Up until the day he was fired as coach of the Prairie View A&M
football team, Ronald Beard knew exactly how he would spend his
money if ever he won the Texas state lottery.
To start, he planned to buy the best bunch of high school
football players in all the land. Big, tough linemen and skill
people with speed galore. A quarterback who could throw ropes
from one end zone to the other. Kickers who could boot one in
the clutch. Beard even calculated the cost of such a team. "I'll
spend $700,000, easy," he said, his face brightening at the
In Beard's fantasy he saw himself and his school avenged.
Prairie View hadn't won a football game since 1989, but Beard
intended to change that. Then, after enjoying an undefeated
season, he fully expected to find himself the subject of an
intense NCAA investigation into rules violations. Ruined, he
planned to retire with two things: what remained of his lottery
winnings and the memory of his time as coach of the nation's
Beard's dream was not to be, however. He bought lottery ticket
after lottery ticket, all of them losers. And in July university
president Charles A. Hines announced that he was reassigning the
44-year-old Beard to the classroom and bringing in someone else
to take over the football program. With the season less than two
months away, many Prairie View supporters questioned the timing
of the president's decision, but few were surprised that Beard
finally had been canned. In four years his record was 0-44, and
even he understood how history would remember him.
"I'll probably go down as one of the worst coaches that's ever
been," he said.
Prairie View is a historically black college in southeastern
Texas, about 45 miles from Houston. It's a charter member of the
Southwestern Athletic Conference, the same league that produced
Walter Payton and Steve McNair. Prairie View's brain trust
suspended football for the 1990 season after a financial
scandal, and in the previous year the Panthers had ended the
season with two straight losses. That puts the school's current
losing streak at 46, the longest in Division I-AA history, two
more than that of previous record holder Columbia, which lost
every game from Nov. 12, 1983, to Oct. 8, 1988.
If Prairie View loses its first five games this season, it will
break the alltime college mark, held by a Division III school in
Minnesota called Macalester, which lost 50 games from Oct. 5,
1974, to Sept. 6, 1980.
"We need a proven leader who can motivate and manage and project
well into the future," Hines said about his decision to replace
Beard. "We might not win a game this year, but we need to chart
a course into the 21st century."
Hines's choice turned out to be Hensley Sapenter, 55, a retired
school administrator whose last coaching job was at a high
school in 1972 and whose greatest coaching success had been in
track, not football. Sapenter played center and linebacker for
Prairie View back in the late 1950s when it fielded championship
teams, and he played well enough to have merited induction into
the school's Hall of Fame. As athletic director for the San
Antonio public school system from 1976 to '95, Sapenter says he
"kept abreast of what was going on in the profession" by
routinely meeting with coaches and discussing the game with them.
"It's true that I haven't coached in years," he says, "but
coaching is like swimming. Once you learn how to do it, you
don't forget. The game still involves the same fundamentals that
applied when I was playing and coaching. The team that wins is
the one that runs the fastest, catches the best and makes the
tackles. We're going to go into every game thinking we'll win.
And we'll take one game at a time. At the end of the year we'll
add and subtract and see where we stand."
"Mr. Sapenter is in for a rude awakening," Beard says. "Coaching
and swimming are nothing alike. Can you imagine the shock he's
in for? Kids today aren't like they were when he was coaching in
the 1960s, and the game has evolved immeasurably since 1972. Mr.
Sapenter is going to Prairie View, the only school in the
conference without scholarships. I wish him the best, I really
do, but the sad fact of the matter is that unless things change,
he doesn't stand a chance."
You have to look pretty far back, but once upon a time Prairie
View was a national football power. From 1953 to 1964 it won
five national black-college championships, as well as six
conference titles. It produced players who went on to star as
professionals, NFL Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston and wide
receiver Otis Taylor among them. The team's legendary coach,
Billy Nicks, was the Bear Bryant of black-college coaches.
Bryant had an alltime winning percentage of .780, Nicks a
remarkable .787 winning average in his 16 years at the school.
