Rattlers amid the Orange Blossoms

Led by a fistful of future pros, Florida A&M won its annual bowl game, but its bite was surprisingly light
December 18, 1961

Midway in the season Coach Jake Gaither of Florida A&M University gathered his players in the dressing room to warn them that unbeaten teams, like expensive china, are always one slip away from the broom and dustpan. "Beware," he said. "There is a law of averages." From the circle of squad members, a senatorial type clattered to his feet and spoke. "No, sir," he said. "We repealed that law."

Apparently they had. Saturday, A&M moved into Miami for the 29th Orange Blossom Classic looking more redoubtable than ever. The Rattlers had won nine straight, averaged 54.6 points per game (as against 2.7 for the opposition) and gained unanimous acclaim as the champion Negro college team in the country. Gaither hinted broadly that this was his best team in 30 years. In his impassioned pregame talk, he told A&M that Saturday night's opponent, once-beaten Jackson (Miss.) State, "has never felt the strike of a rattler." "Hubba, hubba," answered the Rattlers and ran confidently onto Miami's Orange Bowl field before a record 48,000 people.

The game that followed wasn't anywhere near what Gaither or his players had expected. For six years Gaither had worked on perfecting his "clothesline T," with his line spread out as much as 15 feet wider than in the standard split-T. This offense, which Gaither proudly called his own, spread the defense, lent great variety to his attack and, oddly, did not jeopardize his quarterback's life. It worked so well, in fact, that each year since Gaither installed it A&M has increased its scoring average.

But with Jackson it was different from the start. Varying 7-1, 7-2 and 6-3 defenses, sliding their linebackers and getting resourceful service from their ends, the Mississippi Tigers all but ruined the evening for A&M. It was not, however, quite disastrous. Predictably, Jackson scotched its fine effort by making big underdog mistakes—four fumbles lost, three passes intercepted—and this more than offset the edge it had in statistics (285 total yardage to 223). Quarterback Jim Tullis, a 6-foot-3 198-pound junior from Miami who has been drafted by Green Bay, recovered two of the fumbles and ran back an intercepted pass 61 yards for the first Rattler touchdown. He later passed 52 yards to set up the second, and after some desperate last-period moments, A&M won 14 to 8.

"They studied us well," said Gaither after the game. "There was no flaw in our split-line T but there were things we should have done and didn't. We have been sharper."

Gaither teams certainly have. He has won 139 games and lost 21 since coming to A&M in 1945. The administration loves him. The boys cling to his words. They run up and down his "horror hill"—a 25-foot strip on a 50° angle—do stutter steps, yoga and kangaroo and like it. He guides them spiritually (prayers before the game, at half time and after), and there is an apocryphal story told of Gaither that when asked what he looks for in a player, he replied: "I want him to be three things—Agile, mobile and hostile." Whatever he looks for, he doesn't have to look for. At last count he had 145 former players coaching in Florida schools, and one alumnus bellowed, "Any Florida boy worth a cuss better come to A&M." If he doesn't, he's liable to be run over by the Rattlers.

Only six of the 65 on Gaither's present roster are from out of state, although he has about 150 out-of-state requests a year. The team has discipline, pride and exceptional speed, and probably more balance than any other he has coached. His three units, "blood," "sweat" and "tears," were truly interchangeable, although injuries necessitated a little mixing of blood with sweat and sweat with tears. If past experience holds true, this year's players should make good pros. Four have been drafted: Tullis, who will report to the Packers in 1963; Center Curtis Miranda, 6 feet 4, 235 pounds, who will probably be made an outside linebacker by the Giants; Halfback Nat Tucker, 6 feet 2, 204 pounds, going to the Steelers; and Halfback Eugene White, 6 feet 2, 200 pounds and a 9.6 dash man, who is also bound for the Giants. Tackles Tommy Chandler (260 pounds) and Willie Clarington (235 pounds) are "negotiating."

White and Tucker were well contained by the Jackson linemen, a few of whom could make good pros themselves. Miranda played briefly. With the Rattlers ahead by 41 points in the final seconds of A&M's last game of the regular season, he fulfilled a previously controlled desire by trading places with the quarterback. He ran 18 yards on a keeper, but he injured his knee on the play. Saturday his absence must have taken some of the bite out of the Rattlers.

PHOTOCOACH GAITHER LEADS TEAM IN PRACTICE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)