In the biggest game of his life, K.J. Black played an almost perfect second half. He completed eight of 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns and led three scoring drives in three tries. Down 14-10 at halftime, Black and company came back to win, 30-24.
In a lot of ways, this was the perfect conference title game: back-and-forth and intense, with the crowd to match. It was also cold.
"It was sleeting, below freezing," he recalls. "It wasn’t fun to be in the game, but once you got past that, it was just football."
It wasn’t just football. It was the 2009 SWAC Championship. And he was the quarterback of a team known for never, ever winning.
"In the 1950s, 1960s, early-1970s, Prairie View was one of the premier programs in college football," current PVAMU head coach Willie Simmons tells me.
"We had Ken Houston, who was a 12-time Pro Bowler. Otis Taylor. This school has multiple black college championships and SWAC championships.
"Prairie View was the team that Eddie Robinson hated to play every year."
Between 1950 and 1964, the Southeast Texas school won five black national titles and eight of its 11 SWAC titles and beat Robinson’s powerful Grambling State 10 of 15 times. The Panthers sent halfback Clem Daniels and defensive lineman Jim Lee Hunt to the pros in 1960, Taylor (a two-time Pro Bowler who made one of the Super Bowl’s greatest stiff-arms) and defensive back Jim Kearney in 1965, Houston (a Pro Football Hall of Famer) in 1967, tight end Jim Mitchell in 1969, and defensive lineman Sweeney Williams in 1970.
The man in charge: William J. Nicks. He went 126-38-8 over 21 seasons, taking his pick from segregated Texas high schools. But as was the case throughout the South, desegregation resulted in a talent drain for HBCUs.
Even compared to other HBCUs, things went south in a hurry for the Panthers.
After a 5-5 1972, the Panthers would only once finish above .500 over the next 17 seasons. They went winless in 1974 and 1979 and lost 28 in a row in the early ‘80s.
In early-1989, players announced they would boycott if head coach Haney Catchings was retained; they claimed Catchings was "interfering with their attempts to get an education." They were not receiving financial aid packages on time, and they claimed he threatened to take their aid away if they performed poorly. He also then punished them when their grades sank.
The boycott ended. The Panthers bombed, going 1-9. They would not win another game for nine years.
In May 1990, with the school facing massive financial struggles, new Prairie View A&M president Julius Becton Jr. announced all sports but track & field would be dropped for the next five years. Over the previous five years, the athletic program had generated a $3 million deficit.
In June, the Houston Chronicle reported more than $100,000 was missing from athletic department coffers. Indictments followed; among those indicted: Catchings.
In the fall of 1990, the school realized something: it missed playing football.
The school could not afford to offer scholarships like its SWAC brethren, but PVAMU decided it would rather offer the sport and get stomped than not offer it at all.
Wow, did the Panthers get stomped. PVAMU went 0-11 every year from 1991 to 1996, then went 0-9 in 1997. Combined with the two losses at the end of 1989, the Panthers began 1998 riding by far the longest losing streak in college football history at any level: 77 games.
But 1998 offered hope. They lost only 24-13 to Texas Southern, 22-14 to Howard Payne, and 37-7 to Southern. (Compare to the year prior: Southern 63, PVAMU 7.)
"Talk to people that were here — professors, deans, people of that nature — and you would never know that this school had the nation’s longest losing streak," Simmons says. "They’ll talk about how many people were still coming to the games. They talk about the kids who came from those teams who are engineers and doctors and good students. They talk about what those guys are today and how those times made them better and more resilient."
Then they went to Oklahoma City to face NAIA’s Langston University, the only HBCU in Oklahoma, in Week 4.
You’ll hear coaches talk a lot about "learning to win," about coming to understand exactly what it takes to close games out and put up Ws.
But nobody on the 1998 team had won a collegiate game when they took the field at Oklahoma City’s Taft Stadium on the stuffy evening of September 26. No Panther team had experienced a win for eight years and 11 months.
It was 14-6 with barely 30 seconds left, but the opponent had to know that if you keep fighting, PVAMU might give you a break. Langston quarterback Archie Craft lobbed a 51-yard score to Ted Roberts, and LU was a two-point conversion away from a tie. A tie would technically end the losing streak, but PVAMU’s defense stiffened just enough. Craft attempted a quarterback sneak. Officials cleared the pile and ruled Craft was short.
PVAMU vice president Larry Raab said, "Tonight the score on the scoreboard validated something we always knew – this was a team of winners."
