Gaither, Alonzo Smith (Jake) 1903–1994
Alonzo Smith (Jake) Gaither 1903–1994
American football coach
Compiling the best winning percentage among all college coaches who have won at least 200 games, Alonzo Gaither became a legend while leading his teams at Florida A&M University to one championship after another during his quarter century as head coach. He was credited with having said “I like my players mobile, agile and hostile,” a phrase that became famous in football circles. Gaither also became widely known as a motivator who always thought character was more important than talent in achieving greatness. Summing up his career in Sports Illustrated, Merrell Noden wrote that “Alonzo Smith (Jake) Gaither won more football games and built more character than just about any other coach in the country.”
Although Gaither demanded a great deal from his players, they revered him for his fairness and honesty. In Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach, George Curry quoted Gaither as saying, “Kindness is the universal language that all people understand. I made it a habit to never leave the field with a boy feeling that I was mad at him.” Ken Riley, who played for Gaither and later became Florida A&M’s athletic director, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “You knew he [GaitherJ cared more about you as a person than as a football player.” Famed receiver Bob Hayes, who was also coached by Gaither, remarked in the same article that Gaither “was my father, my coach, my friend, my mentor.”
Part of Gaither’s motivational skills can be attributed to his upbringing. His father, J.D. Gaither, was a noted minister in Tennessee who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Early in his life, Jake Gaither saw the power that the spoken word could have over people, but he was more interested in becoming a lawyer than a minister. He spent a good deal of his time in courthouses, where he was enthralled by the forceful attempts of lawyers to sway jurors.
As a student at Knoxville College in Tennessee, Gaither was active on the debate team and intended to go on to law school. However, his father’s death during his senior year forced him to consider getting a job and foregoing his studies. He accepted a position as a teacher and coach at Henderson Institute in North Carolina and remained there until the mid 1930s. After a two-year stint as a coach at St. Paul Junior College in Virginia, Gaither began coaching at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he would become a legend. He started as an assistant coach in 1937 and, at the age of 42, was promoted to head coach in 1945. Gaither’s ascension to head coach was even more remarkable due to the fact that he had survived two malignant brain tumors in 1942.
During most of Gaither’s tenure at Florida A&M, he was able to utilize the talents of many of the South’s best
At a Glance…
Born April 11, 1903, in Dayton, TN; died February 18, 1994, in Tallahassee, FL; marriage: Sadie Robinson; Education: Knoxville College, B.S., 1927; Ohio State University, M.S., 1937.
Played end for the Knoxville Bulldogs; coached football at Henderson Institute, Henderson, NC, 1927-35; coached football at St Paul Junior College, Lawrenceville, VA, 1935-37; was assistant football coach at Florida A&M University, 1935-37; served as head football coach, professor, and athletic director at Florida A&M, 1945-69; coached football team to six National Black Championships; won conference (SIAC) title, 1945-50, 1953-65, 1967-69; retired from coaching, 1969; retired as athletic director and professor, 1973; was athletic director emeritus at Florida A&M, 1973-94,
Memberships: Trustee, American Football Coaches Association; National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics; Orange Bowl Committee; American Football and Basketball Coaches Association; National Negro Collegiate Football Association; Fellowship of Christian Athletics; Florida Board of Pardons and Parole Qualifications Commission; elder, Trinity United Presbyterian Church; Urban League; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); vice chairman, ARC; Local Association Charities; Sunrioe Optimist Club; Phi Beta Sigma; Sigma Phi Phi Fraternity.
Awards and honors: Small College Coach of the Year, Associated Press, 1961; Small College Coach of the Year, American Football Coaches Association, 1962; Honorary LLD, Knoxville College, 1962; Small College Coach of the Year, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes, 1969; Tennessee Distinguished American Award, 1972; Helmo Hall of Fame NAIA Bethune Medallion, 1973; Florida Hall of Fame; Tennessee Hall of Fame; elected to National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, 1975; elected to Hall of Fame of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, 1976; named to Sports Hall of Fame, Florida A&M University, 1976; Alonzo Stagg Award.
black athletes since they were often barred from attending white colleges and universities. In a sense, legendary black coaches such as Gaither, John Merritt at Tennessee State, and Eddie Robinson at Grambling benefited from segregation. Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. wrote in the New York Times, “As the coach of a historically black college, Alonzo Smith (Jake) Gaither turned Southern segregation to his advantage, recruiting with a religious zeal.”
Gaither became a revered man on the school’s campus, earning the nickname “Poppa Gaither.” After he had established his reputation, black high school football players were eager to attend Florida A&M, thus fueling the school’s football program with new high-grade talent every year. As Ken Riley said in the New York Times, “Back then it was the dream of every black kid in Florida to play for F. A.M.U.” Many of Gaither’s players became coaches themselves after graduating from Florida A&M. According to Emerge, at one point 95 percent of all black high school football teams in Florida were coached by Gaither’s former players. He was also the mentor for Florida State University’s notable coach, Bobby Bowden.
