Outside, about 3,000 students crisscross a sprawling green campus, going past a 166-year-old Greek-reform chapel, around the horseshoe-shaped drive that leads past a mix of antebellum structures, old brick classrooms and giant, hauntingly beautiful, 100-year-old, moss-draped oak trees.
This is Alcorn (ALL-corn) State University, the nation's first black land- grant college, a small school virtually hidden from the world behind kudzu vines and pine trees 45 miles south of Vicksburg, in rural southwest Mississippi. The nearest restaurant or motel is 15 miles up Highway 61.
Except for Medgar Evers, the slain civil-rights activist who graduated from the school in the 1940s, an occasional Olympic athlete, and a gritty football team that has sent 68 players to the National Football League, Alcorn rarely gets mentioned outside the state of Mississippi.
Before this fall, that is, before senior quarterback Steve (Air II) McNair began breaking national collegiate records faster than you can say "Heisman Trophy." Since September, television crews, writers, photographers, pro scouts and standing-room-only football crowds have streamed onto the campus.
The understaffed, underfunded athletic department, with a budget smaller than those of some high school athletic departments, is simply overwhelmed as it operates out of tiny cubicles in the health-and-physical-education building (because there is no fieldhouse). A one-man sports information office is trying to mount a Heisman Trophy campaign with two student assistants, a fax machine, and some postage stamps.
Alcorn is being besieged because time is drawing near for the annual Heisman balloting, and many of the 920 media members who are supposed to select the nation's outstanding college football player are still undecided, confused.
The outstanding player, with no apologies to the many candidates from big- time colleges, quite likely is McNair, who two weeks ago became college football's all-time total-offense leader and on Saturday became NCAA Division I-AA's all-time passing leader.
But McNair, alas, carries the stigma of his poor, struggling, rural school
from college football's second level - the level that gave us Walter Payton, the NFL's all-time leading rusher; Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time touchdown leader; and Doug Williams, a Super Bowl MVP. All three, like McNair, played in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Payton was 14th in the Heisman Trophy voting. Rice was ninth. Williams was fourth. No Division I-AA player has won the Heisman.
"Some people feel this is just not supposed to happen," said Jones, a soft-spoken, low-key coach who returned to his alma mater four years ago and recruited McNair away from virtually every other college in the country.
"I think, at this point, Steve has done all he can do," Jones said. "He has been consistent over four years, and we have played the best football teams in I-AA. And we would have played some I-A schools but couldn't get on their schedules.
"With Steve, we've won the conference, never finished worse than second, and lost just four conference games in four years. In his freshman season, with an ankle injury, he drove the team 80 yards in the final minute to beat Eddie Robinson (the legendary coach at Grambling), and he's been doing that kind of thing ever since. I've seen him do that eight or nine times."
McNair did it two weeks ago, against Southern University, which arrived at Alcorn with the No. 1 defense in Division I-AA. With 40 seconds remaining and trailing by 37-34, Alcorn had the ball at its 25-yard line, second down and 40. McNair completed two passes, one to his brother Tim, a sophomore, then scored on a quarterback sneak with 10 seconds left. For the game, McNair accounted for 649 yards, breaking his own I-AA single-game total-offense record.
And he did it again this past weekend, when he led Alcorn back from a 35-13 deficit to a 45-45 tie with Samford. He completed 37 of 63 passes for 563 yards and four touchdowns.
In nine games this season, he has completed 239 of 427 passes for 3,854 yards. He has passed for 36 touchdowns while throwing 11 interceptions.
Against Mississippi Valley State, McNair played without having gotten any practice time because of an injured throwing arm. He accounted for 42 points in two quarters, plus one series in the second half.
McNair, 22, is a polite, cocksure, 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who grew up dirt- poor in a shack of a home in Mount Olive, Miss., a two-hour drive from Alcorn. His father left the family when Steve was small, and his mother, a factory shift worker, supported four children. McNair learned to play football in a cow pasture, with his older brother Fred, 25, who preceded him as a quarterback at Mount Olive High and Alcorn and was the original "Air" McNair. ''Steve isn't just a quarterback," Jones said, and a long list of pro scouts agree. "He's an athlete. Fast. Strong. Smart. Big hands. Great heart. He refuses to lose. He could have gone to any Division I-A school and made it at several positions - running back, receiver, quarterback, defensive back."
