Among my earliest memories from tuning into SportsCenter each morning was the weekly check-in on Prairie View A&M. ESPN’s flagship show never aired clips from the Panthers’ games, but the program devoted a few seconds on Sunday mornings in the fall for an update on their exploits.
Now, an unfortunate reality for programs below the FBS level is that they only garner national attention when things are going exceptionally well, or exceptionally poorly. Prairie View A&M was an example of the latter.
Wait, scratch that: Prairie View A&M was the example of the latter.
I can’t remember the exact year that I started noticing the SportsCenter updates, though I suspect it was sometime around 1994, when the Panthers basketball program was in the throes of a 12-97 stretch. As bad as PVAMU was on the hardwood, however, the Panther football program reached a legendary status of futility.
Prairie View’s 80 consecutive losses from 1989 into 1998 stand today as the benchmark for slumps. It’s one of those records I don’t believe will ever be touched. For that reason, it will likely be the first thing any outsider equates with the program.
The streak came up at the 2009 FCS Awards Show. PVAMU won the SWAC championship for the first time since 1964 that season, earning then-Panthers head coach Henry Frazier III national Coach of the Year (the first HBCU coach honored with the award bearing Grambling legend Eddie Robinson’s name).
I was covering championship week in Chattanooga for CBS, and former James Madison coach Mickey Matthews probably stated the gravity of Prairie View’s season best: “[Frazier] should probably win Coach of the Century.”
Since 2009, PVAMU has finished .500 or better 6-of-8 times. Behind quarterback Jalen Morton, the 2018 Panthers should make it seven times in nine seasons.
Frazier’s comments at the 2009 FCS Awards speak to the nature of the turnaround: “They say it takes a village to raise a kid — it took a village to turn this around. It wasn’t just me. Great assistant coaches, great student athletes and a committed administration — that’s a recipe for success.”
To build anything starts with a single step. The win over Langston on Sept. 26, 1998, may not necessarily have been that first step — the Panthers continued to struggle for years afterward — but ending the streak was a necessary part in the process.
The first step might well have come six months prior to Prairie View’s trip to Langston.
The Associated Press lede speaks volumes: “You can laugh at Prairie View A&M’s football team all you want…” The streak loomed over PVAMU so profoundly, it ushered in news of its basketball team beating Texas Southern to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The New York Times was considerably less snarky in its feature. Joe Drape offers up details of the university motto, Prairie View’s history graduating three-star generals, and the school’s status as the second-oldest college in Texas before getting into the details of PVAMU’s athletic struggles.
The story also includes this quote:
‘They’d tell me I was at the worst program in the country,” said Sylvester Lilly, a junior, speaking of his dreaded trips back home to Dallas. ”Now we are at least the 64th best. I’ve got that answer for them now.”
PVAMU reaching the NCAA Tournament felt like a perfect prelude to the end of the football streak. And, indeed, much of the same sentiment resonating in Lilly’s comment to The Times emanates from Prairie View A&M quarterback Josh Barnes’ words to the Washington Post 20 years ago.
“I don’t know if one win counts as a streak, but I do know this,” junior quarterback Josh Barnes said. “We’ll be able to pick up the paper without seeing Prairie View, owner of the nation’s longest losing streak . . . ‘
I can still remember SportsCenter‘s semi-regular check-in on the lowly Panthers 20 years ago. Sadly, I can’t find the clip online to share, but this photo snapped on the field says more than any ESPN desk anchor could. This image deserves recognition as one of the most iconic in college football history, illustrating unfiltered joy, relief, the weight of a decade of struggles lifted — if just for a night.
Prairie View’s streak will live on in football lore forever, and from it are other remarkable stories. NPR featured Michael Porter, a Panthers running back who arrived at PVAMU from a high school that went winless in his time there.
Porter’s now a coach.
We’ll never see another losing streak to match Prairie View’s, which is a good thing. But to that same end, there will never be another regular season game between programs that otherwise wouldn’t be showcased on SportsCenter, featured in the Washington Post, or recognized in the same manner as PVAMU 14, Langston 12.
Like then-coach Greg Johnson told the Post that September night in Oklahoma City: “”I couldn’t be more proud of them if they’d just won the national championship.”