The football team inspired pride and self-respect among alumni,
many of whom now point to the engineering and nursing
departments or the school band as examples of the university's
excellence, and who view the present state of affairs in the
football program with a mixture of resignation and horror. "You
can't put a value on the importance of a football team to a
university," says Frank Jackson, a Prairie View graduate who now
serves as the school's director of student initiatives and
development. "It's like your warriors: They go out from your
village to defend and uphold your name. When you say 'Prairie
View,' there's a collective personality that's conjured up.
Those of us who are a part of that want to be recognized as
being strong and productive. If your warriors are viewed as
weak, then your collective body--your village--is viewed as weak."
Prairie View's is not a situation that kindles much humor, yet
Beard and his coaches and players brought some to their plight.
They had no choice. "Sometimes it seems like everybody's against
us," says Benjamin Goffney, a senior free safety. "Our old
teammates don't want to see us win because they didn't win. Plus
the referees, I've heard some say, 'Man, what do y'all think
y'all are doing out here?' The band members. The cheerleaders.
We already had some fights with the cheerleaders. We were coming
to practice one night before a game with Texas Southern, and we
were walking and they blocked our way and started calling us
sorry and saying, 'When are y'all going to win a game?' and
stuff like that. They were so mad they wanted to fight. They
treated us like a bunch of dogs--like we wanted to lose! Man, we
don't want to lose!"
The Panthers' last winning season was in 1976, when they went
6-5. Since then their average losing margin has been by more
than four touchdowns. In 1991, truly a regrettable year for
anyone with a smidgen of feeling for the place, Prairie View
squeezed out only 48 points during the entire season. Worse
still, the opposition averaged 56 points per game.
"That was the year we lost to Alabama State 92-0," says Ian
Smith, an offensive lineman from Houston who was a freshman
then. "It was 72-0 at halftime. And there was pretty much
nothing we could do. We're sitting around, and Coach Beard comes
in and says, 'Well, y'all go ahead and let them get a hundred.'
He actually said that. We knew he was frustrated and didn't
really mean it, but it bothered me that he was being so
negative. 'If y'all let them score a hundred,' he said, 'then
y'all are walking home.'"
Beard took most of the heat for the team's difficulties, but
changing times were more to blame than any individual. Football
at Prairie View started to decline after schools in Texas were
integrated in the 1960s and predominantly white universities
began admitting black students. Athletes with limited choices
for college suddenly found doors flung open at places like
Houston, Rice, Texas and Texas A&M. Smaller schools such as
Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State also siphoned from the
talent pool. Until then Nicks could lure practically any black
schoolboy-athlete he wanted. Work programs provided
student-athletes with the equivalent of scholarships, and as
many as 100 freshmen reported each year for the football team.
At the start of a season the roster often included 150 names.
Prairie View graduates were loyal to "the Hill," as the place is
affectionately called, and many of Nicks's players entered the
Texas public school system as coaches, teachers and
administrators. Nicks helped find them jobs, knowing they were
his best source of future talent.
Nicks retired after the 1965 season. Today he is 90 years old
and lives in Houston with his wife, Lillie Belle. "The white
schools are the ones that hurt me most," Nicks says. "I could
control it for a while, but I don't think that I could control
it now. You see, most of the black coaches in the state were my
boys--they played for me at Prairie View. If one of them had an
outstanding boy, and I told him I wanted him, then he was mine.
I could get on the phone and say, 'Coach, I hear you've got a
great boy.' The coach would say, 'Coach Nicks, he's great, he's
really great.' Then I'd say, 'Well, bring him on down here.' Not
me come up there and see him, but you bring him down to me!
"Once, one of my former players was coaching in Dallas, and he
said to me, 'Coach Nicks, I've just about decided he should go
to a white school.' I said, 'Well, he must be a mighty fine boy
if the white schools want him.' 'Coach,' he said, 'he's the
finest boy I've ever coached.' I said, 'Tell me, how did you get
the job you've got?' He said, 'You recommended me and came down
here and talked to the principal and told him to hire me, and so
he hired me.' I said, 'Just like you got it, you can lose it.'
Three or four days later that boy I wanted was on my campus."
In many respects Beard became a casualty of the Nicks legacy.
