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Jake Gaither – Legendary College Football Coach

This is a Five Minutes of Football History edition of The Game Before the Money Podcast. New episodes are released each Tuesday. Please subscribe to this football history podcast on your favorite podcast app.

Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither stands as one of the greatest coaches in HBCU football history. He won 6 Black National Championships and won 16 SIAC Conference championships in his first 17 years as head coach. His coaching accomplishments compare favorably to even the most revered coaches in college football history.

Coach Gaither sent 42 players into the NFL, including Bob Hayes, Ken Riley, and Willie Galimore. He taught life skills in addition to football fundamentals. Many players regarded Coach Gaither as a great influence on their lives and the men they became off the field. He liked to call the gridiron his laboratory for manhood.

Jake Gaither passed away in 1994 at the age of 90. His legacy still commands a large presence on the Florida A&M campus, however, as his name adorns several school facilities. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

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The Game Before the Money Podcast:
Hi, everybody, welcome to the game before the Money podcast. This episode, five minutes of Football History edition. Legendary Florida A&M coach Jay Gaither.

Jackson Michael, author of The Game Before the Money:
I’m Jackson Michael. Author of the book The Game Before the Money. Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. And this episode is a five minutes of football history edition, which comes out every Tuesday. And we’ll start, unfortunately, with some sad news as Bengals legend Ken Riley recently passed away. Ken Riley played his college ball as quarterback of Florida A&M University. I’ve been planning to delve more into HBCU football history and do profiles on great moments, coaches and players, both on the podcast and at the game before the money.com.

So I thought a five minutes of football history episode about Ken Riley’s college coach at Florida A&M, Jake Gaither would be an excellent time and place to start, especially with a note to the current events happening in our country right now.

And just to give a little background on why I think it’s so important to cover HBCU football, especially in the era of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, is that you had teams back then who had many future NFL and AFL players on their rosters, and yet those teams are historically overlooked. For example, Grambling’s 1960 team had for future All-Pros on defense, two of them Hall of Famers. Grambling might not have been the best HBCU football team at that time. That title might have belonged to Jake Gaither’s Florida A&M Rattlers.

In fact, the Rattlers were declared black national champions for that season, and Coach Gaither is credited with six black national championships over his career. Gaither coached the Florida A&M Rattlers for twenty five years between 1945 through 1969. His winning percentage of .844 Remains. One of the highest winning percentages of all time. It’s higher than Tom Osborne, higher than Bear Bryant, higher than Nick Saban, even higher than Bud Wilkinson who had three consecutive undefeated seasons. Gaither also had three undefeated seasons and had an amazing twelve seasons with only one loss. He never suffered a losing season over those 25 years and only lost more than two games three times. And get ready for this. He went 18 years straight with no more than two losses.

It seems like all great coaches have famous quotes and one of Gaither’s was, “I want my players to be agile, mobile and hostile.”

Many great coaches are also innovators and Coach Gaither’s innovation was a split T spread formation offense later adopted by many other colleges. He literally wrote the book in 1963 called The Split Line T Offense of Florida A&M. We’ll touch more on his coaching influence in a minute.

Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither was born in Dayton, Tennessee, in nineteen oh three. His father was a preacher. At the time. Coach Gaither aspired to become a lawyer. He attended Knoxville College. He made all conference in football, played basketball, ran track and excelled on the debate team. He planned to go on to law school until his father died during his senior year. Gaither instead, accepted a high school teaching and coaching job. About 10 years later. In 1937, Coach Gaither earned a master’s degree from Ohio State.

He then accepted an assistant coaching job at Florida A&M under William Big Bill Bell. Gaither also worked as head basketball coach, starting in as late as nineteen thirty nine.

And this brings us to an often overlooked part of Coach Gaither’s story that would make headlines today. Doctors diagnosed Gaither with brain cancer in 1942. The condition temporarily blinded him. And according to an Atlanta Daily World article in December of 1942, Gaither was not assisting with the football team in 1942. As he recovered from what they called a major operation, he was, however, back to coaching basketball by January of 1943,

Jake Gaither, cancer survivor, became head coach of Florida A&M football in 1945. Although, according to numerous Atlanta Daily World reports, he shared head coaching duties with Herman Buck Neilson in 1944. FAMU,won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title each of Gaither’s first six seasons. The Rattlers won that SIAC 16 out of his first 17 years as head coach.

SIAC fans weren’t the only ones familiar with Coach Gai their success. He hosted a well-known annual clinic attended by a host of famous coaches Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Frank Broils of Arkansas, Darrell Royal of Texas, Arashegain even Sid Gilman, who was coaching at the University of Cincinnati at the time. The coaches spoke to Florida high school coaches, but we’re also there to exchange ideas. And remember, this was in the early 50s and in the 1960s, a time of heavy segregation in the Deep South. Gaither later pointed out that his integrated clinics proved one thing that’s great about sports, and that’s that sports can erase color lines.

In the clinics. Gaither taught his version of the split t formation offense that spread offensive lineman further apart to create better blocking angles than the common split t, which is usually first traced back to the 1940s at Missouri, Gaither gave shared credit of the idea to Woody Hayes in an Ebony magazine article in 1960. Although Gaither reportedly used the offense as early as 1951, the same year Hayes took over at Ohio State.

Great coaches value character development and Coach Gaither was no exception. He was quoted as saying that coaches shouldn’t concern themselves with what kind of players they’re developing in college, but what kind of men he’s made. 15 years later. He told his players that whatever they do in life to be the best, if you were a landscaper, be the best landscaper in town, if you were a doctor, be the best doctor. And also be the best citizen.

Coach Gaither stood adamant that his players attend class and attend church. He also valued kindness and liked to say that kindness is the universal language that everyone understands. Now, that didn’t mean that he didn’t value winning. He said that if you thought building character meant losing to build character, he wanted no part of that. He told Ebony magazine in that 1960 article that he could build a lot more character through winning than any coach could build through losing.

Forty two of Coach Gaither’s players played pro football, including Bob Hayes and. Ken Riley. In a late 1970s interview, he said that Willie Galimore more was probably the best player he ever coached. Coach Gaither retired as Florida A and M’s head coach after the 1969 season. He continued for a few years as the school’s athletic director. Coach Jake Gaither passed away in February of 1994 at the age of 90. And even now, Jake Gaither remains an enormous part of Florida A&M University and a monumental figure in the lives of the players who were fortunate enough to play for him.

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