Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaither was the head football coach at Florida A&M University (FAMU) for 25 years, and amassed one of the best winning records of any college football coach. Gaither began as an assistant to head coach William “Big Bill” Bell at Florida A&M College for Negroes (as it was called then) in 1938. The FAMC Rattlers had an undefeated (8-0-0) season that year, and won their first Black College National Championship. The school won the national title again in 1942. Bell left to enter military service in 1943. After two years of problems in the football program, Gaither was hired as the head football coach for Florida A&M College in 1945.
Gaither instituted an annual coaching clinic at FAMU in the late 1950s. He recruited major college coaches, including Paul “Bear” Bryant, Frank Broyles, Darrell Royal, Woody Hayes and Adolph Rupp, among others, to staff the clinics. Gaither introduced the Split-T Formation in 1963, and it was soon adopted at other colleges. In 1969 FAMU defeated the University of Tampa 34-28 in the South’s first football game between a white college and a predominantly black college.
He later became Director of Athletics and Chairman of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at FAMU and continued to hold the last two positions after he retired as coach until his retirement from teaching in 1973. When Gaither retired from coaching in 1969, his FAMU teams had a 204-36-4 (wins-losses-ties) record, for a .844 winning percentage. Thirty-six players from Gaither’s teams were All-Americans, and 42 went on to play in the NFL. During his 25 years as head coach, FAMU won 22 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) championships. Gaither teams also won six Black College National Championships.
Gaither was named SIAC Coach of the Decade. He was named College Division Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association in 1962, and was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. He also received the Amos Alonzon Staff Award that year, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation Man of the Year in 1974. The Jake Gaither Trophy has been awarded to the best Black collegiate football player each year since 1978. The Jake Gaither Gymnasium is located on the FAMU campus.