Although he was the 10th coach to hold the job since Nicks
stepped down--and the 10th with a losing record--some people
refused to believe that the past couldn't be repeated. Sapenter
is one of them.
"Winning is just like losing," he says. "Both are habit-forming.
You can win so much that you don't know how to lose. And you can
lose so much that you forget how to win. The key for me is to
break the habit of losing and build one of winning. It's a huge
task, but it can be done."
Sapenter's idealism is refreshing, but one can't help but wonder
how long it will hold up under the weight of the mess he has
inherited. Because of a lack of funds, Prairie View does not
provide scholarships to football players, as does every other
school in the conference. And at most Division I schools,
football coaches don't have to coach other sports and teach
classes, as those at Prairie View have had to do. Beard taught
28 hours of classes each week, and he coached the golf team as
well. His assistants had schedules that were just as demanding.
Sapenter won't be confined to a classroom all day, but he will
be in charge of resuscitating an entire athletic department. And
without much money at his disposal he has a huge challenge
confronting him. In 1994 Prairie View's total budget for 15
teams came to $849,000, the smallest in the conference. Southern
had the league's highest at $3.1 million, a figure that, though
large, seems meager when compared with the $17.5 million Texas
A&M dispensed to its athletic teams.
"You should put an asterisk next to our last 44 losses," Beard
says, "designating them as intramural or club football, because
that's all we've been. I played with kids nobody else wanted. I
had some who came into my office, they couldn't pass a physical
anywhere so they reported to Prairie View. They had pins in
their ankles--pins! And they said, 'I used to play in high
school, and I got hurt and all the big schools stopped
recruiting me.' And this is their thinking: If I can't play
anywhere else, I can always play at Prairie View.
"You've got guys who are bleeding and bandaged, and they look at
you and say, 'Coach, what happened? What went wrong?' You don't
have the heart to say, 'Son, you're not good enough, you
shouldn't be playing Division I football.'"
If there is a bright spot for Beard in being fired, it is in no
longer having to bear the yoke of ignominy that comes with
holding the position of football coach at Prairie View. He could
rarely venture out in his community without somebody commenting
about the losing streak. His teenage son, meaning to help,
diagrammed plays for him at home. Other family members sent him
balloon bouquets and cards wishing him well. His mother, who
lives in Detroit, mailed him poems about the importance of
Featured in newspaper articles around the country, Beard became
a celebrity for being the game's biggest loser. Even The New
York Times gave a generous chunk of space to the situation at
Prairie View. But the toughest blow came this summer, when
destiny caught up with him at last. After three days on the road
as part of an SWAC publicity junket, Beard and other league
coaches convened in Prairie View to beat the drum for the
upcoming season. A press conference was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.,
but that morning Beard received a phone call from athletic
director Barbara Jacket. "I have a letter from the president's
office for you," Jacket said. Jacket herself had received a
similar dispatch saying she'd been relieved of her duties as AD
and reassigned to the classroom. Beard's letter, stamped
CONFIDENTIAL, was the same.
"I wanted to call a team meeting and tell the kids," he says,
"but there wasn't enough time. We did have a little meeting
later in the afternoon, and some of the kids were upset and
wanted to quit. I told them not to do that. Why quit when the
school doesn't give them anything anyway?"
Hines hired Sapenter on an interim basis, meaning the school
will keep him if he can win. "Mr. Sapenter certainly will be
encouraged to apply for the position long-term," Hines says.
"But I must emphasize that it's not his problem to fix; it's
Prairie View's. To say to him, 'Mr. Sapenter, go fix it,' that
would be brain-dead."
When Prairie View suspended football in 1990, it was the first
year since 1925 that the school was without a team. The
financial scandal, in which there were charges of money
mismanagement by members of the athletic department,
precipitated the move; school officials hoped that a year off
might give those in charge of the program time to figure out a
way to regroup and perhaps reinvent itself. A campaign to
solicit donations from alumni proved a waste of time. A mailer
asking for money reached 30,000 alumni, only about 150 of whom
bothered to give anything. Athletic department officials
discovered that it was easier to raise funds for new band
uniforms than for a scholarship kitty for the football team.
