Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither coached the Florida A&M Rattlers for 25 years between 1945 through 1969. His winning percentage of .844 remains one of the highest collegiate winning percentages of all time. It’s higher than well-known NCAA coaching legends Tom Osborne, Bear Bryant, and Nick Saban. That’s even higher than Oklahoma’s 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. He went 18 years straight with no more than two losses!
NCAA Coaching Innovator
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.
Jake Gaither College
Jake Gaither was born in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1903. 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 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 later accepted an assistant coaching job at Florida A&M under William “Big Bill” Bell.
Jake Gaither Cancer Survivor
An often-overlooked part of Coach Gaither’s story would make huge headlines today. Doctors diagnosed Gaither with brain cancer in 1942. The condition reportedly blinded him temporarily. 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 the Atlanta Daily World 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.
Fast and Lasting Success
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.
Gaither coached several players into pro football, including Hall of Famers Bob Hayes and Ken Riley. The first of Gaither’s players drafted into the NFL was Willie Irvin. Irvin played for the Philadelphia Eagles.
FAMU Athletic Director
By 1945, Gaither served as Florida A&M’s athletic director. He excelled in the role for nearly 30 years. He left the position in 1973, a few years after his final season as head football coach in 1969.
Also Coached Basketball
Gaither also worked as FAMU’s head basketball coach, beginning in as late as 1939. In 1946, he still coached the Ratter basketball team. The Tallahassee Democrat reported that practice for the 1946 squad didn’t start until January 6 of that year because of football. FAMU’s basketball season started on January 14, 1946, considerably later than their conference opponents began play.
Jake Gaither Coaching Clinics
SIAC fans weren’t the only ones familiar with Coach Gaither’s success. He hosted a well-known annual clinic attended by a host of famous NCAA coaches. Coaches included Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, Alabama’s Bear Bryant, Frank Broyles of Arkansas, Darrell Royal of Texas. Even future Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Sid Gilman attended the clinics. Gilman was coaching at the University of Cincinnati at the time.
The coaches spoke to Florida high school coaches and were also there to exchange ideas. Remember, this was in the early 50s and in the 1960s, a time of heavy segregation in the 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 linemen further apart to create better blocking angles than the common Split T, which is usually first traced back to the 1940s at Missouri. He gave shared credit of the idea to Woody Hayes in an Ebony article in 1960. Gaither reportedly used the offense as early as 1951, the same year Hayes took over at Ohio State.
Jake Gaither Legacy
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.
Al Denson starred for the Denver Broncos after playing for Coach Gaither at FAMU. In an interview, Denson noted Gaither’s mentorship. “He just was a great individual and he had coached great people and he was more so like a father and a blessing to you. He taught you the right way to be and taught you what was going to happen if you go to the pros.”
Jake Gaither Golf Course
The nine-hole course opened in 1956. Because of segregation, it was the only course in Tallahassee, Florida in which African Americans could play golf in the city. In 2022, the course earned recognition from the National Register of Historic Places. A historical marker was added in May of 2023.