My first thought, after hearing that Heishma Northern has been given the job of head coach-in-waiting at Prairie View A&M, was this: About time.
That might shock a few people.
See, I was covering Grambling when Northern was demoted as defensive coordinator, just weeks after a shattering 2003 loss in the 30th annual Bayou Classic against Southern. In what would be Doug Williams’ final game as head coach, he saw Northern’s unit surrender a staggering 552 passing yards. The stumble kept Grambling from advancing to a fourth straight league championship match — and pushed the Tiger pass defense to ninth in the 10-team SWAC.
I remember writing those stories, and wincing. I liked Northern, then and now, not just as a coach but as a person. Still, some fans thought my reporting on the team’s late-season defensive struggles ultimately ran Northern off.
A rising talent, but one who hadn’t completely matured into the coach he is today, Northern got rushed into duty when Grambling coordinator Mike Roach suddenly quit just a month into the 2003 campaign. Though the Tigers had been No. 4 in the nation for interceptions over his final season of coaching the defensive backs, Northern didn’t appear to be ready yet to take over the broader responsibilities of running the defense.
Demoting Northern was one of the most painful things Williams had to do during his six-season coaching tenure at Grambling. Northern had been a part of his GSU staff from the beginning, and had earlier worked with Williams at Morehouse. Not long after shuffling the staff, Williams left for an NFL job, and Northern eventually landed at Prairie View A&M with head coach Henry Frazier III.
In Northern’s first game against his former team, the Panthers’ defense was gashed for seven touchdowns by senior Grambling quarterback Bruce Eugene. Three separate receivers had 100-yard days for the Tigers.
But Northern kept working, kept studying, kept growing. There was the NCAA Expert Coaches Academy, and an internship with the Oakland Raiders. Northern evolved from being the well-liked, remarkably sharp prodigy he’d been at Grambling into one of the very best defensive minds at this level.
His Panther units have finished first in scoring defense in each of the last three seasons, first in total defense in 2008, and second in pass defense and turnovers in 2006.
Over that same period, the program finished a win away from an historic Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game berth in 2008, then a year later — after finally claiming victory over Grambling in Dallas — Prairie View earned its first title since 1964. (That’s five total for Northern, who helped Southern to a crown as a player for Pete Richardson in 1993, then earned three more in 2000-02 as an assistant at Grambling.) In 2008, Northern was named FCS coordinator of the year by FootballScoop.com.
Overnight came news of this promotion for Northern, as Prairie View (3-3 overall, 3-2 in SWAC) prepares to host Lincoln (Mo.) at noon Saturday in non-conference play. (The Panthers then take on Northern’s alma mater, Southern University, on Oct. 23 at Shreveport, La.’s Independence Stadium.) If Frazier leaves Prairie View within the next three years, Northern would automatically be elevated from associate head coach/defensive coordinator to head coach.
“My hat goes off to Prairie View A&M for committing to Coach Northern,” Frazier said in a school release, “because he has paid his dues: He’s ready to be a head coach on the collegiate level and the Prairie View A&M program would be in capable hands under his watch.”
I agree, wholeheartedly — even if that comes as a bit of a surprise to Grambling folks. It may not have been Northern’s time back then, but it is now.