"Just think what would happen if each of our 30,000 alumni gave
us $100 a year every year," says Clifton Gilliard, an assistant
coach who played halfback for the Panthers' 1958 national
championship team. "If that happened, you're talking about $3
million a year, and we could run a great program. People who
took from the university would then be giving back to it. One
problem is there's been no system set up to orientate the
graduates to give back to the school once they leave."
The lack of funds is evident in virtually every aspect of the
football program. Team colors are purple and gold, but players
wear white-and-blue practice uniforms, hand-me-downs from the
Houston Oilers. Some of the larger players, such as 345-pound
junior offensive lineman Christopher Reed, can't find shoulder
pads large enough to fit them.
"What they have is like peewee league shoulder pads," says
300-pound former Panther Dedric Clark, who transferred to Iowa
Wesleyan after last season. "We had better equipment in high
school. And in high school we had a booster club, too, which
they don't have at Prairie View. And something else: At Prairie
View they don't even use washing powder to do our laundry. They
wash the uniforms in water, nothing else."
"If they do use washing powder, then how come our uniforms
always stink?" Reed asks. "How come they have mud and grass
stains on them? Maybe they rinse the uniforms. But they don't
wash them. I can promise you they don't wash them."
Enrollment at Prairie View is 5,600, and even when Blackshear
Field attracts a sizable crowd, fans rarely stick around for the
end of the game. The Panthers played Grambling last year before
nearly 67,000 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and lost 66-0. Three
weeks later Prairie View could draw only 2,000 at home to watch
the team lose 54-13 to Alabama State. Since the outcome
generally is decided by halftime, fans wait for the band to wind
up its show before filing out. A riot of applause erupts, then a
great many people leave, not caring whom they offend. By now the
Prairie View players are used to seeing the exodus, but they
still don't like it.
"We played the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the final
game of the season last year," senior tight end Eric Wilson
says, "and when the second half started, the stands were just
about empty. Some of the guys on the other team said, 'Hey,
where's everybody going?' I said, 'This happens all the time.'
The guy said, 'I'm glad I don't go here.'"
"One game, the band just left in the third quarter," Benjamin
Goffney says. "It was a home game, and for home games they're
supposed to stay till the end and play the school fight song.
It's a special thing, everybody likes hearing it. Well, the game
ended, and we looked for the band, but it had left like
everybody else. No respect, man. Then when you go to class the
next week, some of your teachers make fun of you. I had an
English teacher say that if we won a game, she'd give me an A
for the course. This was in front of the whole class. Everybody
laughed, and I just sat there taking it. Sometimes I wonder if
anybody cares about us. It's like we're our own frat; it's us
against the world."
And in that war too, the Panthers seem to be coming up short.
Team dedication, say some of the veteran players, has known
better days. "We have practice at four o'clock," Ian Smith says,
"and you might have six people out there. The team has like
70-something members, but you have only six show up. Then when
the time comes to make up the travel squad for a road game,
everybody comes back out again, ready to go."
"When they miss practice," says junior quarterback Greg Bell,
"they're either off studying somewhere or hiding in their
rooms--mostly hiding in their rooms."
Some players have wondered whether the football program has had
a hex put on it. Junior running back Michael Porter, in
particular, has had moments when he wonders if he's the one who
has been jinxing the team. Porter has never won at Prairie View,
and he never won while playing on the varsity squad at Houston's
Davis High School, either. He personally is 0-52 over the last
"We always talk about what we'll do when we win," he says. "Skip
class. Take out a camera and shoot a whole bunch of pictures or
something. It'll be like the national championship around here."
Last year the National Enquirer sent Porter something called the
Lucky Blue Dot. The Lucky Blue Dot, the paper told him,
possessed magical powers that could reverse his fortunes. "They
sent it to one lady," Porter says, "and she won the lottery--$30
million! They sent it to another guy, and he got a car somehow.
I guess they heard I was having bad luck and thought they could
help me out." Porter, by this time, was willing to try anything,
so he put the Lucky Blue Dot inside his helmet. Before a game
against Alabama-Birmingham he sat studying it, imagining its
potential. It was nothing more than a blue piece of paper. Blue
and round. Where the luck came from he couldn't tell. You can't
"Turns out it was my best game all year," Porter says. "Every
time I touched the ball I gained five or six yards. I had a
couple of pretty long runs, too. I tried not to think about it,
but on the sideline I'd take my helmet off and look inside.
