“I like my boys agile, mobile, and hostile.” This famous statement can be credited only to FAMU’s Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither.
Although the Gaither name adorns our gymnasium, a golf course and a community center in Tallahassee, few of Gaither’s decendent Rattlers are even aware of his tremendous accomplishments. Since the unveiling of the memorial statue outside of our gymnasium is fairly recent, I felt that this was still a great time to shine the spotlight on a very deservant figure.
Jake Gaither led the Rattlers to six national black college titles, and a victory in the first interracial college football game in the south. He was FAMU head coach for 25 years and within that time acquired one of the best records in college football (203-36-4). His winning percentage of .844 was the highest among anyone who coached more than 13 seasons of football on the collegiate level.
Born in Tennessee in 1903, Gaither stumbled into the coaching arena. With his father as a significant role model in his life, Jake Gaither learned the power and beauty of the spoken word. His father was a minister. Gaither appreciated this but instead aspired to be a lawyer.
In his senior year at Knoxville College, Gaither’s father passed away. After this unfortunate loss, Gaither decided to postpone his advancement to law school. He took a job as a high school teacher and football coach in order to provide for his family.
Gaither came to FAMU in 1937 as an assistant to head football coach William Bell. In 1945, he gained the head coaching position.
During this time Florida A&M was one of the few schools available for blacks. For this reason Jake Gaither was able to recruit some of the south’s most promising athletes to FAMU. It is said that during the Gaither area, the dream of many black high school football players was to play with the Rattlers. Gaither
was often criticized for not having a strong opposition to segregation. He responded to the criticism by saying that the nurturing environment at Florida A&M helped the black students.
“Here they find a better social life and more satisfying comradeship. The entire faculty is interested in the welfare of the boy. He gets a lot of personal attention, and we follow him all through life. When we have Whites teaching Black kids…the tendency is to put Blacks in the back of the room, let them play cards all day, or let them stay out of school all day – as long as they don’t disturb the other kids” George E. Curry records in his biography of Gaither.
Alonzo S. Gaither was regarded as a mentor for FSU coach Bobby Bowden and is credited for coaching 42 players that advanced to the NFL.
“There is no place in the life of my people for mediocre performances…They talk about building character. If building character means losing, then I don’t want anything to do with it. I can build more character winning than any man can losing” Gaither once said.
A motivator for his players, and a legend in the football world, Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither is a bigger legend than any statue could ever symbolize.
Elizabeth Broadway, 18, is a freshman newspaper journalism student from Atlanta, Ga. She can be reached at Famusports01@hotmail.com