For the first time in nearly a decade the Panthers of Prairie View A&M left a football field as conquering heroes.

"I couldn't be more proud of them if they'd just won the national championship," Coach Greg Johnson said. "To us, they've always been winners. Now they are winners to everybody else."

The Panthers ended the longest losing streak in NCAA history at 80 games Saturday night with a 14-12 victory over Langston in Oklahoma City, and the celebration continued following the team's return home early this morning. This sleepy town of 11,000 took a break from its normal Sunday routine to greet the team, which last won a game on Oct. 28, 1989.

"I don't know if one win counts as a streak, but I do know this," junior quarterback Josh Barnes said. "We'll be able to pick up the paper without seeing Prairie View, owner of the nation's longest losing streak . . . '

"That's history. It's over. Done with. We won our last game and we stopped {the streak} when some said we'd never win again. We've always been winners in our minds. This time we were winners on the scoreboard, too."

Panthers fans in the crowd of 5,000 tore down the goal posts while players dug up portions of the turf for souvenirs after they stopped a two-point conversion attempt with 34 seconds to play.

"When the ref said he didn't make it, I screamed for joy," defensive end Antonio Scott said. "It all came out. I didn't think he got in. We had him stopped at the 3, but the way things have gone here I didn't want to let go until I was sure. I thought we'd get flagged for celebrating but {the officials} let it go. One of them even had a smile on his face. He knew how we felt."

Kevin Bell, who scored on a 57-yard touchdown run for the Panthers on Saturday night, was hoarse today. "I can barely talk, but I'm not complaining," he said. "This is something I'll never forget for the rest of my life and I'm sure my teammates won't either."

Prairie View's main drag, normally quiet on Sundays, was a haven of activity. Cars were decorated with Panthers colors. People honked their horns and yelled greetings.

Coretta Evans, a 57-year-old Prairie View resident, normally spends Sunday mornings in church and then takes a leisurely stroll home.

"Not today," Evans said. "As soon as services were over I got over here to the school as fast as I could. I wanted to congratulate my boys. I'm so proud of them, and I couldn't wait to tell them. They are winners."

So is Johnson, who came to Prairie View from Langston two years ago because he wanted a challenge. And what bigger challenge than a team with an enormous losing streak, 15 scholarships -- 48 below the NCAA limit for Division I-AA teams -- and few prospects.

"I'd say this was long overdue," Johnson said. "But these guys never doubted it would happen and neither did I. We had been getting close the last couple of games and we knew sooner or later we'd break through against somebody. It was our time."

In March, the Prairie View men's basketball team gave the school's followers hope by making a surprising march through the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament and earning its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. But school officials felt that Saturday night's victory topped that feat.

"This team came from behind on the road and stopped a streak that some people doubted would ever end," school vice president Larry Raab said.

Langston (2-2) had its chances Saturday. It led 3-0 at halftime and held the Panthers to 49 yards. But a drive to the Panthers 11 late in the first half ended when time expired, and the Panthers took a 14-3 lead in the third quarter on a 69-yard drive and Bell's run.

In the fourth quarter, with Langston having moved within 14-6, the Panthers lost a fumble at their 11-yard line, but three plays resulted in minus-2 yards and a field goal try was botched.

"This time the other guy had missed opportunities," Johnson said. "We've been there ourselves a time or two."

But not this time. The Long Road

A look at some important numbers, milestones and dates in Prairie View's NCAA-record 80-game losing streak, which ended Saturday night:

Oct. 28, 1989: Prairie View beats Mississippi Valley, 21-12, in what would be its last victory for nearly a decade.

Nov. 4, 1989: Langston beats Prairie View, 19-18, to begin the streak.

19: The number of shutouts Prairie View suffered during the streak, including a 92-0 drubbing by Alabama State in October 1991.

4: The number of coaches at Prairie View during the streak.

1990: A financial scandal forced the cancellation of the season.

15: The number of scholarships offered by Prairie View.

Nov. 6, 1993: Prairie View loses to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 12-8, for loss No. 33. Aside from the 19-18 loss to Langston that started the record skid, it's the closest it would come to winning during the streak.

Sept. 30, 1995: Grambling State beats Prairie View, 64-0, giving the Panthers the NCAA record with 51 straight losses. The all-division record of 50 had been held for 15 years by Division III Macalester (Minn.).

Sept. 26, 1998: Prairie View beats Langston, 14-12, in Oklahoma City to snap the streak.

57 yards: The length of Kevin Bell's touchdown run that turned out to be the winning score Saturday night against Langston. CAPTION: Players drench Coach Greg Johnson following Panthers' 14-12 win over Langston Saturday. ec