The headlines have gone elsewhere this offseason.
Jackson State and Deion Sanders, most notably.
New additions to the league, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, expand its geographic footprint and provide programs with passionate fan bases.
The hardware? The hardware finds its home in Lorman, Mississippi, home of Fred McNair's Alcorn State Braves football program.
The Braves own six-consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference Eastern Division titles, the last four of which have come under McNair's direction of the program. He's led the Braves to back-to-back SWAC titles and appearances in the prestigious Celebration Bowl heading into an all-new spring season set to kick off at Alabama A&M on February 27.
McNair also joined FootballScoop for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session to discuss Alcorn's big success on a small budget; McNair's goals in the program; and of course, all the attention centering on 'Coach Prime' and Alcorn's rival, Jackson State. Deion Sanders' first Jackson State team visits Alcorn in both teams' regular-season finale on April 17.
Q: You're picked again to repeat as SWAC champions going into this spring season. What do you think that says about the program you've built?
Fred McNair: It seems like that's become a good habit. Because every year it seems like we're picked to win this thing, but like I tell our guys, we've still got to lace up our cleats, work hard and get these guys ready to play football every Saturday.
It's always good to be hunted. But we all know we get picked to finish first in the division and we have to come out and work hard in the week and do our best to put the best product on the field on Saturdays.
Q: There is perhaps more attention than ever before on SWAC teams, with the addition of Deion Sanders as Jackson's coach and the arrivals of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M. What do you think about all the attention going to programs other than yours?
FM: I guess this program is about like me. I stay humble, man. That's kind of the way we grow these guys, don't let that bother us about other programs getting all the attention. Because at the end of the day, the ballgame's got to be played between the lines. When the dust all settles, we've got to be the ones standing up. We don't worry about that.
It's good to have Bethune-Cookman and FAMU coming into the conference. That just makes us an even more competitive league. We were already strong, but I think that's the conference doing a good job of putting this thing together. I'm excited about it and like I said, end of the day, everybody's got to line up and play and football. And coaches gotta coach.
Q: Along the lines of lining players up, your quarterbacks specifically have had remarkable success in the SWAC with multiple player of the year awards since you took over. I know that's your old position and also that of your late brother, Steve McNair. Do you feel you just have a special ability to develop players at the quarterback position?
FM: That's a great that we've had since I've been here, that we've had quarterbacks to win player of the year just about every year that I've been here. And now, Felix Harper, again, he is picked all-conference quarterback.
We just grow them here. Felix has that knowledge of the game, is a special talent and is a very smart kid. He can get that ball out on time, and he knows where it needs to go. We enjoy coaching these kids and I enjoy coaching quarterbacks. And it was good when we had Coach (Pat) White and now we've got the legendary Quinn Gray from FAMU to coach quarterbacks.
We strive for better things every year, and that's just part of it. I'm always looking for a coach to come in and help grow our program. I think Coach Gray is going to do a great job with Felix and growing those young quarterbacks.
Q: When you're looking at quarterbacks to play for you and coaches to coach quarterbacks for you, with your history at the position, what are the traits that you are seeking?
FM: The biggest thing is just being in the interview room with those guys and just asking them questions about coverages, what can they do to beat Cover-2 and those kinds of things. Route concepts and making sure the kids identify the fronts and coverages.
When they come in, they grow like water. That's one of the main things, the traits that I have, is helping them read the coverage before the ball is snapped. I think the quarterbacks I've had in the past, those guys really understand what I wanted as a quarterback. Footwork, getting the ball out. And just being able to get the kids to understand from my perspective what I'm looking for.
Q: You've had multiple wideouts land in NFL camps in recent years, including Chris Blair recently signing with the Green Bay Packers. And now you're coaching Akeem McNair and Tim McNair Jr. What's that like for you?
FM: Man, I tell you, it's been a great honor to be able to coach some great wide receivers. Norlando Veals, (Delance) Turner and Chris Blair now signing with the Packers. Now my nephew is coming up and we've got a lot of great talent at the receiver spot.
Now, people like to pay attention to that spot, even coaching my son, Coach (Jason) Phillips does a great job, details with their routes. When Coach Phillips came down to interview, he was an offensive coordinator; he knows route concepts, coverages and he teaches the receivers actually how to read what the quarterback is seeing. When you're on the same page like that and they're doing as well as they do, it's almost easy. Especially when you have great coaches like we have.
And I couldn't be more proud of our coaching staff.
Q: Your program has succeeded on and off the field, but you have among the lowest budget and financial resources of any FBC or FCS program, and your total athletics department budget ranks below 200 (at barely more than $6 million per USA Today, ranking 221st). How are you able to squeeze so much out of so relatively little compared to many of your peers?
FM: Coming in, I always tell the coaches and get them to understand, as far as the budget-wise and how much money we got, in terms of paying coaches and the resources that we have. We maximize everything that we have. We try to get change out of a penny.
