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Coach Eric Dooley has rebuilt Prairie View A&M into SWAC title contender

He hopes to erase the memories of an 80-game losing streak and remind fans of glory days under coach Billy Nicks


Eric Dooley played under Eddie Robinson at Grambling State and later coached under Pete Richardson at Southern University, two of the best to do it. He’s now evoking memories of former Prairie View A&M football coach Billy Nicks as the resurgent Panthers seek their first Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) title since 2009.

“I had an opportunity to play under a legendary coach like Eddie Robinson and learn a lot of life lessons. But I also had the opportunity to work under another legend, Pete Richardson,” said Dooley, whose Panthers will face Jackson State in the SWAC championship on Saturday.

“I can never be in the same sentence with those men,” Dooley said of his mentors. “But just some of the things they did, I am applying at Prairie View. I wanted to change the culture at PV. The culture that exists within my coaching philosophy, to let these guys know that when you’ve got grown men telling them that you love them, that’s a huge difference. Tough love. I’m going to coach you up on the field, but I’m also going to be that extended parent away from home.”

Four seasons in, Dooley is reversing the fortunes of a program that has experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

Under Nicks, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Panthers were the dominant program in the SWAC and one of the most powerful small college programs in NCAA history. From 1952 to 1965, Prairie View A&M won five Black college national championships and seven of 14 SWAC titles.

Unfortunately, following Nicks’ retirement, Prairie View A&M posted the longest losing streak in FCS history — 80 consecutive losses between 1989 and 1998.

Prairie View A&M won seven of its first eight games this season. Though the Panthers have dropped three straight, including a loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 20, they are focused on this weekend’s matchup.

“What most contemporary fans remember about PV football is the record-setting losing streak,” said Michael Hurd, who wrote Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas, and whose upcoming book, Champions on the Hill, details the Nicks era at Prairie View A&M. “But Coach Nicks had the best program in the SWAC — end of story.

“Considering where that program has come from,” Hurd said, “Coach Dooley has done a great job of getting it back to where it was during the Nicks days. There’s a pretty stiff challenge. It’s like UCLA trying to replace John Wooden after winning seven straight national championships. It’s great to see PV football shining and talked about in a positive way.”

During Nicks’ era, the bulk of his rosters consisted of players from in-state Black high schools. Most of Nicks’ talent came from programs coached by former Prairie View A&M players who played for Nicks and would send him their best athletes in appreciation for him securing coaching jobs for them.

Under Dooley, Prairie View A&M has liberally used the transfer portal to restock its roster as an increasing number of talented players are transferring to historically Black universities after beginning their football careers at predominantly white institutions.

Dooley uncovered a gem in senior quarterback Jawon Pass, who turned down a scholarship offer from Nick Saban at Alabama coming out of Columbus, Georgia. Pass signed with Louisville, then coached by Bobby Petrino, and played two seasons behind Heisman Trophy winner and current NFL superstar Lamar Jackson before starting for the Cardinals. Pass transferred to Towson before moving on to Prairie View A&M for his final college season as a graduate transfer.

“When you’re recruiting, you have to build relationships,” Dooley said. “Then once you build relationships, there has to be a trust factor. Once we got a chance to connect with Jawon, just being real and telling him the honest to God’s truth, that got him to want to take this opportunity here. I don’t know what the recruiting pitch is at other places, but we’re going to tell the truth. He was looking for a trust factor. He went through so much. He wanted to know: Can I trust him? We told him he was going to be given the opportunity, and he accepted the challenge. We were fortunate to land him.

“When you get a guy of that magnitude who’s highly decorated to come to your program with so many stars by his name, sometimes you get a guy that’s arrogant,” Dooley said. “This guy was so down to earth and just wanted to work. He fit right in from day one.”

Pass, who is 6-feet-5 and 228 pounds, threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Alcorn State on Nov. 13, and finished the regular season with 2,546 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“Coming out of high school, I followed my heart and made the decision to go to Louisville,” Pass said. “It wasn’t an easy decision. If I didn’t go to Louisville, I was going to Alabama. I showed that I could play at Louisville, but I didn’t reach my peak, for whatever reason. Things didn’t go the way I expected. But at the end of the day, I still got some good film from Louisville. And I learned from being around Lamar, his competitive nature. He’s one of those guys where you’re never out of a game no matter what the score is.

“When I left Louisville, I entered the transfer portal. I made a decision quick. At the time, Towson was my best option. But after being there for the spring, it just didn’t work out.

“PV was the best place for me. The school or level of competition didn’t matter. I just needed to go somewhere I can be comfortable and play right away. I always felt like I could play at the next level, even when I was at Louisville. This year is just a reassurance for me to show people I can play.”

John Harris is a writer, author, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Hunt Scanlon Media. He is co-authoring Pro Football Hall of Famer Edgerrin James' autobiography, From Gold Teeth to Gold Jacket.