Or he could have made it in baseball, perhaps. He signed with the Seattle Mariners out of high school and played a summer of single-A ball at second base before attending Alcorn in the fall.
McNair moves around campus without the slightest hint of celebrity, except for the "AIR II" license plate on his gray sports car and the state trooper who escorts him to and from the stadium on game days. He arrives early for home games to sign autographs for admiring kids, and he may be the best-liked individual on the Alcorn team, which is all black, except for the punter. (Actually, McNair is the best punter on the team, too, but he doesn't kick
because Jones doesn't want him to risk injury by doing it.
The Heisman Trophy is important, McNair says, but not the biggest thing in his life, not nearly as important as his teammates or his family, whom he credits for his success. As important as exposure is in the Heisman Trophy race, it is not important enough for him to schedule his life in pursuit of it.
"If what he does on the field isn't enough," Jones said, "then he doesn't worry about it."
If he wins the Heisman - and he is a long shot - it will be purely on the basis of performance, not gimmicks and posters from a publicity office,
because Alcorn has no clout and no money and nowhere to turn in the Heisman race, except to McNair himself.
This, after all, is Alcorn State, whose team has made all of its road trips this season in two used Trailway buses and conducts its weight training in a classroom designed for gym classes, a room filled with ancient barbells and sweat-stained benches frayed and cracked by overuse.
An "Out of Order" sign hangs over a drinking fountain outside in the hallway because the maintenance budget won't stretch that far. Gold helmets bear the colored scars of every 1994 opponent because there is no money to buy a paint-and-polish machine. Game pants bear the stitches of the equipment manager's needle. Jerseys have stains from last year's games.
It has always been a struggle for Alcorn, a school that is named for a white Mississippi governor and that has managed to survive since 1871 in a society that espoused white supremacy. It is on land cleared by black slaves and has buildings originally constructed by blacks for white students.
"We look at it like the struggle is an advantage," offensive coordinator Ricky Taylor said. "We know we don't have what you have, but we're going to make up for it with hard work. Everything hasn't been laid out for these kids. They understand what a dollar means, and they come out of here stronger for it."
Since 1975, Alcorn has been waiting for the courts to make a decision on the Jack Ayers case, a suit that seeks equal funding for all of Mississippi's state colleges. The University of Mississippi's athletic budget is $11 million a year. Alcorn's budget, for 16 varsity sports, is $1.4 million. Jones makes just over $60,000 as head coach and athletic director and teacher. (He has to teach two classes, as do all of his assistants.) Joe Lee Dunn makes more than twice that at Ole Miss as head football coach.
The future of Alcorn athletics probably rests with the school's former athletes, Jones and Taylor agree, hoping that perhaps a high draft choice or two will someday give Alcorn a fieldhouse or a weight room or money to bolster its pitiful $15,000 recruiting budget. Someone like Air II McNair maybe.
There has been much written about why McNair chose poor Alcorn instead of rich UCLA or Ole Miss or Florida State. For one thing, most of the big schools wanted him as a defensive back because that's where he excelled in high school for a team that didn't throw many passes. And he chose Alcorn partly because of Fred, who played there before him; for his mother, who could see him play every Saturday; and for Tim, who could catch his passes.
But more than that, Taylor said, McNair chose Alcorn because he understood the struggle.
With Air II McNair, Alcorn football attendance has almost tripled, recruiting has improved, and the team already has played on national cable TV four times this season.
As for the Heisman, Jones said, McNair hasn't gotten caught up in that.
"His attitude is, if it happens, it happens," the head coach said. "I think it would be good for college football, to let everyone know that everyone has a chance. I know it's never been done before in Division I-AA, but this is America, and anything is possible in America."