First-year Southern coach Eric Dooley returns to Prairie View to face his former team for the first time since his exit last December.

Prairie View quarterback Trazon Connley understands football is very much a business.

Players and coaches come and go all the time.

So he understood when shortly after last season’s SWAC Championship Game, the head coach who recruited him and he learned so much from – Eric Dooley – made the decision last December to return to his Louisiana roots to head up the Panthers’ SWAC West Division rival Southern. But it was still difficult to take.

“Coach Dooley had went to Southern,” Connley recalled. “So we really couldn’t feel some type of way about it, but it’s just the hurt that the coach that you played for, the coach that you learned the most from is gone, he is inside of the conference and he is also in the West. If he was in the East it might have been a little bit different, but this is the same division. We can’t take it light on him because he was our coach.”

Dooley returns to The Hill and Blackshear Field on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m.) for the first time since his departure last December. Neither side is trying to hide the fact that emotions will be high because Dooley recruited most of the Panthers and he hired several of the coaches, including head coach Bubba McDowell, who was promoted when Dooley departed.

But both coaches this week talked about the importance of their respective teams managing their emotions in this game that will have huge West Division implications.

“I stressed that to the coaching staff, it’s a big week,” said McDowell, who served as Dooley’s defensive coordinator. “Guys know each other, guys loved Coach Dooley when he was here so it’s going to be an emotional week but again we’ve got to keep these emotions in check and remember what’s at task, what needs to be done and that is go out and play football for four quarters.”

Dooley, who is always a picture of stoicism, has stressed the same to his new team that will obviously come in wanting to play well for Dooley.

“The way that I prepare myself, I think that is the way the team has to be prepared,” said Dooley, whose team is 2-2 and 1-1 in the conference after coming off a 59-3 drubbing of Arkansas-Pine Bluff last weekend. “I think you have to let it trickle down from the head on down so that those guys understand that.

“Those guys are starting to understand the way that I go about the business. Of course, this is our first season together but they are taking on the attitude the way that I approach things. It’s not about one thing, one person or one individual. It’s about the biggest picture.”

But there is no getting around that Saturday’s SWAC West showdown is personal on both sides. Dooley spent four seasons leading the Panthers, resurrecting the program to the point that they won the division last season and faced Jackson State in the conference championship game.

There had been a lot of speculation at the end of last season that Dooley might bolt to return to his alma mater and the school he served as an assistant to begin his coaching career from 1997-2010. His players at Prairie View seemed to believe he was staying until they saw different.

“It was surprising to everybody because at first we thought he wasn’t going to leave,” said Connley, who had mostly been a reserve during his time with Dooley. “Then when we got back, we had seen him on an interview and he was already at Southern. We were like, oh, that was a surprise.

“It did make us feel some type of way and we still hold that grudge until we play him. Once we play him, that will probably be the best game that you see us play because it is a rivalry and it’s some hurt behind that game. We are definitely going to come out with it on our minds and it’s going to be 60 minutes of good football.”

But there are no hard feelings between the coaches. McDowell has expressed nothing but appreciation for Dooley for retaining him on his staff when he arrived at PV in 2018 and also for reviving the program and leaving the team stocked with talent.

The Panthers have picked up where they left off last season, leading the SWAC West with a 3-0 conference record and 3-2 overall. Dooley brought a high-powered offensive attack to Prairie View and that scheme pretty much remains intact. The same goes for Dooley and McDowell’s relationship.

“I’m always that guy when I see success I’m going to pick up on it,” McDowell said. “I’m going to try to use it, implement in my terms how I want it done but nonetheless it was one of those things we are trying to put our own stamp on as a coaching staff and I think we are doing a very good job thus far.”