips to co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Phillips was integral in the development of star Alcorn wideout LeCharles Pringle, widely expected to be in an NFL camp this summer, and he also has carved a strong reputation across the sport for his work in clinics with coaches at all levels, including talks with members of the staffs at Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Vanderbilt, among myriad others.
Previously the Braves' passing game coordinator, Phillips was a top candidate to run the offensive show at both an FCS playoff team and an NCAA D-II power during this most recent cycle but stayed at Alcorn, which has made clear it will not simply step aside as Sanders tries to turn Jackson State into the next Alcorn in terms of consecutive years of SWAC dominance.
“Coach Phillips has been someone who, man, he’s been so much help to our offense here,” McNair said. “And he already has been a good amount of help to what we do here as far as our passing game and being our quarterbacks coach. He’s doing a lot of stuff and he and Coach Elliott (Wratten) get along so well, that’s what I try to bring around these kids, good coaches who try to understand what we do.
“We’ll be able to have that same camaraderie as coaches. We want to build good relationships, too, and Coach Phillips is a big part, he and Coach Elliott go hand in hand during the course of a game for what’s going to be best for Alcorn.”
Leroy Frederick is transitioning from coaching the Braves’ cornerbacks to replace Phillips atop the wide receivers room.
McNair made another potentially crucial offseason move when he plucked away Barry Gant from Penn State, where he had started in 2014 as the Nittany Lions' assistant director of performance enhancement, to become Alcorn’s head of strength and conditioning.
For McNair, the moves have been primarily twofold: what’s best for the players and best for the culture he has instilled.
“It’s a revolving door, the coaching carousel goes on and on like the NFL,” McNair said. “Most the guys we hire are very good ones, and it’s part of what we teach here at Alcorn, our coaching staff and the way they present themselves. It’s kind of a good feeling to them getting new opportunities, but every year you wonder who’s going to come in to get your coaches. I go outside and paint my own practice field and tell them just tell me who’s going so I can know which direction to take this thing.
“During the process, I think through things as to what will benefit our guys here. They have to fit the room, fit the personality of young men and what we’re trying to teach them. We’re not just trying to teach them football, we want to mentor them as young men as well. I think we’ve got a good nucleus of coaches here who understand what Coach Mac wants, the program we want to have.”
McNair confirmed that his Alcorn players will participate in an upcoming Pro Day event to be hosted by Jackson State. Though the event location is new, it is not a new event; it’s simply shifted to Jackson State away from Mississippi College.
Fresh off seeing four of his players shine in the HBCU Legacy Bowl, McNair embraces an additional opportunity for his players to perform in front of professional scouts.
“Those guys really were excited to have the opportunity to be on that platform alongside some of the best of the best HBCU players,” McNair said. “It really evolves around getting our guys where scouts are going to be during their Power 5 pro days, and we want to do whatever is best for them.
“Having Pat Mahomes doing the corner toss with those guys last weekend was special, man. Those kids will remember that moment forever. We’ve been trying to get NFL scouts more involved in HBCUs, because the last couple of years we’ve had just one guy drafted out of HBCUs. We’ve got some special kids here that I think really deserve it.”