It didn’t take long for Gaither to establish himself as a winner once he took the coaching helm at Florida A&M. His teams won the SIAC title in his first season and racked up six consecutive titles in a row. During his career he produced 36 All-American players, coaching at least one every season except in 1949. He also molded many players who became stars in the professional ranks, including such National Football League (NFL) superstars as Chicago Bears running back Willie Galimore, Oakland Raiders running back Hewritt Dixon and defensive end Carleton Oates, Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Ken Riley, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes. In all, 42 of Gaither’s players competed in the NFL. Six of Gaither’s teams won the National Black Championships as he racked up a staggering winning percentage of. 844.
In addition to being a great motivator, Gaither was an innovator who helped advance the T-f ormation by splitting his offensive line. He outlined his strategy in The Split Line T Offense of Florida A&M, a highly regarded book published in 1963 that he co-wrote with his coaching associates.
Calling the gridiron “his laboratory for manhood,” according to Robert McG. Thomas, Gaither demanded that his players give their best effort. He also promoted an atmosphere of equality on his teams, as evidenced by the following anecdote from his career recounted by Michael Hurd in Black College Football: 1892-1992.
In 1964 many Florida A&M players began to resent the publicity received by Bob Hayes, who had just won two gold medals as a sprinter in the Tokyo Olympics. Recognizing the problem, Gaither took his players aside and said, “Tell you how you can get just as much publicity as he gets. Outrun him.” In characteristic Gaither style, he turned negative feelings into goal-oriented behavior that preserved team solidarity.
Pep talks and psychological motivation were standard parts of Gaither’s coaching repertoire. He used any training technique that he thought would improve performance, sometimes sending his players to dance classes to improve their coordination. Players who didn’t fully utilize their potential were chastised by Gaither, and most of them responded positively. “There is no place in the life of my people for mediocre performances,” said Gaither in George Curry’s biography. “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 was often criticized for not speaking out against the segregation of schools in the South. However, he supported the existence of all-black institutions and lamented their elimination. “Here they find a better social life and more satisfying comradeship,” said Gaither of Florida A&M, according to Curry. “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. I feel obligated to make sure that when a boy graduates he gets a job….” He maintained that white teachers in integrated schools did not give black students the attention they needed. “When we have Whites teaching Black kids,” said Gaither in Curry’s book, “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.” Gaither felt that black teachers instilled a greater sense of pride in black students, continually stressing the need to work hard to make it in white society. In integrated schools where most, if not all, of the teachers, coaches, and principals were white, Gaither also noted that black students no longer saw black role models to emulate.
The onset of integration reduced opportunities for many black coaches, according to Gaither. “Integration had just about eliminated the Black coach,” he remarked in Curry’s biography. “I used to have a lot of my boys in high school jobs. After integration most of them became assistant coaches or rubdown boys. They’ve been phased out.”
During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Governor LeRoy Collins of Horida often sought Gaither’s advice. His ability to influence white politicians led some critics to call him an “Uncle Tom.” However, Gaither’s supporters contended that he simply used his considerable public relations skills to get whatever assistance he could for his school.
With each passing season, Gaither’s coaching skills became legendary. During a 25-year stretch, his teams won all but three conference titles and went undefeated in 1957, 1959, and 1961. He was named Small College Coach of the Year three times—by the Associated Press in 1961, the American Football Coaches Association in 1962, and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes in 1969. In 1969, his Horida A&M team defeated Tampa in the first interracial college football game ever played in the South.
By the late 1960s, it became increasingly difficult for Gaither to field a winning team. As talented black athletes were lured to prestigious integrated schools that could offer better scholarships and other perks, Horida A&M no longer remained the powerhouse it had once been.
After retiring as head football coach in 1969 with an incredible record of 203-36-4, Gaither remained at Horida A&M as athletic director until his retirement in 1973. His retirement speech was vintage Gaither-terse, yet forceful. “People keep talking about what I’ve done for football and Horida A&M,” he was quoted as saying by Curry. “But A&M and football have done everything for me. God bless you all.”
In 1975, Gaither became the first coach from a predominantly black college to be elected to the Football Foundation Hall of Fame. Even after his death in 1994, Gaither’s successful coaching techniques continue to live on in the coaches who once played for or worked with him.
Blasingame, Wyatt, Jake Gaither: Winning Coach, Garrard Publishing Col., 1969.
Curry, George, Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach, Dodd, Mead, 1977.
Hurd, Michael, Black College Football, 1892-1992, Donning, 1993.
Mendell, Ronald L., and Timothy B. Phares, Who’s Who in Football, Arlington House, 1974, p. 112.
Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, February 19, 1994, pp. El, E5.
Emerge, May 1994, pp. 54-57.
New York Times, February 19, 1994, p. 30.
Sports Illustrated, February 28, 1994, pp. 13-14.
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