There are probably any number of reasons behind Eddie George’s decision to become Tennessee State University’s football coach.
There’s the challenge of something new in what already has been an interesting and compelling life after the NFL. There is the opportunity to inspire and provide opportunities for young men. There is the chance to get involved with the emerging movement to elevate and enhance the overall experience at, and impact of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
All of them make perfect sense for anyone who know the first thing about George, one of the most thoughtful, driven and well-rounded individuals you ever will encounter.
There is also this: It provides him an opportunity – in a way he could not do otherwise – to honor the memory of Steve McNair, his former teammate, close friend and the only quarterback ever to take the Titans/Oilers to a Super Bowl.
Recall that two years ago, days before the Titans retired their numbers in a joint ceremony, George made it known that he considered himself the primary custodian of the legacy of McNair, who was murdered on July 4, 2009, fewer than two years after he played his final game.
This latest move positions George for that role in ways that that go well beyond simply speaking McNair’s name in public or occasionally reminding folks that current NFL stars such as Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and Cam Newton might not have gotten the opportunities they did had McNair not broken barriers, such as when he was named the league’s co-Most Valuable Player in 2003.
Sure, there were players from HBCU programs who had better NFL careers. Guys such as Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Art Shell (Maryland Eastern Shore) and Richard Dent (Tennessee State) immediately come to mind.
When it comes to what they accomplished in college, however, McNair’s four seasons at Alcorn State likely represent the best collective performance in the history of those institutions.
The fact that he got himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation speaks volumes about what he accomplished. McNair finished third in 1994 to running backs from big-time schools, Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam and Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter, and was the only one of the top 10 who did not play for a school among the nation’s power conferences. In nearly three decades since, no one else from an HBCU program has made the top 10.
Coaching at Tennessee State will bring George – a Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State – a greater appreciation for McNair’s journey to the NFL and a greater understanding of his former teammate. It also will provide him a forum to invoke McNair’s name to an adoring audience, whether it is when he recruits players or when his team plays games such as the John Merritt Classic or the Southern Heritage Classic, contests that feature and celebrate all things HBCU.
After all, McNair has been dead for more than a decade. It is reasonable to think that some of George’s memories of him have faded to a certain degree. This is a way for him to create new ones, to reinforce their bond and to connect with some who can share their own recollections of the quarterback who earned the nickname “Air McNair” while he was still in college.
It also should be noted that shortly before his death, McNair opened a restaurant near the Tennessee State campus. It was the first step in the retired quarterback’s plan to spur economic development in the area.
No doubt, George’s presence on campus and on the sidelines will draw more attention – and money – to the campus and the surrounding area in ways that many never imagined. McNair could not do it simply because he ran out of time. George has the ability to make sure that dream did not die with him.
Let’s be clear: Eddie George does not need the money; he does not need something to do; he does not need to risk his reputation in a business where virtually everyone gets fired eventually.
There is much about coaching that George will have to learn on the fly, but you can bet that he will put his undying connection with McNair to good use every chance he gets. Not because it will make him better at the job, but because McNair was the best ever – and he wants to make sure no one ever forgets that.