Used to be, teams would automatically circle the Prairie View date on their football schedule, then pencil in a ‘W.’ That was before Henry Frazier assembled a staff that included defensive coordinator Heishma Northern, then began an improbable rebuilding project that led the Panthers back to SWAC glory.
“It was basically: ‘How bad are we going to beat these guys?,” Northern tells me. “You see the changes in the faces of players on the other side of the field. Early on, we could have won the previous week and they would still be saying: ‘Yeah, but you’re Prairie View.’ Nowadays, you hear guys saying: ‘We’re not going to underestimate you guys this time.'”
Frazier, pushed along by Northern’s stout defenders, claimed the 2009 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship — Prairie View’s first since the early 1960s — before leaving for for the MEAC and North Carolina Central this offseason. He already had a succession plan in place, handing the reins to a battle-tested, conference-savvy coach in Northern, who played at Southern and then was a long-time assistant at Grambling.
The program has also lost several key players to graduation, including starting quarterback K.J. Black, who led the nation in pass efficiency during that magical championship campaign. That hasn’t lowered expectations, though. A fanbase that suffered through some devastatingly lean times — including the longest losing streak in college football history — isn’t ready to take a step back any time soon.
Neither is Northern, a proven winner who has been part of five league titles now as a player and coach — one at Southern as a standout defensive back, three at Grambling and another at Prairie View as an assistant coach.
“You sort of get used to it,” Northern told me. “Playing at Southern and then coaching at Grambling, you get used to these kind of lofty expectations. It’s good to be at a place where they expect you to win. That’s our goal, too.”