'Jake' Gaither 'Jake' Gaither

He grew up expecting to preach hell, fire and brimstone like his father. Noting he was "always running at the mouth," his mother expected him to become a lawyer.

But when his father died just as Alonzo Smith "Jake" Gaither was finishing college, he had to become a provider, which meant taking a job as a high school football coach.

In 1945, three years after barely surviving a bout with brain cancer, Gaither became head coach at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The school's president couldn't get anyone else to take the job.

He coached at the school for 25 seasons, compiling a 203-36-4 record, the highest winning percentage (.844) of anyone who has coached more than 13 seasons of college football.

Born in 1903 in Dayton, Tenn., Gaither wanted his players "mobile, agile and hostile." By the 1960s, he had established such an elaborate pipeline in Florida that he didn't bother to recruit anywhere else.

Gaither's greatest innovation was the Split-Line T formation, which appeared in 1963 and was soon imitated by virtually every successful coach. His proudest moment came Nov. 29, 1969, when his Rattlers defeated the University of Tampa, 34-28, in the South's first interracial college football game.

His passion and his motivational skills set Gaither apart. He wasn't above hiding an onion in his handkerchief to work up tears for a pre-game pep talk. No onion was necessary after a loss.

By the time he retired in 1969, Gaither was as much an institution as Florida A&M itself. Forty-two of his players had gone on to the NFL. Gaither never had any intention of going anywhere.

Before he died at 90 in 1994 in Tallahassee, he told his biographer, George E. Curry:

"I run into so many people who have no deep sense of morals -- people who got a price tag on them, who'd sell their soul. I want to find the man who has no price tag on him. I'm not for sale."

-- Dick Scanlon
Recommended reading: "Jake Gaither: America's Most-Famous Black Coach" by George E. Curry (Dodd Mead, 1977).


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