Deion Sanders has nothing but praise for Alcorn's Fred McNair. (Photo by Rick Cleveland)

Earlier this fall, after a 26-12 loss to Jackson State, Alabama State football coach Eddie Robinson Jr. lashed out about Deion Sanders, saying, “He ain’t SWAC. I’m SWAC.”

It should be noted Robinson subsequently apologized, as well he should have. Everybody in the Southwestern Athletic Conference should thank the heavens for the attention and revenue Sanders has brought to the league.

Rick Cleveland

Don’t expect any similar outbursts following this Saturday’s Jackson State-Alcorn State Soul Bowl matchup at Lorman. We might see some after-the-whistle skirmishes during the game. Indeed, it would be an upset if we did not. The JSU-Alcorn rivalry is as heated as any in college sports. Tempers usually flare. But no matter what happens on the field, Sanders and Alcorn’s head coach Fred McNair likely will share a hug and retain a healthy mutual respect for one another.

“Love him, love him, love him,” Sanders said when asked about McNair during his weekly press conference Tuesday morning. “I have so much respect for him and what he has represented during his career and what he has done for the SWAC for a multitude of years.”

In a phone interview later Tuesday afternoon, McNair was effusive in his praise for Sanders. “He’s done a tremendous job at Jackson State and for the SWAC,” McNair said. “He’s helped bring things we’ve been trying to get in this league for a long time, especially in regard to TV and media exposure. He’s brought in big-time recruits. He’s made Jackson State better, but he’s made us all better. There’s no doubt about that.”

Nobody is more “SWAC” than Alcorn State’s Fred McNair. (Photo by Rick Cleveland) Credit: Rick Cleveland

It’s difficult to imagine anyone more “SWAC” than Fred McNair. He is the original Air McNair. He was a sensational player at Alcorn. His young brother, the late Steve McNair, was originally dubbed Air II McNair out of respect for older brother Fred. Tim McNair, another brother, also was a standout wide receiver at Alcorn. Fred’s son, Akeem, is a junior wide receiver for the Braves. 

Sanders knows and appreciates all that. He knew it back in August of 2019 when he was on hand for the Alcorn-Southern Miss season opener at Hattiesburg.

“Shedeur (his quarterbacking son) was on a recruiting visit to Southern Miss,” Deion Sanders said. “We were there to visit Southern Miss, but I felt compelled to go to the Alcorn locker room and say ‘what’s up’ to Coach McNair for all he has meant over the course of his career. His name should be in the archives of HBCU history.

“I feel like we’ve had a friendship ever since,” Sanders continued. “Coach McNair is a good man, a great man, with a great family. I love the way he goes about his job and his business.”

Sanders, as he should, expects an all-out effort from the Braves. “Alcorn is going to come out and play their butts off,” Sanders said.

McNair expects the same from Jackson State, a team he knows probably possesses far more talent and depth than his own.

“They’ve got a lot of top notch guys,” McNair said. “They’ve got guys who could be playing at Power Five schools. They’ve got guys who have played at Power Five schools. He has brought in some really big-time recruits and transfers.”

One of those recruits is Shedeur Sanders, the JSU quarterback McNair calls “an elite player.”

“He’s a great quarterback,” McNair said of the younger Sanders. “I love the way he gets the ball out of his hand. He gets it out quick and he’s accurate. He makes good decisions. He’s a great player.”

Sanders was announced Monday as JSU’s finalist for the C Spire Conerly Trophy, and he will be among the favorites. He should be. He has completed 71% of his passes for 31 touchdowns and just five interceptions for an undefeated, nationally ranked team.

But Alcorn State, 5-5, has an outstanding Conerly Trophy candidate of its own. Meet running back Jarveon Howard, from Columbia, who has run for 1,154 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns. There’s a story there. McNair recruited Howard hard out of high school at East Marion. Howard chose Syracuse instead. He ran for about 700 yards over two seasons at Syracuse before entering the transfer portal. One of Howard’s first calls after entering the portal was from McNair, and the conversation went exceedingly well for both. Howard told McNair he should have gone to Alcorn in the first place. Howard likely will be the best back Jackson State has faced all season.

Still, Jackson State will be a huge favorite Saturday. Alcorn likely needs at least a plus-2 turnover advantage and a big play or two in the kicking game to have a chance. But this is football and this is a rivalry game. Those things do happen – in the SWAC and everywhere else football is played.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.