When Henry Frazier III was living on the East Coast, he knew enough about Prairie View A&M football to joke about it. Frazier, then the head coach at Bowie State in Maryland, was introduced to a new school staff member who was a Prairie View alum.
"The first thing I said was, 'You've got an awful football team,' " Frazier said.
Since then, Frazier has gained first-hand knowledge of Prairie View. In December 2003, he became the latest coach hired to resurrect the nation's worst football program, one that set an NCAA record by losing 80 consecutive games.
"This is the greatest opportunity in all of college sports," Frazier said. "There was no opportunity like that besides Prairie View. Everyone had documented the losing. I said that if I could turn this around, people may say I can coach a little." Frazier admits that it was partly an ego thing, and that friends thought he was crazy to leave Bowie. He was young, successful and figured that he could always get another job if he fell on his face.
So far, he's exceeded all expectations but his own.
Nobody is saying that Prairie View is back, even though the Panthers take a 2-1 record into Saturday's State Fair Classic against Southwestern Athletic Conference opponent Grambling State. But no one laughs, not anymore.
"It's been a sight to see," said Hakeem Muhammad, a sophomore defensive back from Skyline who was the SWAC newcomer of the year in 2005.
After winning three games in 2004, Frasier took Prairie View to 5-6 last season.
This year, the Panthers beat Southern for the first time since 1971. A winning season would be its first in 30 years. "I think we've turned the corner ... there's still a couple more corners to turn to get to where we want to be," said athletic director Charles McClelland, who increased football scholarships to the Division I-AA maximum of 63. Frazier turned around Bowie State in five seasons. He faced an enormous challenge at his new school. Think of what Bill Snyder confronted at Kansas State en route to the "Manhattan Miracle."
Then multiply it by 10. Frazier wasn't the only person making fun of Prairie View back in the 90s. The school, located about 45 miles northwest of Houston, endured a losing streak that spanned from 1989 to 1998. The Panthers once lost 92-0 to Alabama State. In 1991-92 after scholarships were slashed, the football and men's and women's basketball teams combined to go 0-65. Even after the streak ended, Prairie View's troubles continued. Frazier's predecessor, C.L. Whittington, went 1-10 in his only season.
During his job interview, Frazier saw the doubts and skepticism about the program "in everybody, from the cleaning people to the administration to the players," he said. "They didn't believe in themselves. They didn't believe they could do it." Frazier has relied on a formula incorporating steps for each season. The first revolved around a series of questions involved "what." The second focused on "when." This year is "why." The turnaround has been more than gimmick. Frazier focuses on his players off the field too. He has an open-door policy and leads Bible study every Wednesday.
Prairie View A&M running back Arnell Fontenot (28) has rushed for 255 yards (4.25 average) and three TDs. "The only thing that made everybody buy into it is that Coach had been in this situation before," senior linebacker Van Sallier said. "He made us believe that we were going to win."
Frazier also challenged his coaching staff. After Prairie View finished spring practice, Frazier and his assistants toured 11 major college camps, including Texas, LSU, Oklahoma and TCU.
Frazier has emphasized defense. Prairie View enters Saturday's game allowing just 197 yards a game, tops in the SWAC. Depth has grown. Even Muhammad has found it difficult to crack this year's starting lineup.
The offense is led by junior Arnell Fontenot, who is on pace to lead Prairie View in rushing for the third consecutive season. A win over Grambling would be Prairie View's first – that word again – in 20 years.
Frazier knows not to be fooled by the Tigers' 0-3 start. Nor will Prairie View's rebuilding be judged by one game. He and his players know the progress they've made.
"We've accomplished many things," Sallier said. "Within, we know it's been very successful.