How Todd McNair and Ronald Jones connected in Tampa Bay
Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him two years ago, Todd McNair wondered if he would ever again coach in college football or the NFL.
The former USC running backs coach had not worked in the industry since 2010, and he remains enmeshed in a defamation lawsuit against the NCAA that has spanned nearly 10 years.
That situation, though, was far from his mind this week.
“It’s out there,” he said of the lawsuit during a telephone interview, “but I’ve got a Super Bowl to win.”
On Friday, McNair got a major victory when California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed a lower court’s decision to order a new trial in his lawsuit.
McNair’s focus remains on helping Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy and Ke’Shawn Vaughn prepare for the sport’s biggest stage.
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McNair, 55, restarted his career in 2019 with the help of Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who recruited and coached McNair as a player at Temple University, coached him as a running back with the Chiefs and hired him as an assistant with the Cleveland Browns.
“He knows exactly the way I want things taught and how to teach ‘em,” Arians said. “I was really happy to get him back in.
“You know he went through some tough times there after all the stuff with USC, and he does a great job, especially with Rojo. Having been an SC guy, they hit it off.”
Jones, 23, played three seasons for the Trojans before the Buccaneers selected him in the second round of the 2018 draft with the 38th overall pick. This season, he started 13 games and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards.
Asked this week which coach had the most influence in helping him develop his running style and reach this point, Jones told reporters it was “definitely” McNair.
“Just the past two years, just working on trying to be patient and knowing what to expect from a defense and just … make the read easier when I’m running the ball,” Jones said.
Jones also acknowledged Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough, his position coach during his final season at USC.
“I was also able to learn a lot from him as well,” Jones told reporters. “Another guy that has played the position. You can relate to those guys.”
McNair is accustomed to working with standout running backs. At USC, he tutored Reggie Bush and LenDale White on Trojans teams that won a national championship in 2004 and played for another title in 2005.
McNair’s career was then derailed in June 2010, when the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions ruled that he engaged in unethical conduct in connection with Bush getting benefits from sports marketers while playing at USC. The group issued a one-year “show cause” penalty against McNair — leaving him essentially unemployable in college football — and USC did not renew his contract.
After the NCAA rejected McNair’s appeal in June 2011, he sued the organization for defamation in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The case seeking $27 million in damages finally went to trial in the spring of 2018. McNair testified that in the aftermath of the punishment he plunged into depression and had to make ends meet through loans from family and friends, cashing in his retirement account, driving for Uber, and using food stamps.
“The worst part was having my name attached to the scandal,” McNair told the court. “People don’t really know [what happened]. They just know your name was attached to it. ... That stigma is going to stay with me always.”
The jury, however, found that the NCAA didn’t defame McNair, appearing to hand the organization a significant victory.
But Judge Frederick Shaller, who presided over the trial, ruled that the show-cause punishment violated state law and declared the NCAA bylaws supporting the penalty to be void. In January 2019, the judge granted McNair’s motion for a new trial, finding the jury foreman should’ve been disqualified because his firm did appellate work for the NCAA in the case, and that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that McNair wasn’t defamed.
The NCAA appealed both of Shaller’s decisions, putting the case in California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal for the fourth time. The justices heard oral arguments in January, and affirmed Shaller’s order for a new trial Friday.
Arians had made sure that McNair did not have to wait for the ruling to restart his career. McNair coached the offensive line for Sun Valley Village Christian High in the fall of 2018, but when Arians came out of retirement to take the Buccaneers job, he once again called on McNair.
“He’s like a father figure to me,” McNair said. “I call him Pop.”
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McNair in turn has helped influence Jones, whose career has been on a steady rise since rushing for only 44 yards and a touchdown in 23 carries as a rookie.
“There’s a kinship, definitely,” McNair said of their USC connection.
Last season, Jones started nine of 16 games and rushed for 724 yards and six touchdowns for a team that finished with a 7-9 record.
The Buccaneers signed McCoy last July. A week before their opener, they also added Fournette, the fourth pick in the 2017 draft, after he was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“When they got here, he turned it up,” McNair said of Jones. “I was wondering how it was going to affect him and he did exactly what you wanted him to do, like, ‘This is my job. This is my house — you guys are just visitors.’
“That’s how I perceived the statement that he was making.”
With future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady under center, Jones rushed for 978 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass.
Jones eclipsed 100 yards rushing in a game four times, including a 192-yard effort against the Carolina Panthers that featured a 98-yard touchdown run.
“[McNair] gave him a lot of confidence,” Arians said. “That’s all Ronald needed.”
In mid-December, Jones had surgery to repair a broken finger suffered against the Minnesota Vikings. He was then placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He sat out two games and returned for the finale against the Atlanta Falcons.
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Fournette stepped in as the starter in Jones’ absence, and he has been the featured back in playoff victories over the Washington Football Team, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
“We roll with the hot hand,” McNair said. “[Jones] had a stretch of three or four 100-yard games and it was, ‘Sorry Leonard, he’s in there,’” McNair said. “It’s kind of flipped on him because of COVID and he hurt his hand.
“Leonard has been balling in the playoffs and kind of been the focal point. But Ro’s getting back.”
After the Super Bowl, McNair will begin preparing for next season while his lawyers get set for a new trial.
A few days before Friday’s decision came down, McNair said the long road to seeing the lawsuit through was worth the struggle.
“Your reputation is always worth it,” he said. “Respect is everything. To have your integrity questioned, it’s definitely worth it. You’ve got to make a stand.
“I’d do it all again.”
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