PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas
Get ready for another shocker that fits right into this crazy year in college football: Prairie View A&M is on the verge of a winning season.
That’s right, the same program that lost an NCAA-record 80 consecutive games in the 1990s. The team that hasn’t finished above .500 since 1976 and once lost three consecutive games by a combined score of 194-0.
Look at the Panthers now.
They’re 5-2 and have won three in a row heading into Saturday’s game at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-7). If Prairie View can win its final three games, it would complete its best season since 1964, when the Panthers went 9-0 and won their last Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
“We’re starting to wake up from the dream,” fourth-year coach Henry Frazier III said. “It’s starting to come to reality.”
The turnaround started two years before Frazier arrived, when Charles McClelland became the athletic director. A 1993 graduate of the school, McClelland witnessed the start of the historic losing streak as a student.
“I took that personally,” he said.
When he took over, the athletic department’s budget was less than $2 million and there were only 15 football scholarships. Five years ago, students accepted a fee that generates $1.8 million per year for athletics, and McClelland raised the annual budget to more than $3 million.
That’s still second-lowest in the conference, but Frazier has succeeded in selling recruits and his staff on his “dream” of turning Prairie View into more than a punch line. He has 63 players on scholarship now and redshirted 24 this season unheard of when the school could barely field a team just over a decade ago.
“We’re not selling the dream anymore,” he said. “You can come here, win some ballgames and get a great education. You can be part of something special down the line.”
Linebacker Zach East transferred from Hampton in 2005. A Houston native, he knew all about the infamous program, but he called Frazier anyway.
He’s now the fourth-leading tackler in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) and said the current team uses Prairie View’s wretched past as motivation.
“History is always going to be there to remind us that we need to play hard every down,” East said.
Prairie View’s bad reputation has helped the resurgence in another way, too. Opponents still aren’t taking the Panthers seriously.
“A lot of teams seem to make that mistake when we play them,” Frazier said. “When we warm up, we’ll hear it: ‘They’re the same ol’ Prairie View.’ The players will look at each other and then they’ll tell me. And then they become eager to prove that, ‘No, we’re not.’”
But word is getting out.
Last week’s 26-21 win over Mississippi Valley State drew an overflow crowd at 6,000-seat Blackshear Stadium. Fans were turned away at the gate, another stunning sign the program isn’t what it used to be.
“There was no place to stand out here,” Frazier said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
The Panthers are still a long way from becoming a power.
Frazier said he had only $24,000 to spend on recruiting trips last year and only $6,000 for players who wanted to stay on campus last summer and work out on their own. The team shares a weight room with the student body, and beat-up Blackshear would even be inadequate for many high school programs in Texas.
“Our goal is to have a winning season, No. 2 is to win the SWAC championship and No. 3 is to win the Black college national championship,” Frazier said, referring to the Sheridan Broadcasting Network’s ranking of historically Black colleges. “Can we realistically do those things? That’s a financial answer, because it takes money to do those things.”
McClelland said ground will be broken soon on a new weight room for Prairie View athletes. The school is part of the Texas A&M system, and McClelland said the timeline for getting a new stadium largely depends on how good the team can become.
“If we stand still, we’re going to go backwards,” he said. “We have to continue to pour funding into the program and continue to do things that got us to this point.”
The modest level of success is already restoring school pride from those who lived through the worst of times.
Sophomore running back Donald Babers rushed for 215 yards in last week’s win. He was overwhelmed when a couple of alums approached him afterward.
“They were telling me, ‘Where have you been?’” Babers said. “They felt like I was the savior of the program, which I’m not. I’m just a player trying to contribute to this team. I’m glad they actually feel that way. But it’s really the team.
“We’re successful right now, but success is not final. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish the season. Then we can talk about what we did.”
The immediate focus is on Saturday’s game and taking that important first step.
“It would be huge. I can’t sugarcoat it,” Frazier said. “You don’t want to look too far ahead, but this school, this community, the alumni, these players, this coaching staff who took a bite on my dream, they all deserve it.”
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