TALLAHASSEE, FL (Apr.11) – On this day, 110 years ago, the most prized possession in the history of FAMU Athletics was born. In the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, Alonzo Smith "Jake" Gaither was born to humble beginnings. His official birthdate was April 11, 1903. The son of a preacher, Gaither was expected to go that route as well.
After graduating from Knoxville College, where he played football, he got a job as a high school football coach to support his family. In 1937, Gaither graduated from Ohio State University with a master's degree.
The next year, he arrived at what was then Florida A&M College for Negores, affectionately FAM-C. That year, under head coach William "Bill" Bell, the Rattlers won their first Black College national championship. Under Bell, the Rattlers would repeat the feat in 1942. After Bell left in 1943 for military service, Gaither was hired in 1945 to take over as head coach. WHat ensued was one of the most successful stints in all of sports history.
Gaither ended his hall of fame career with 204 wins, 36 losses and just four ties. His winning percentage over his 25-year career was .850, incredible by any standard. He captured six national titles while producing some 36 All-Americans including National Football Foundation Hall of Fame halfback Willie Galimore (1953-56), the school’s all-time rushing leader.
He also encouraged a young football-playing sprinter from Jacksonville's Matthew Gilbert High School to come play for him at FAMU, while offers poured into him from very school in the nation. Robert "Bob" Hayes would be Gaither's most celebrated athlete. Hayes would win an Olympic gold medal in 1964 in Tokyo, Japan and follow it with a Super Bowl championship in 1972. Hayes was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame after his death and remains the only athlete in history to win both a Super Bowl ring and an Olympic gold medal.
Football under Gaither made huge strides becoming a national power on a consistent basis while becoming a producer of professional football talent. Gaither also instituted an annual coaching clinic in the late 1950s, inviting major college coaches he had befriended at conventions to come in
and work as clinicians.
Former Alabama coaching great Paul "Bear" Bryant, former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, former Texas coach Darrell Royal, former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and former Kentucky basketball coach Adolph ìThe Baronî Rupp, were among the many well-known coaches who dotted the rosters of the clinic’s staff.
It was pioneering moves such as this that allowed FAMU to gain stature outside of the Black College realm and set the stage for their games against predominately White programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s in football and gradually in other sports.
This effort on Gaither’s part also helped lay the foundation for the advent of FAMU and many other
historically Black colleges and universities into NCAA and NAIA membership, thrusting them into the American sports mainstream.
Ken Riley (Cincinnati), Glen Edwards (Pittsburgh), Hubert Ginn (Miami, Oakland), Hewritt Dixon (Denver, Oakland), and Al Denson (Denver) were just some of the Gaither Era pro products, while
Galimore (1954-57) and center Curtis Miranda (1959-61) were three time All-Americans during the
Gaither was married to longtime wife Sadie at the time of his departure. They never had kids of their own, but in essence adopted every kid that played under him.