Florida A&M University owns one of the best athletic traditions in American collegiate sports --Florida A&M University Athletics:
Over 100 Years of Sports Greatness
In the Holy Bible, the world was said to be without form prior to the Creation and Florida A&M Athletics could be said to have come from a similar beginning.
The school was founded in 1887 in Tallahassee as the State Normal College for Negroes on Copeland Street, the current site of Florida State University.
By the mid 1890’s unsupervised sports began play on campus, particularly baseball, tennis and football. Baseball is acknowledged by many resource materials as the school’s oldest sport.
IN THE BEGINNING.... • 1899 to 1930
Athletics at FAMU came under faculty supervision in the fall of 1899, as George Sampson and Jubie B. Bragg took the reins of athletics on an intramural basis.
Miss Ellen O. Paige was also instrumental in the beginning of a formal athletic program at FAMU, having helped specifically institute tennis and basketball at FAMU. In some literature, she has been dubbed “the mother of tennis” at FAMU.
Sampson and Bragg formed an athletic committee which sponsored the school’s athletic program on an intramural level. Other members of the committee included E.L. Gorden and Chester Cole.
Inaugurating the program were baseball and football, followed in 1901 by tennis and basketball.
Under the committee’s guidance, varsity status was achieved for the program by 1906, with football opening the varsity era with two games against Alabama State and Tuskegee. In fact that two-game set was played in one week with the Tuskegee game on a Wednesday and the Montgomery (later Alabama State) game on Saturday.
Literature recounting that first “road trip” written by J.B. Bragg indicated that the school was so low on funds that the team was nearly stranded in Alabama until the coaches were able to pursuade the railroad conductor to accept a personal check for the team’s passage back to Tallahassee.
By 1909, the university’s current identity was beginning to take shape when the state authorized its’ name to be changed to Florida Agriculutral and Mechanical College for Negroes, or better known as FAMC or FAMCEE.
In 1913, Florida A&M continued laying the foundations for its’ program when it became a charter member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), a league they remained a member of until 1979-80, when they withdrew to pursue NCAA Division One status.
Jubie Bragg, who left in the late 1900s to work at Tuskegee, returned in 1923 to become the school’s first “official” head football coach and athletic director under President John Robert Edward Lee, Sr.
If there was one administtrator who was deemed mainly responsible for the the agressive blossoming of athletics, it was President Lee, who is credited by many with originating the nickname “Rattlers” for the school’s athletic teams.
President Lee was the first to aggressively move out into the community and across the state to recruit students and raise funds for the school, taking the budding FAMU Marching Band with him on trips. It is during his 20-year tenure (1924 to 1944) that the university achieved much of its’ current physical plant and academic structure.
Lee and his son, J.R.E. Lee, Jr., the school’s business manager (who among other things founded the school’s federal credit union) took a strong interest in athletics and were instrumental in the program’s growth both competitively and financially.
The younger Lee was the founder of the now fabled Orange Blossom Classic in 1933, arranging for Howard University to take a train from Washington, D.C. to Jacksonville, where the inaugural game was played at the Myrtle Avenue Baseball Field. FAMU won 9-6 and the Classic or the OBC would go on to become the Black College Bowl game, often played the first or second week of December.
Athletics continued its’ growth under Franz A. “Jazz” Byrd, who took over as football coach and athletic director in 1925, working in the role until 1930. But J.B. Bragg returned to coaching in 1930, followed by his son Eugene (1934-35).
Eugene Bragg died in a tragic auto accident following the 1935 season, but his successor, William “Big Bill” Bell, would usher in what is now regarded as the Golden Age of Athletics at FAMU.
FAMU’s GOLDEN AGE • 1930 to 1970
With the advent of Ohio State graduate Bill Bell onto the FAMU scene in 1936, the Rattler Football Program was ready to become the outstanding program that it is today.
