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 stale 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 thought.
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 best team.
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."