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Prairie View took 46-17 loss to UNLV, but banked $350,000

Coach Eric Dooley says it was all in preparation; player declares, ‘It’s SWAC time’

First-year Prairie View A&M head football coach Eric Dooley sat in the lobby of the team hotel reflecting on the long day and what was turning into a long Friday night.

Dooley’s Panthers were scheduled to play the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Rebels on Saturday night. Prairie View arrived in Vegas at 2:30 Friday afternoon after a two-hour weather-related delay. The team went immediately to the stadium for practice under a scalding sun. Then it was back at the hotel for a team dinner followed by meetings.

Then came the unexpected: The hotel had come up 39 rooms short, forcing Dooley to spend an hour making sure his players and staff had rooms.

The game in the desert against UNLV was viewed as one more opportunity to build, sharpen and reshape the program’s reputation. The trip to Vegas was not wasted. Prairie View received $350,000 for making the trip.

He had spent 21 years as an assistant coach but was learning firsthand that there is more to being a head coach than drawing up plays and motivating players. Especially at a historically black college and university (HBCU), where coaches are generally required to do more with less — and do more in general.

Dooley played at Grambling under the legendary coach Eddie Robinson and served as an assistant under the Hall of Fame coach Pete Richardson at Southern University.

“We’re wired different,” he said referring to the HBCU coaching fraternity. “We understand these obstacles. It’s not going to destroy us. We understand that everything is not going to be laid out on a platter for us.”

On Saturday, Dooley saw his team start slowly in a blunder-filled first half. Prairie View fell behind 20-0 after one quarter, then 34-0 at the half.

Just when it seemed the Panthers might go the way of Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) rival — Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which lost by 90-0 to South Dakota State — the Panthers pulled it together with a heroic second-half performance.

They lost 46-17, but if it were not for crucial special teams blunders, the Panthers could have made a game of it.

On balance, Dooley said, the second-half performance was enough to give him confidence that his team will continue the momentum that has turned Prairie View from being the butt of jokes into a conference championship contender.

SWAC rival Grambling was actually supposed to have played UNLV but ultimately declined. The university would have been obligated to bring its world-famous band, which cost too much in the university’s estimation to make the trip worthwhile.

Prairie View jumped at the opportunity. The game in the desert against UNLV was viewed as one more opportunity to build, sharpen and reshape the program’s reputation. The trip to Vegas was not wasted. Prairie View received $350,000 for making the trip.

Beyond the money, however, Dooley said, he learned something about his team as it begins its SWAC schedule.

“I got a team that is going to fight,” he said outside the team locker room. “The game was basically over with, but those guys came out after halftime and they fought for the remainder of the 30 minutes. I’m encouraged by that.”

A common theme in discussions about HBCU athletics, especially football, is about the time when many of the top black athletes went to HBCUs before desegregation.

The Prairie View I knew in my youth was a powerhouse in black college football. From 1952-1965 under head coach Billy Nicks, Prairie View won seven SWAC titles and five national black college championships. Eight of Nicks’ players were drafted by pro football teams. One, Kenny Houston, is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I got a team that is going to fight,” said Dooley. “The game was basically over with, but those guys came out after halftime and they fought for the remainder of the 30 minutes. I’m encouraged by that.”

Over the last 30 years, black athletes have become a staple in the nation’s most competitive football and basketball programs. HBCUs continue to adjust, and some have done better than others.

But after those halcyon days, Prairie View became the epitome of futility, at one point losing 80 consecutive games to set an NCAA record. Henry Frazier III turned the program around beginning in 2004.

In 2007, Prairie View had its first winning season since 1976. In 2008, the Panthers reached No. 25 in the nation with a 9-1 record. In 2009, Prairie View won its first SWAC title since 1964. Frazier left for North Carolina Central University after the 2010 season, but he put Prairie View football on the road to redemption, a road on which Dooley is traveling.

Prairie View has had a winning SWAC record 10 of the last 11 seasons, but they have not inserted themselves into the conference championship scene dominated by Grambling.

Prairie View, like most HBCU football programs, gets the athletes who are passed over by the major programs, diamonds in the rough. Or they recruit athletes who went to top-tier programs who become disillusioned, chased off for underperformance or kicked off for breaches of conduct (especially when they are underperforming).

Prairie View has six such transfers. One, wide receiver Tristen Wallace, went to Oregon out of high school in Desoto, Texas. Wallace was switched from quarterback to wide receiver, a position where Oregon was especially deep.

He was suspended from the team in the wake of a sexual assault charge, though he was never formally charged.

On top of that, head coach Mark Helfrich, who recruited him, was fired in 2016, along with Wallace’s position coach. Wallace transferred to Trinity Valley Community College and from there elected to go to Prairie View.

“Coming out of school, I thought Oregon best fit me and my skill set and what I could bring to the table on the football field. There was a lot of good, but people veer off – they realize that maybe it’s a different path they need to take.”

Wallace said that coming out of high school he never considered a SWAC school — or any HBCU program — because in his estimation they didn’t represent the highest level of competition.

“Coming here, actually putting in the work with this team and this coaching staff, my perspective has totally changed, just for the simple fact that it’s just football,” he said.

“At the end of the day, wherever you go, you just have to make the most of the opportunity.”

Prairie View running back Dawonya Tucker went to Prairie View out of high school in Terrell, Texas, when other offers did not materialize. At 5 feet 6 inches, 175 pounds, larger schools felt he was too small.

He never thought of Prairie View initially. He recalled going to a game when he was younger and what stood out was that most fans left after the band performed at the half.

Some of his friends back home thought he should have gone to a bigger school. “They said, ‘That’s a band school. What you doing there?’ Some of them didn’t even know Prairie View was Division I. ”

He added, “Once I got here, I really liked what I saw. I don’t regret anything. My mother always tells me, whatever situation God puts you in, thank him and make the most of it.”

Tucker had a tough game Saturday. The nation’s leading FCS rusher was held to 63 yards on 12 carries as UNLV gave him no breathing room.

Despite the loss, Tucker was surprisingly upbeat. He said he looked at the games against Rice, Sam Houston and UNLV, not as referendums about the quality of black college football. He looked at them as exhibition games, tuneups for the real season, the SWAC schedule that begins next week against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. After that, the Panthers play a huge game against Grambling, followed by Southern.

“The best thing about this game is that it’s over with,” he said. “It’s in the past. Everything we want is in front of us now. It’s time to get over that hump and win this championship.”

As Tucker walked to go back in the Panthers locker room, he said that he had a simple message for his Prairie View teammates.

“I’m going to tell my guys: ‘It’s SWAC time.’ ”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.