White, Derrick E. Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 303. Abbreviations, bibliography, endnotes, epilogue, illustrations, and index. $30 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.
Jake Gaither coached his last college football game fifty years ago, but his impact on the sport is still felt.
Alonzo S. “Jake” Gaither, the head coach at Florida A&M University from 1945 to 1969, wore many hats at the historically black college in Tallahassee. He was a coach, teacher, mentor and innovator. Gaither also had the skills of a nimble acrobat as he walked a precarious tightrope, balancing the interests of his school while maintaining good relationships with the “Pork Choppers” who dominated Florida’s rough-and-tumble post-World War II politics.
Gaither was pragmatic, knowing how far he could push the state’s politicians. But he was also realistic, understanding some of his decisions would be criticized by black youths passionately involved with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Those are some of the dynamics Derrick White examines in his absorbing, informative and valuable look at football played at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) before integration. In Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football, White uses Gaither as a springboard to illustrate the culture he calls “black sporting congregations.” What took place at HBCUs was important to the black community, using the same components as white colleges but tailoring them to fit their needs, much like a jazz musician in a jam session. “Although the same notes appear, Black colleges and communities improvise, making the chords and composition all their own,” White writes. “The result is a game that is both familiar and different.” (P. 22).
The scholarship on race and sports has not accounted for sporting congregations, White argues (P. 9). In Blood, Sweat, and Tears, White shows how HBCUs, despite limited resources, produced a golden age of black college football. Gaither was at the forefront. His Rattler teams won or shared six black college national championships; the only contemporary program with similar success was Prairie View, which won five crowns under Billy Nicks.
Gaither coached three unbeaten teams (1957, 1959 and 1961) and had 11 seasons with only one loss. Some of those one-loss seasons cost Gaither a national title, but it became apparent, particularly during the 1950s, that the road to winning a black national title went through Tallahassee or through the season-ending Orange Blossom Classic that FAMU played annually. Gaither wanted his teams to be “agile, mobile and hostile,” and the Rattlers rarely failed to disappoint their coach.
Gaither adapted a substitution strategy LSU’s Paul Dietzel developed and turned it into a powerful platooning system. Gaither dubbed his units Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Gaither’s players excelled on both sides of the football and competed on offense and defense, but the Blood unit was mostly offensive players, the Sweat group played both ways, and the Tears unit was mostly a defensive squad. Those innovations sparked the Rattlers to a 10-0 mark in 1959 — Gaither’s first 10-win season, his second unbeaten team, and his fifth black college national title. It was arguably his best team and ended a decade in which Gaither’s teams won 73 games and 89 percent of all games played. From 1955 to 1964, the Rattlers lost just nine games. None of the major white college football teams in Florida came close. Gaither’s numbers are impressive, but White digs deeper, unearthing the social upheaval that took place during the coach’s tenure.
Gaither was equipped at an early age to effect change. His father wanted him to become a preacher, but Gaither found a more fundamental way to reach souls. White notes the similarity between the pulpit and coaching, writing that segregated fields “would become cathedrals with the coaches as the clergy.” (P. 34). At Knoxville College, Gaither was known as a “deep and quick thinker.” (P. 134). His ability to debate and his penchant to protest activities earned him the nickname “The Stormy Petrel.” (P. 134). As blacks worked for equality during the 1960s — trying to erase the “separate but equal” travesty caused by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and attempting to enforce the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 — Gaither was caught in a tangled web. On one hand, he saw the civil rights movement as a way to open doors for black athletes at major universities. It was only a matter of time before integration would extend completely to college football.
As White notes, Gaither rejected the argument by civil rights activists that black institutions were inferior to white ones (P. 127). Gaither hosted football coaching clinics and invited some of the top white coaches of the era, including Sid Gillman. Gaither’s Split-T formation of the early 1960s showcased the Rattlers’ speed and agility. Football, White writes, gave Gaither “an alternative framework to view desegregation.” (P. 127). Had the times been different, Gaither surely had the qualifications to coach at a major, predominantly white school like the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Miami and even the smaller University of Tampa – the latter school a victim of Gaither’s Rattlers in a landmark game in 1969 that pitted an HBCU against a predominantly white school in a game played at a southern venue.
