The title of George E. Curry's book, Jake Gaither: America's Most Famous Black Coach (Dodd, Mead & Company, $7.95), is nothing if not ironic. Given black football's longtime obscurity, there never was a truly celebrated black coach. Now, even though football games between black schools are being televised in places like Yankee Stadium, it may be too late for recognition. Plagued by financial problems, absorbed by larger state schools, their best prospects often picked up by integrated programs, black schools can no longer routinely field national powers. So Gaither, here properly immortalized, may be remembered less as a trendsetter than a fossil.
During the 25 years (1945-69) that he coached football at Florida A&M, Gaither had a 203-36-4 record, won six national black collegiate championships, produced an All-America player every year but one and was named small college Coach of the Year three times. "I want my boys to be ag-ile, mobile and hos-tile," he said—and those words should probably be the title of the book. The man was a motivator supreme. Players would swear by him, writes Curry, a staff writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, adding with only slight exaggeration, that if Gaither asked them to go through a brick wall, his players would ask "which one?" He was no slouch as a tactician either, inventing the split-line T formation offense.
Still, Gaither emerges as a controversial and contradictory man, perhaps as a result of coaching a black team in the Old South. Never coached by a black himself, he went along with Jim Crow laws and was accused of buttering up segregationists. "Uncle Tom!" cried his detractors, but Gaither was able to get almost anything he wanted from Whitey, including having probation restrictions lifted for Bob Hayes, who had been convicted of a minor crime in his teens. Moreover, Gaither's reputation enabled him to set up the first interracial game in the Deep South—a 1969 contest with Tampa University. Gaither played favorites, ran up scores, whined about officiating and was accused by many who knew him of being power-crazy. But this is the same man who, although he gave money out of his own pocket to some of his players so they could stay at A&M, never was accused of financial improprieties; indeed, he had every bit as good a press as Bear Bryant.
Today, Curry says, the lights go out early in the Gaither home. And with them go the glory days of black football.