Alonzo S. Gaither, who built a powerful athletic machine at Florida A&M University, the state’s only public historically black university, is known as the winningest coach of his era. His pioneering coaching tactics propelled FAMU’s athletic program beyond the parameters of the HBCU universe into the broader American culture, with the team’s stellar performance being covered on sports pages of daily mainstream and black niche newspapers across the country. Coach Gaither is historically regarded as a great motivator who used the football field as his “laboratory” to develop players’ character and refine their talents in order to help them reach their fullest life potential.
Born April 11, 1903, in Dayton, Tennessee, Gaither became head football coach of the FAMC Rattlers in 1945 and served until his retirement in 1969. The period of his historic reign is affectionately called the “Gaither Era.” During his 25-year tenure, the highly revered Gaither compiled a phenomenal record of 203 wins, 36 defeats, and 4 ties for a winning percentage of .844, the highest for any college coach of his time, black or white, with 200 victories.
Under his leadership, the Rattlers won 6 Negro Collegiate Football championships. Forty-two of “Jake’s Boys” went on to play in the National Football League including “Bullet” Bob Hayes, a star wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who also earned two gold medals for track during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo; Willie Galimore, an acclaimed running back with the Chicago Bears; Ken Riley, a defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals; and Robert Paremore, a halfback with the St. Louis Cardinals. Recognizing the dynamic impact of his stellar coaching career, Gaither was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1975, which he called the “greatest moment of his life.” Gaither’s career was replete with distinguished honors.
After an illustrious career, Gaither retired on August 31, 1973. He died on February 18, 1994, at the age of 90. In Tallahassee, a FAMU gymnasium, community playground, public golf course, recreation center, street, and neighborhood are named in his honor. His private home, located at 212 Young Street, which he shared for more than 40 years with his loving wife Sadie, has been enshrined as a memorial to this devoted citizen who positively impacted FAMU, the people of Tallahassee, the State of Florida, the nation, and the world. A historic marker installed in the home’s hilltop yard heralds Gaither, who lived an epic life and left an enduring legacy, as an American hero.