Bell led the Rattler program to its’ first conference title in 1937, followed by an undefeated season (8-0) and its’ first Black College National title in 1938. In fact during his tenure, Bell would pilot the Rattlers to three national titles, clearly establishing them as one of elite programs in football.
Bell departed for service in World War II in 1943 and after two years of struggle, Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither, an assistant under Bell, took the reins of the program and proverbially speaking, the rest was history.
Gaither would go on to a Hall of Fame career, winning 203 games in 25 seasons (1945-1969) capturing 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.
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 “The Baron” 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 Era.
During this period, the basketball program took leaps forward as the old university chapel was remodeled under the leadership of W. McKinely King in 1930, to allow for basketball games, which up to that point had been staged outdoors.
By 1933, the program had new leadership from Theodore “Ted” Wright, who was credited with pushing basketball, both varsity and intramural to a higher level of visibility on campus.
Basketball would go on to win over 700 games between the 1950s to the present, with 12 seasons of at least 20 or more wins. Six FAMU teams since 1957 had advanced to NCAA postseason play.
When Edward “Rockjaw” Oglesby took over in 1950, he accelerated the pace of play and the program would capture 13 conference titles, win 386 games and earn three NCAA Division Two regional berths (1957, 1959, 1962).
Top performers during this era include sharpshooting Waite Bellamy, Leroy “Spike” Gibson, who went on into the NBA with Syracuse and Baltimore; Al Lawson, Sr., who had brief NBA stint with Indiana and Tommie Mitchell, who played several seasons in Europe and also with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Baseball continued its’ growth as a program, under the leadership of Dr. Oscar A. Moore and later Costa A. Kittles, a former All-American football player for the legendary Jake Gaither, winning an combined 14 SIAC titles under this dynamic duo, while producing two players who would go on to have major league impact prior to the 1970s: William “Bill” Lucas, Sr. (1958) who would become the first Black executive in baseball with the Atlanta Braves and Hal McRae (1965) drafted by Cincinnati, starring with both the Reds and later with the Kansas City Royals. McRae would later manage the Royals for two seasons in the early 1990s.
Tennis flourished, especially during the early 1950s when a superb athlete by the name of Althea Gibson would come on the scene. This talented New York native played tennis, golf and basketball at FAMU and turned professional in tennis upon graduating in 1954. She went on to fame as a trailblazing tennis performer in the late 1950s and for a time in women’s pro golf in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Track and Field began during this Golden Era producing numerous outstanding track teams and top individual performers headlined by Robert “Bob” Hayes, winner of two Olympic gold medals in Tokyo (1964) and the 4x100 relay team of the late 1960s that retired the J.C. Patterson Cup at the Penn Relays. The momentum of track produced another Olympic hopeful, sprinter Rey Robinson, who was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team.
The FAMU Relays, approaching its’ 59th year in March 2009, was founded by the late Robert “Pete” Griffin in 1950, blossoming into the Spring Sports Carnival which included tennis, baseball, golf and swimming.
THE MODERN ERA • 1970 to the Present
The 1970s saw changes galore ripple through American society and those changes - namely integration - provided new challenges to FAMU athletics.
Losing their veritable “farm system” of Black high schools in the region due to integration, the program went through a transition as recruiting and increased funding were needed to reestablish a competitive edge.
Additionally, the general move away from the athletics/physical education combination during the 1970s heralded the “big time” aspect of collegiate athletics. This forced Florida A&M to move from having one staff that taught classes, coached football and handled another sport (baseball, basketball, tennis, track, golf, etc.), to an enlarged staff that had coaches who specialized in one sport.
This forced FAMU to expand its’ athletic budget to handle this increase in staff. And with the entry into Division One in the late 1970s, travel to achieve scheduling requirements for the various sports proved to be another financial demand.
On top of all this came the advent onto the American sports scene of Title IX - the federal mandate that women’s sports programs and opportunities be brought into a more equitable line with existing men’s programs.