The 1998 team was far more competitive than its recent predecessors, but finished with just the one win. From 1999 to 2004, the Panthers only won 11 games total. But two things happened:
- PVAMU got its financial act together enough to begin offering football scholarships again,
- and the school hired Henry Frazier III.
"It was a bunch of walk-ons getting beat," Simmons is quick to remind. "When the scholarships came back, the wins came back. And Coach Frazier came and built the program."
"It wasn’t something I knew about," the quarterback K.J. Black says of the streak.
"My father mentioned it when I first got an offer, and I didn’t know about it." After signing with Western Kentucky and watching the program shift from FCS to FBS, Black was looking for somewhere to transfer for his final two seasons. He considered James Madison, a school that had recruited him hard in high school, but when he visited PVAMU, his recruitment was over.
"Were the facilities great? No. But the people here, that’s what made me come. The coaches, the players, they took me in quick. My host on my recruiting visit ended up being the groomsman at my wedding. The campus is beautiful, maybe better than WKU’s.
"I wasn’t here when they initially started to change the way things were going," he says, "But Coach Frazier stood out to me. You’ve got to have a guy the players will play for and the community will get behind. And if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, he’s going to get guys who want to be there.
"They’ve got to really love football and love where they are to make it here."
"When I walked on campus," Simmons says, "you could feel the warmth, the love that this student body and administration have for football. We’re in the state of Texas! People understand the love of football."
Under Frazier, the Panthers rose.
After going 3-8 in 2004, they won eight in 2005-06, then went 7-3 in 2007 and 9-1 in 2008. During 2008, they averaged more than 30 points per game for the first time since 1964. They scored 49 on Mississippi Valley State; they’d only scored 48 for all of 1991.
The tide was turning, but PVAMU’s one loss (40-16 to eventual SWAC West champion Grambling) cost a chance at the conference title.
Black had played in parts of two seasons at WKU, compiling 1,284 passing yards with a 63 percent completion rate, nine touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
He showed up at PVAMU in 2009, and everything clicked. He completed 70 percent and threw 22 touchdowns to four picks. The Panthers proved balanced in the passing game, with six players catching between 15 and 37 passes. They would finish 9-1, but this loss was out of conference; in their first game against an FBS opponent in ages, they nearly beat New Mexico State. (Black is quick to say, "They called back a touchdown in that game! We should have won!")
There were only two hurdles left: beat Grambling, and win the SWAC.
The former hadn’t happened since 1986, the latter since 1964. One box got checked when Black threw for 184 yards, rushed for 75, and contributed to four touchdowns in a 35-32 win over GSU. The other?
"The turnout in that title game was unmatched," Black says, "in terms of how loud they were, how proud they were to be there. I remember being on the third or fourth level in our hotel the night before, and I could hear people out the window and outside the door. It was hard for me to go to sleep that night because I knew we had the chance to do something special."
Alabama A&M scored early in the fourth to take a 21-17 lead, but two perfect drives, both resulting in touchdown passes, put PVAMU ahead, 30-21.
AAMU kicked a field goal with four minutes left to get within four points, and PVAMU wasn’t able to eat up the clock. The Panthers were forced to punt with 15 seconds left, and AAMU’s Thomas Harris nearly returned it for a score. He took it 26 yards to the Prairie View 47, but backup running back Michael Jason managed to take him down.
"He doesn’t catch him, and it’s a touchdown! I thought he was going to score," Black says.
But he didn’t. A Hail Mary pass fell incomplete. PVAMU: 2009 SWAC champs.
For nearly a decade, Prairie View A&M got its clock cleaned weekly, simply because the school decided it loved football too much to go without.
But as other schools struggle through hard times — as Florida A&M struggles through the aftermath of a failed attempted jump to FBS, as Savannah State looks to a new coach to end basically 15 years of constant losing — PVAMU serves as the example. The Panthers’ success is why you keep fighting.
In December 2014, Prairie View A&M hired Simmons to take over. Frazier had left after 2010 to take over at NC Central.
Simmons, a former Clemson and Citadel quarterback, was seen a huge get. He was coached by Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez at Clemson and spent a year as a Bowden graduate assistant before learning at the feet of another strong spread teacher, Tony Franklin. In 2012, he was named Jay Hopson’s offensive coordinator at Alcorn State. ASU averaged 16 points that first year, then 40.5 per game over the next two.
