Young coaches to battle in Challenge
Prairie View A&M-Bethune-Cookman kick off MEAC/SWAC Challenge
The buck now stops with Heishma Northern.
Prairie View A&M's head coach assumed the coaching reigns in October after Henry Frazier left for North Carolina Central. Northern was the Panthers' defensive coordinator under Frazier, and now the 37-year-old has a big task ahead of him at Prairie View A&M. The Panthers will need to replace three key players -- standout quarterback K.J. Black (168-of-285 for 2,154 yards, 13 TDs, five interceptions), running back Donald Babers (230 carries, 918 yards, 10 TDs) and wide receiver Shaun Stephens (63 receptions, 859 yards and nine touchdowns) -- from last season.
"It may not be the smartest thing in the world to follow a guy [who] turned a program like this around, but wherever you go there are always challenges as a head football coach," said Northern, who takes over a team that finished 2010-11 in third place in the SWAC's Western Division (6-3) and an overall record of 7-4. "We just want to keep it rolling in the right direction."
His first test will come in September (date and time to be determined later) at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando. That's when the Panthers will take on Bethune-Cookman in the seventh annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney.
"It's really an honor just to be in this game," said Bethune-Cookman head coach Brian Jenkins. "You look at all the great coaches and players who have been a part of this classic -- it's tremendous. It's a big opening game. It's my first time coaching in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. We're excited about playing Prairie View."
Heading into his second year at Bethune-Cookman, the 39-year-old Jenkins understands Northern's plight. But Jenkins aced his test in Year 1, leading BCC to a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title with South Carolina State and Florida A&M. Each team completed the regular season with a 7-1 conference record, and the Wildcats were 10-1 overall. They advanced to the FCS playoffs but lost to New Hampshire, 45-20, in the first round to finish at 10-2. Jenkins, the MEAC and AFCA Region 2 coach of the year, knows that continuing those winning ways is all that matters.
"We're coming off a pretty good year," he said, "but we know how much Prairie View's program has grown over the years."
The seventh annual HBCU game has a history of veteran coaches patrolling the sidelines, including Buddy Pough (South Carolina State in 2005 and 2009), Rod Broadway (Grambling State, '06 and '09), and Rick Comegy (Jackson State, '08). Next season, it will pit two coaches who have less than two years of experience combined at their programs.
Even though this will be the first meeting between the two schools -- and also the first time the programs will be participating in the event -- there's plenty of conference revelry -- and rivalry -- at stake. Last season, Southern defeated Delaware State, 37-27. The MEAC has a 4- to-2 series lead over the SWAC.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Northern. "There's a lot of conference pride on the line. We're looking forward to the atmosphere. I haven't had a chance to coach in the game. I'll be making my debut down there in the sunny state of Florida. Hopefully, we'll be able to come out and play a good ball game against a very good Bethune-Cookman team."
Despite Northern's new position, he's no stranger to the program. As the team's defensive coordinator since 2004, he helped Frazier post a 43-30 record in seven seasons, and played a big role in the 2009 SWAC championship. In fact, Northern helped Prairie View A&M turn its program around, as the school had lost an NCAA-record 80 consecutive games from 1989-98. In 2007, Prairie View A&M had its first winning season in 31 years, posting a 7-3 mark. Since then, the program has been on the rise.
Defensively, Prairie View A&M should have a strong team. "Up front, we return two of our defensive tackles in Deon Jones [19 total tackles] and Ryan Love [16 total tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss]," Northern said. "We also have Jarvis Wilson [28 total tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss] on the defensive line. Our linebacking crew is pretty young. We started three freshmen and sophomores off and on, and all those guys are coming back. In the secondary, we have Moses Ellis, who led the nation in passes defended  and interceptions [eight]. We also have Lester Butler [31 total tackles] and JohnMark Henderson [25 total tackles], who all rotate in different spots in the secondary. Our thing going into every game is to stop the run and make them throw the ball before they want to."
The Wildcats, meanwhile, had an explosive offense last season -- but they'll have to replace QB Matt Johnson, who graduated. Under Johnson, Bethune-Cookman averaged 38.2 points per game, and he completed 155-of -231 passes for 2,053 yards, 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Johnson also rushed 136 times for 700 yards and eight touchdowns, earning himself the MEAC's offensive player of the year award.
"Matt Johnson had a great season for us," Jenkins said. "We're going to miss him."
Jackie Wilson is a strong candidate to replace Johnson; Wilson started the playoff game against New Hampshire for Johnson, who was injured, and completed 16-of-32 passes for 192 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. "Jackie has a lot of talent," the coach said. "We're excited about our team."
This matchup should be a good test for both teams. The MEAC and SWAC have their own style of play so expect a clash of high-powered offense (Bethune-Cookman) versus strong defense (Prairie View A&M). "We know they play some great football in the SWAC," Jenkins said. "Those teams know how to make big plays. In the MEAC, we grind it out a little bit more. It's a classic game that has brought a lot of attention to both conferences over the years."
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at email@example.com.