Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Football season hasn’t held much fun for Ken Houston since the team he loves most was rendered a national laughingstock.
“I don’t have much to cheer for anymore,” says Houston.
And he’s not talking about the Redskins. No, Houston’s gridiron loyalties really belong to Prairie View A&M. You know, the only school in the land where the marching band hits harder than the football team.
Long before he earned his Cowboy-busting reputation here as a member of George Allen’s Over the Hill Gang, Houston busted heads for Prairie View. The historically black college, founded in 1876, is the second oldest university in Texas. The school’s national standing came by cranking out top-flight engineers and football players with incredible prolificacy. Houston was one of many future pros to wear the Panthers colors during the team’s heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, when Prairie View won four small-college national championships.
“Eddie Robinson once told me that his players’ knees would shake when the Prairie View bus would roll onto the Grambling campus,” says McLean businessman Sam Metters, a ’57 Panther grad and the school’s first football player to earn an engineering degree. “Then he said, ‘Sam, to tell you the truth, my knees were shaking, too.’ That should tell
“We had a powerhouse, I tell you,” adds Houston.
Though A&M’s engineering school never stopped producing stars, the football program went from powerhouse to powerless
a long time ago.
You think the Skins’ 0-5 mark is sorry? Well, how ’bout 0-80? Last week, Prairie View defeated Langston, 14-12, to end the longest losing streak in NCAA history. Before that win, the Panthers hadn’t tasted victory in the ’90s. During the incredible 80-game skid, the team and its fans suffered through 19 shutouts, counting a 94-0 drubbing to Alabama State in 1991 and a 64-0 blowout at Grambling in 1995, which broke the previous NCAA record of 50 straight losses.
Who’s to blame for A&M’s misery? Well, poll the alumni, and Gen. Julius Bectonyup, that Gen. Bectoncertainly gets a lot of votes.
Just as Redskins fans are finally starting to view the hiring of Norv Turner as the beginning of the end for that franchise, A&M alums are prone to saying Prairie View’s football fortunes took their most sour turn on Dec. 15, 1989, the day Becton took over as the college’s president.
“[Becton] killed football at the school,” says George
Gibson, head of the D.C. chapter of the Prairie View
Around these parts, Becton is best remembered for his very brief, very controversial stint as the District’s schools chief. The D.C. financial control board brought in Becton after deposing Franklin Smith as schools superintendent in late 1996, then watched in horror as he failed even to get the city’s schools open on time the following year. Becton resigned before getting a chance to repair his reputation as an administrator.
To many Prairie View A&M followers, the general’s reputation was irreparably damaged before he ever he came here. They never forgave him for what happened to their school when he imposed martial law there.
Just as the control board would do years later, Prairie View recruited Becton (an alum) in the middle of a severe financial crisis. Allegations of fiscal mismanagement racked the school’s football program, so one of his first orders of business was to dismantle the team, along with virtually the entire athletic department. Becton then decreed that no more A&M funds would go to sports teams, and that only those teams that could pay their own way would be fielded.
“I was brought in to restore financial credibility,” recalls an unapologetic Becton, now retired and living in Northern Virginia. “It was a matter of whether we take money from various [departments] at the school which were also hurting and put that into an athletic program, or whether we keep the money where it belonged. This wasn’t about football. It was about education.”
Most of the Panthers’ sports teams found ways to subsidize their operations without skipping a year. But nobody came up with the kind of money needed to run a football program, and Becton lived up to his threat. The Panthers forfeited the entire 1990 football season.
After one year on the sidelines, alumni and booster groups, working with the administration, came up with just enough scratch to put the Panthers back on the gridiron. But the damage had been done. For starters, there wasn’t enough money to offer football scholarships, and without free rides to offer prospective players, the team’s talent level immediately fell below that of its opposition in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Although a limited financial aid plan was eventually put in place again for football (the team now gives out a handful of scholarships), the talent gap remains unplugged.
“The president thought he could kill a football program for one year and expect it to just come back and pick up where it left off. That’s not the way it works,” shrugs Metters. “I knew it was going to take years.”
With the team still in a tailspin, Becton retired from Prairie View in August 1994. The Panthers hadn’t won a single game during his tenure.
Becton, who happens to be a Redskins season-ticket-
holder, follows the Panthers from afar. Because of some incorrect information, he was sure for a short interlude that the losing streak he’s credited with starting had ended against Southern University on Sept. 19.
“The [Washington] Post had the score reversed,” Becton says. “The paper said we beat Southern, and for a while I thought it was over.”
Becton eventually learned the sad truth, and within days the Prairie View-Southern game had become notorious for what had happened at halftime, when the schools’ marching bands got into an all-hands brawl worthy of every news organization’s plays-of-the-week tape.
A week later, though, the streak really was ended with A&M’s two-point rout of Langston. Becton says he was happy, not relieved, to see his old school back in the win column.
“I was delighted to see us win, but I didn’t feel that I had to ‘get a monkey off my back.’ I never felt that way,” he says. “I had a tough job to do, and I did what I thought was right. At the time, I never thought we’d go eight years without winning a game.”
Alas, things are back to going wrong for the Panthers. Last weekend, the one-game victory binge was ended, and a new losing streak begun, with a loss to Grambling. On Monday, the chairman of the Southwestern Athletic Conference pulled a Becton by suspending Prairie View’s entire athletic program as punishment for what he viewed as the school’s inadequate response to the battle of the bands. On Tuesday, he suspended the suspension. Regardless, the victory against Langston stands.Dave McKenna