The late Lua A. Bartley, a staunch supporter of women’s sports since the 1950s at FAMU, was the school’s first women’s athletic director, followed in the 1980s by energetic Sarah Hill, who helped move the women’s sports programs forward until her departure in 1988.
In 1980, FAMU left the SIAC for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, one of two Division One conference with Black college members. A scheduling dispute caused FAMU to leave the league in 1983, but they returned to the conference in 1987.
While the program was out of the MEAC, the men’s program existed on an independent basis, while the women were charter members (1985-86) of the New South Women’s Conference, composed of schools from the Trans America Athletic Conference, which at the time did not have the finances to hold women’s championships. The women remained in the New South, which later became the TAAC until the early 1990s, when they fully rejoined the MEAC.
FAMU rekindled a measure of its’ athletic dominance by winning eight straight MEAC women’s all-sports trophies and eight men’s all-sports awards over a 12-year span.
During this era, football, the crown jewel of the program shone brightly, dimmed for a few seasons, before regaining much of its’ luster in the late 1990s.
Under Ohio State graduate Rudy Hubbard, the Rattlers had a 30-5 run between 1977 and 1979, posting the nation’s only undefeated season in 1977 (11-0); winning the inaugural NCAA Division I-AA national title in 1978 (12-1), while pulling off the upset of the decade in 1979 (7-4) with a 16-13 win over the University of Miami.
Guard Tyrone McGriff, a three-time All-America (1977-79) was a leading player on these teams and would eventually be among the first group of small college players to be enshrined the the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Football’s fortunes began to sag as the recruiting demands and coaching transitions began to take hold toward the end of the Hubbard Era. He was replaced after 12 seasons (1974-85) by Ken Riley, a former star quarterback under Jake Gaither in the 1960s, who had a stellar 15-year professional career as a defensive back with Cincinnati.
While Riley never achieved the record success that many FAMU coaches had, he did lead FAMU to three MEAC titles and elevate the talent level which in large measure was responsible for the initial success of his successor, Billy Joe.
Joe came on board in 1994 and by 1998 had returned the program to elite status among Division I-AA programs, with seven straight postseason appearances and a Black College National title in 1998.
Joe departed following the 2004 season and was replaced by Rubin Carter, who coached for three seasons (2005-07), before the advent of current head coach Joe Taylor, one of the winningest active coaches in the Division One and Black College realms.
Men’s Basketball struggled in the Division One era, compiling just six winning seasons since moving up in 1980. The program, which made the Division Two playoffs in 1978 during the senior year of NBA perfomer Clemon “C.J.” Johnson, has won the MEAC Tournament four times (1991, 1999, 2004, 2007), advancing to NCAA postseason play all four years.
Guard Aldwin Ware led Division One in steals in 1988, while guard Terry Giles ranked nationally in steals three straight seasons (1989-91). Forward DeLon Turner (1990-93) led the club in rebounding and scoring three of his last four years and was MEAC Player of the Year in 1992.
Center Jerome James, a 7-1 prospect was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft, after leading Division One in blocked shots in 1997-98.
In 2003 and 2004, guard Terrence Woods led NCAA Division One in three-point shooting, finishing with nearly 250 three-point goals, helping the Rattlers to the 2004 MEAC title and an NCAA opening round win over Lehigh (Pa.) University.
Women’s Basketball soared, first under Mickey Clayton, who took over the program in 1977 and guided them to 199 wins during a 13-year span, producing seven All-Americans, including Cynthia Lee, Sybil Rivers, Sandra Carter and April Manning.
Manning finished second in the nation (1988) in steals, but her successor, Shelly Boston would lead the nation in steals in 1991 and 1992, followed by Natalie White (1993-96), who would go on to become the NCAA career steals leader (590).
Claudette Farmer took over the program in 1990-91, and has won three MEAC regular season titles and two MEAC Tournament crowns (1995, 1999), advancing to NCAA Tournament play in 1995 and 1999.
