Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither was born in Dayton, Tennessee in 1903 and was raised as the son of a outspoken preacher. As a young man Gaither was intrigued by the powerful speakers in his community, he learned that one could move men with the power of words. He was a member of the debate team and he was interested in studying law at while completing his studies at Knoxville College. He became a member of the football team at Knoxville College until around 1927, the year Gaither would also deal with the death of his father. Because of his father’s death Gaither stopped going to school and started working to support himself and his family. He would move to North Carolina to teach and coach at Henderson Institute until around 1935. His next job was coaching at St. Paul Junior College in Virginia until he became an assistant coach on the football staff at Florida A&M University in 1942.
Jake Gaither moved to Tallahassee, FL and began coaching, three years later he would find himself as the head coach if the Florida A&M University Rattler football team. Little did he know he would become one of the most influential and most quoted coaches of all time. Gaither was also a person of great inner strength being a survivor of two malignant brain tumors during the early 1940’s. Coach Gaither built a reputation for recruiting good players and creating great men. He was very capable of finding the best talent in the south and dominating his competition. Because of segregation the best black plyers of the time had no choice but to play football at historically black colleges. Coach Gaither took advantage of the talent he had access to and created a legacy that rivals the greatest of any white university. “Poppa Gaither” is one of the many nicknames Gaither earned over the years, he was thought of a father figure for his players away from their homes. Gaither was able to recruit and mentor Hall of Fame talented players like Bob Hayes and Ken Riley who became ambassadors for Florida A&M University. Gaither was also a mentor for legendary football coach of Florida State University Bobby Bowden.
Gaither’s influence was not going unnoticed within the football world, at one point between 85 to 95 percent of the black high school football coaches in the State of Florida were mentees of Coach Gaither. During Gaither’s first year as head coach of Florida A&M his team would win its conference championship and the following six conference championships. Gaither would become famous for his often used quote “I like my boys to be agile, mobile, and hostile.” A quote that is still used to this day, but I doubt many know the origins of the quote. During the 1950’s Gaither would hold coaching clinics at Florida A&M where we used coaches like Bear Bryant and Adolph Rupp to staff his clinic. He was also more than a great motivator he was a great strategist as well, he is credited for improving on the Wing T-formation offence by splitting the position of his offensive linemen making the office more difficult to stop. This improvement was so affective other schools black and white would integrate Coach Gaither’s Split Wing T-Formation within their offenses. In 1963 Coach Gaither and his assistant coaches would literally publish the book about the split-t offence titled The Split Line T Offense of Florida A&M.
Gaither used the football field to help shape and mold the next generation of leaders in Black America, it is documented that he referred to the football field as his “laboratory for manhood.” In 1964 he would settle a dispute between Bob Hayes and some of this players; some of the other players was jealous of Hayes because of his Olympic success. Coach Gaither lined his players up and told them if they wanted as much attention as Hayes then they should outrun him. It is safe to say he had no more problems with the continuity of his players. In 1969 Gaither lead his rattler football team into a game which was the first game between black and white colleges in the south. Gaither and his split-t offense gained a victory over the University of Tampa. 1969 was the year that Coach Gaither retired from coaching football; he left the game with a record of 204-36-4 record, a winning percentage over 800, six All-American players, 42 rattlers to become professional football players, 22 conference championships and six Black College National Championships. Coach Gaiter has amassed many awards and accomplishments such as being inducted into the Tennessee and National Football Foundation Halls of Fame. All of the accomplishments Coach Gaither earned in his life, nothing was more satisfying to him than knowing he had a hand in creating men who could change the world. Coach Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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