'Well, there you are.' Then I'd go out and have another run. We
still lost. But I have to credit the blue dot. It helped."
Porter says he saved the Lucky Blue Dot and plans to wear it
next season--if he can find it. He says he put it away for
safekeeping, but the place is so safe he can't remember where it
is. "If it doesn't turn up," he says, "I'll write the Enquirer
and ask them to send another. That blue dot was good."
One consoling factor for the football squad is that the
basketball team hasn't been faring much better. It was 6-21 in
1994-95. The year before, it won only five games, and in 1991-92
it went 0-28. That same season the women's basketball team
didn't win a game either, making it a confusing time for any of
the Panther faithful who look to Prairie View for
The basketball program, like football, has no scholarships. "It
forces you to do one of two things," says Elwood Plummer, coach
of the men's team. "You either have to go after the student who
has a high academic average and SAT score so you can try to get
him an academic scholarship. Or you find the player who's
indigent and who will qualify for financial aid. If a prospect
is from a middle-income family and has average grades, he's what
we call an in-betweener, and you can't put your hands on him.
Believe me, there are more average people than there are above
Plummer often brings in athletes who qualify for other types of
financial aid. One of his players receives grant money because
he works as a fireman for the city of Houston., and two are on
engineering scholarships. "We have only one player whose family
is paying for everything," Plummer says. "That's on the whole
Plummer has made a point of attending most of the home football
games and cheering when positive things happen, but few others
have been as supportive. "Even movie stars make fun of us," says
Goffney. "Bill Cosby made a joke about us once. And one of our
newspaper reporters went to interview President Clinton, and he
and the reporter cracked a joke about us and laughed. That's
what I was told, anyway. Then there was this comedian on HBO who
made up a song about us. The name of it was Purple Rain, and it
went like the Prince song. 'Purple rain, purple rain,' the
first line went, 'why can't Prairie View win a game?'"
Despite all, the players and coaches remain steadfast in their
determination to win. The first game of the new season is the
Sept. 3 Labor Day Classic with Texas Southern, which beat the
Panthers by a mere seven points last year. "I'm already having
dreams about that game," Sapenter says. "They're nightmares.
Every night since I got here I've had one."
This spring some of Prairie View's veteran players were
guaranteeing a victory. They appeared undaunted by the
likelihood that guaranteeing anything might be asking for
trouble. Others were more reflective: Getting beaten all the
time tends to make a person that way.
"I've sat down with myself and had a talk," Smith says. "If this
is the toughest thing you ever have to deal with in life, I told
myself, then life is going to be real easy."
Another echoed that sentiment, but unlike Smith he didn't have
any eligibility left. Asked what he would remember best about
his 0-44 career at Prairie View, former linebacker Alphonse
Provo hesitated a moment before speaking. He looked off at
something in the distance and then let the words come. "I
suppose the thing I'll carry with me for the rest of my life is
the record. But then, maybe I shouldn't say that. I shouldn't
say it because it's not altogether true, since I don't think
about the record much. What will stick with me, I should say, is
the guys on the team. I met all types of guys on this team, most
of them very good people. I'm not embarrassed to have played
here. As a matter of fact, I go out all the time wearing a
Prairie View T-shirt, and people may look at me and laugh and
say things, but I'm still proud of the place. Very proud."
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF LOWE Under Nicks--and different circumstances--Prairie View knew how to win. [Billy Nicks with trophies]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF LOWE Beard says he'll be remembered as one of the worst coaches in history. [Ronald Beard on golf course]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF LOWE Finding big-time equipment that fit well proved difficult for the 345-pound Reed. [Christopher Reed in hammock]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF LOWE Though Hines is determined to bring back winning ways, alumni remain doubtful. [Charles A. Hines]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFF LOWE The winless Porter thought his fortunes were improving--until he lost his good-luck charm. [Michael Porter leaning against statue]
"I'm having dreams about our first game," says Sapenter.