As coaches, that's what we've got to do. We have to maximize everything we've got. Just getting the coaches to understand that before you hire them, then they know as a head coach they can trust you. I always lay it out there. This is what we've got. This is what we can do. They understand that, they understand my philosophy. And this one of the most loyal coaching staffs I've ever been around. They just say, 'Coach, we got you.'
I don't have to be here at practice for everything to run smooth. That's just the way these guys are coaches and the dedication they have to coach this football program.
Q: Alcorn obviously has been a huge part of both your life and your family's life. What does it mean to you to be back there and helping shape the future of young people the way Alcorn helped shape your future?
FM: You know, a lot of times when we're out on the road recruiting and even on visits to this university, we always emphasize the academic part.
And we let them know, these kids are going to leave here with a degree in one hand a championship ring on the other one. We sell that to them, because we do have a good academic program at this university. Right now, our term GPA as a team is a 3.0 and our cumulative GPA is a 2.94. So academics-wise, we're in good standing with these kids and get them to understand, they've got to go to class. They know if they miss a class or sleep late, there are consequences for that.
Football is only going to last so long. We always talk about the four-for-40 initiative; that means turning four years here into setting up the next 40 years of your life. Our compliance does a really good job of helping us with that and making sure these guys understand they've got to get their degrees.
I was kind of nervous in the fall semester with everything being put online (due to COVID-19) and I just wondered if the guys would be dedicated enough to do their work. And, man, I was blown out of the water when I saw our team grades in the course of the fall. It was unbelievable how kids stepped up and did their homework and did their classwork.
Q: Along those lines, what have been the challenges of this past year in terms of navigating the challenges around the COVID-19 pandemic?
FM: Once we discovered we were going to be out an extended amount of time, we got together and got on Zoom calls and got on Zoom calls with our kids, sent out materials to them, cut-ups on film and things like that. As a coaching staff, we've been grinding ever since. We've probably watched two seasons of film on all of our opponents, just breaking everything down and breaking it down to where we understand our opponents and getting our young men to understand that as well.
We had about three weeks of running and conditioning before Thanksgiving, but now we've got to get them back in the weight room and get them ready for the spring season. It's going to be critical for us.
Q: Nothing about the switch to spring was wanted during this pandemic, but it could be an opportunity for additional attention and spotlight on your team, the SWAC and other HBCU programs and FCS programs throughout the country. Is that something that you've thought about? Something you think could end up being a positive element?
FM: That's something that's always been positive for us, is potentially being able to spring football, as far as the HBCUs, because the Power-5s and all that, they have played. So it's a chance to focus more on the HBCUs and our program here at Alcorn. I talked to our conference commissioner the other day, and ESPN is really trying to back us on some games. It may not be a whole bunch of them, but even if it's just two or three games, if we can get those on the tube, that would be very good for us and our league.
Q: Did you know Deion Sanders or have any kind of relationship with him before he took the Jackson State job? Have you spoken with him since then or had your paths cross anywhere?
FM: I saw him once a couple years ago in Hattiesburg, when we played Southern Miss down there and we visited briefly there. I haven't talked to him since he took the job.
We've been very quiet down here and we're trying to get our guys ready for the spring and ready to battle in the spring and keep our guys healthy down here. So, we've got a challenge as a coaching staff to do those things and making sure our guys are doing what they're supposed to do.
But other than watching film of Jackson State and the whole conference of our opponents, that's all: just breaking down film on them.
Q: Do you relish the challenge of being the hunted in your conference, even if the attention is perhaps on Jackson State and others, it's your program that's been picked to win?
FM: It's a great position to be in, and the reason I say that is that my expectations are always going to be high.
When I come in here to coach this football program, my expectation is very high. These young men know when I step into the meeting room, what I expect of them. It's always good [to be the hunted], and it makes me a better coach. I've got to get out and coach hard every year and get better every year. And my coaching staff is behind me all the way. They know what to expect as far as coming into the season every year.
I don't do a whole of social media stuff, I have a hard enough time out here trying to keep the administration straight and getting done the things I need to get done around here. I let them handle the Twitter and they kind of keep me informed on all that stuff.
It's always good to be in that position where you're being the hunted. That way you know you have to lace em up tight every week. Now this conference is getting extremely competitive every week. There's no team to circle and say easy game. That was before Bethune and FAMU came in.
They asked me a question the other day about moving to the West (Division of the SWAC), I said look here, 'It's no different. I see (Broderick) Fobbs (Grambling) and (Eric) Dooley and those guys every year. Southern, Grambling, Prairie View. I see those guys every year. It's no different to me.' It's going to be exciting for me. I think they're probably going to be more afraid about us moving over there than me, because we beat em just about every year. It's going to be tough. It's going to be exciting football this year. And I'm excited about it.