"My first year at Alcorn, Jay Hopson got hired at the end of May, and spring ball had already passed. We didn’t have a chance to work with guys, we lost our best offensive lineman the week before the first game, and we had a true freshman quarterback and center. We just tried to get by and build for the future.
"The next year, I figured out exactly what I wanted to be based on the personnel we had."
In his first year at PVAMU, the Panthers went from 36.6 points per game to 44.6 and improved from 5-5 to 9-2.
"When I took this job back in December of 2014," Simmons says, "the one thing I knew was, this was a talented team. We played against them at Alcorn for three years. And me coming in, the kids automatically bought in offensively because they saw what I had done at Alcorn.
"We weren’t able to have spring practice that first year" – sanctions from poor APR scores – "so we didn’t get a chance to figure out who we were on the defensive side of the ball, what our personnel could do. It took a little bit longer to figure ourselves out defensively."
In three games against Texas State, Alabama A&M, and Grambling, the Panthers allowed 182 points. Over the final seven games, they allowed only 138.
Meanwhile, they only scored fewer than 38 points once all year: against FBS’ Texas State.
Alcorn State was the first HBCU Simmons worked for, but he had brief, first-hand experience with HBCU travails.
He grew up in Quincy, near Florida A&M, and before he ended up at The Citadel, he arranged to transfer to FAMU. But when the Rattlers had their FBS status approved, Simmons was suddenly ineligible.
Simmons watched FAMU’s attempted jump up close, and while it was a reality check, he didn’t feel it proved an HBCU couldn’t do it.
"FAMU, PVAMU, these schools could be as good as any mid-major if you have the right timing. But it takes a great understanding of what it takes to make it. For any school that makes that jump, it’s not a year process. It’s five years, 10 years.
"You’ve got to raise enough money to fully fund 22 more scholarships in football, and more scholarships in every other sport, too. You’ve got to be prepared to raise coach salaries, hire more support staff. You have to look at the entire infrastructure.
"I think FAMU felt that, from a prestige standpoint, from a support standpoint, they were ready to make that jump. And if it were only based on that, they could have. But I think it was rushed. They got the itch to do it and they rushed it. If they had taken a few more years to get all their ducks in a row, they could have made the transition and made history.
"Look at Tennessee State, one of the first schools to move from a predominantly black league to a white conference, the Ohio Valley. That might be what you have to do: Go to the Southland or the OVC or the Southern Conference and see how competitive you can be there, then make another transition."
No matter what level you’re at, the keys are investment and commitment.
PVAMU has fortified itself. When Texas Southern came to town for the Labor Day Classic on Sunday, the Tigers lost as PVAMU’s first opponent in Panther Stadium, a 15,000-seat stadium and field house, a $61 million project.
Panther Stadium (via PVPanthers.com)
Panther Stadium (via PV Athletics)
"Kids like stuff. They like to be able to look and see Oregon wearing a different uniform every week, schools who have great facilities, great uniforms. I could be the best coach or recruiter in America, but you’re not going to sell a kid if you’er playing in a stadium that looks worse than where he’s playing high school football. I don’t think Prairie View A&M could be the team we want to be if we didn’t build a new stadium."
The previous venue, Blackshear Stadium, held just 6,000 and bore the weight of 55 years.
"For us to compete at the level we want, we have to continue investing in our facilities, our support, our academics to retain our athletes and avoid falling into APR sanctions.
"Twelve teams [nationally] had APR sanctions this year, and 10 were HBCUs. The support isn’t there, the way to raise those scores isn’t there. It’ll take everybody to get there, administrators, fan base, coaching staff, players."
After a trip to Texas A&M on Saturday — PVAMU is part of the Texas A&M system — the Panthers will welcome two Southland Conference schools (Incarnate Word and FCS heavyweight Sam Houston State) to Panther Stadium in 2017.
"I was there when FAMU was beating Troy in the [I-AA] playoffs," Simmons says. "I’ve seen an HBCU being able to compete at that level, and that’s our goal.
"When Sam Houston rolls in here as a top-10 or top-15 team next year, we want to beat ‘em."
Whatever the Panthers accomplish, they will do it on the backs of the players who were getting beaten up in the 1990s, playing just for the sake of playing.
"It definitely wasn’t just me in 2009," Black says. "Those other guys had already set the tone. They called themselves the new era — they wanted to change the way people perceived Prairie View.
"Lo and behold, they did. Because of that group, we’ve got a championship and a new stadium to tell people about."