On the other hand, the excellence of football at HBCUs would be diluted because doors had opened for black athletes at formerly all-white universities. Even though programs like FAMU and Grambling remained successful pipelines to the National Football League, and later, the American Football League, the floodgates had opened. The breaking of the modern color line in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson ultimately doomed the Negro Leagues. While integration did not eliminate HBCUs, it certainly created some difficulties in recruiting for coaches who remained at those schools. “Many civil rights activists pushing for equal rights and equality failed to account for the possibility that the de-emphasis on Black cultural institutions would be the price of the integration ticket,” White writes.” (P. 140).
Gaither was trapped between pushing hard for integration and civil rights reform and maintaining black institutions like the one he had built at FAMU. White dignitaries sat in specially roped-off sections at Bragg Stadium in premium 50-yard-line seats, angering Rattler fans. Gaither cultivated working relationships with Florida governors like LeRoy Collins and Claude Kirk to keep funding and even prevent a proposed merger with FSU. “Later generations would see (Gaither’s) actions as a little bit ‘Uncle Tomism,’” legendary Tallahassee Democrat sports editor Bill McGrotha would write (P. 111).
Those critics misjudged the man. Gaither kept abreast with the latest civil rights news, and a trip to Delray Beach in May 1956 to visit C. Spencer Pompey, the principal and football coach at Carver High School, was typical. Pompey thought Gaither was visiting his South Florida home to talk recruiting until the FAMU coach leaned over at the dinner table and asked, “What is going on with the beach situation we have been reading about?” (P. 101). Pompey, along with members of the Negro Civic League in Delray Beach, was trying to integrate the beaches to give blacks a share of the small city’s recreational facilities. Gaither met with Civic League members (which included Leroy Baine, an educator who was dean of boys when I attended high school at integrated Atlantic High School in Delray Beach from 1971 to 1975), acting as an emissary for the governor. While Gaither’s presence was welcomed because his name “was a household word” and “his integrity was unquestioned,” the coach “made no proposals or suggestions to the group.” (P. 102). However, he had made the trip, which was important to the group.
White’s research for Blood, Sweat, and Tears is extensive. He relied upon key archives in Florida and also checked records in Georgia and New York. He researched 69 different newspapers and magazines and 284 books, articles, essays, dissertations and theses. Some of the research is conducted along traditional lines, while online sources are also used.
If there is a flaw in White’s research, it is a cosmetic one. The presence of a table that showed a year-by-year breakdown of Gaither’s record at FAMU would have been valuable Gaither had a sterling record, and a table showing just how dominant his teams were would have been a nice addition. But that’s a mere quibble. There also are a few glitches. White refers to Dixie Hollins High School as “Dixie Hollis” (P. 169), and calls Lewis Rice — a FAMU graduate who coached at Stuart Training School/Murray High School and later at Fort Pierce Central High School (where I covered his teams as a young sportswriter from 1981 to 1984) as “Louis” (P. 173). I’d take issue with White’s assertion that the Rattler Marching 100 band was “arguably” the best in the country, but that is personal bias on my part. I’ve yet to see a better college marching band.
Gaither was proud of his legacy and was honored when he was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. When annual induction ceremonies were held at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Central Florida, Gaither reveled in the attention showered upon him by former players and coaching contemporaries.
In 1986, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame was moved out of Cypress Gardens when the theme park was sold to Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich. The Hall of Fame shifted eastward and into another world, placed in the back room at the Mystery Fun House in Orlando. There was something incongruous about seeing plaques honoring Florida’s greatest sports figures tucked behind Pac-Man and pinball machines. It was housed in a Victorian mansion where “visitors can expect the unexpected.” As might be expected, Gaither was furious with the setup and refused to visit the facility. By 1990, the Sports Hall of Fame was housed in a more appropriate location.
Gaither was never content taking a back seat or being hidden from view. His dignity, fire and innovation dominated HBCUs for 25 years. Other coaches at predominantly black schools, like Eddie Robinson at Grambling, have won more games, but Gaither’s legacy remains the benchmark to judge HBCUs. In Blood, Sweat, and Tears, White supplies much-needed context to the history of black college football and the swirling currents of the civil rights movement.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.