Natalie White (1995) and Cathy Robinson (1996) were MEAC Player of the Years, while ranking nationally in steals and rebounding respectively.
Tennis showed flashes of dominance under the leadership of Robert Mungen, winning five straight men’s MEAC titles (1991-96) and winning four women’s titles between 1987 and 1999.
Dr. Carl Goodman took over the men’s team reins upon Mungen’s retirement in 1999, leading the Rattlers to the 2000 MEAC title. Under his leadership, the Rattler netters have made every league finals match (2000-08) during his tenure.
The fledgling women’s program was led following Mungen’s retirement first by James Hargrove (1999-05) and currently by former Lady Rattler netter Rochelle “Nikki” Goldthreate (2005-present).
Track and Field split into men’s and women’s championships under the MEAC in the 1980s and FAMU was one of the league’s dominant programs. With men’s performers like international hurdler Reggie Davis, versatile athlete David Stargel and women’s stars like sprinter Pam Oliver, heptathlete Kanyon Singletary and distance runner Donya Andrews-Little, FAMU would win over 20 combined titles between cross country, indoor and outdoor track.
Baseball produced three major leaguers during this period - Andre Dawson (drafted by Montreal in 1975), Vince Coleman (drafted by St. Louis in 1983) and Marquis Grissom (drafted by Montreal in 1988). The Rattlers won seven conference titles, one in the SIAC (1978) and six in the MEAC (1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994).
Five coaches headed the program during this time including Costa Kittles, Moses McCray, Melvin Gilliam, Joseph Durant and current coach Robert Lucas, who is in his second tour as the Rattler skipper.
Major league teams picked over a dozen players in its’ June draft from FAMU between 1983 and 1999, with five being picked off the 1988 team and three off the 1997 team.
Women’s Softball emerged as a slowpitch team in the 1980s, converting to fastpitch under the leadership of Sandra Pearsall, who took the team through the transition for two seasons. Present head coach Veronica Wiggins, who was an assistant under Pearsall, eventually took over the program, leading it to great moments.
Since 1993, FAMU’s softball program has won eight MEAC titles, having advanced to postseason play six times including a first-ever NCAA Regional in 1999.
They have gone from losing seasons in the early years of fastpitch play to a school-best 42-win campaign in 1997 and 40-win season in 2006.
Top players include pitcher Psauntia Andrews, infielder Marcelina Smith, who starred on the early MEAC title winners in the early 1990s, while the late 1990s squad, which won three straight crowns (1997-99), was led by All-Americans Valerie Stoudemire (outfield), Kim Browning (infield) and Amber Alford (pitcher).
Women’s Volleyball at Florida A&M has been the dominant program in the MEAC the past decade, winning eight (8) straight titles and 11 overall championships since 1988.
This reign of dominance has been fashioned under the leadership of several coaches – Frances Walton-Knight (1988), Pamela Reilly (1995, 1996) and current coach, Tony Trifonov (1999, 2001-08).
Perhaps the best player produced by the sport was hitter Kim Funchess, a three-time All-MEAC pick and a four-time All-New South selection. She remains the school’s career leader in several categories despite her career having ended in 1989, although several star performers have been mentored under Trifonov during his 12-year reign at FAMU.
Other sports in the FAMU program include men’s golf, swimming and diving for men and women and women’s bowling.
The FUTURE• 2000 and Beyond
Florida A&M is looking forward to a bright future, with a new state-of-the-art basketball facility to open in the Spring of 2009, and plans on the drawing board for renovation and expansion of fabled Bragg Memorial Stadium , which celebrated its’ 50th anniversary of operation in 2007.
The current program is the midst of implementing a bold, new vision for restoring the aura of competitive success in all sports, that made Florida A&M sports both feared and respected nationwide for many years, under the leadership of President James H. Ammons.
Florida A&M Athletics is an ongoing success story, built on a solid foundation which dates back 100 years.