March, 20 2023
“I want my players to be mo-bile, ag-ile and hos-tile” was the mantra of Florida A&M Hall of Fame coach Jake Gaither. From 1945-1969 he was the head coach at Florida A&M. During this period, he posted a 203-36-4 record, accumulated one of the game’s all-time best winning percentages (.844), won 22 conference titles and six Black College Football National Championships.
But Gaither was known far more than for just his wins and losses. He was an innovator. His book, “The Split-Line T Offense,” was hailed by coaches nationwide. He was a sought-after speaker, and his clinics were attended by coaches.. But perhaps his greatest influence came in the values he inspired in hundreds of his players.
Gaither was born Alonzo Smith Gaither in 1903 in Dayton, Tennessee. His father was a minister, and it was expected that Jake would follow in his father’s footsteps. He graduated from Knoxville College and later gained a Master’s degree from Ohio State. He got the name “Jake” while at Knoxville and kept it, as he never liked his given name of Alonzo.
In 1937, he became an assistant at FAMU taking over for “Big Bill” Bell in 1945. In addition to football, he also coached basketball and track, and later became Athletic Director. His first team went 9-1, but his second team lost four games. Never again would he have a team lose that many games in a season. Only two other Gaither-coached teams would lose as many as three games in a season. In 1969, he arranged the first game played by a HBCU school against a “white” team. With nearly 50,000 people looking on, his Rattlers defeated Tampa 34-28.
He called his first, second and third teams, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears.” He was also known to use emotion as a motivator and at times would hide an onion in a handkerchief to work up tears while delivering a pre-game pep talk.
Gaither was very much a father figure to his players and, not having children himself, referred to his players as “my boys.” He once said, “A coach shouldn’t be as concerned about what kind of player he’s developing in college, as what kind of man he’s made in fifteen years.”