Rudy Hubbard, head football coach at Florida A&M, is taking a leisurely post-midnight stroll across the Tallahassee campus, having just reassured himself that his players agree with him: the best place for them to be is in their dorm rooms. "I check on them before a game because it lets them know I'm serious," says Hubbard.
Such caution is second nature to Hubbard, because he is another in the line of men who learned their craft at the knee and mouth of Ohio State's Woody Hayes. Hubbard played halfback for the Buckeyes for three years, then coached for six more under Hayes. Asked how much Woody has helped him, Hubbard says, "When you coach for him, you're not a player, but you're not really a coach, either. Nobody can talk when Woody talks, which is all the time. So you have to coach in a whisper so he won't hear you."
Indeed, it appears that Hubbard, who is 32 years old and in his fifth year at A&M, learned his lessons almost too well. Not only must he have been coaching in a whisper but also his football team must have been playing at whisper-level. Otherwise, how could it be that the Florida A&M Rattlers—the Fearless Fang Gang as they call themselves—have the nation's longest winning streak but so few people are aware of it?
As a for instance, last Saturday night in Tallahassee the Top 10-ranked Florida State Seminoles played Houston (and were upset 27-21) before a frenzied mob of 41,142. Meanwhile, a mile away, before a crowd of 11,882, the Rattlers beat Howard University 28-7 for their 15th straight win.
October 8, 1978
All of which tends to make A&M, which was also the only undefeated NCAA football team in 1977, a bit paranoid. University President Walter L. Smith suspects that his school is overlooked because it is predominantly black. Echoes Quarterback Albert Chester, "It's like the NCAA is a big bus and we're always in the back seats. Nothing is worse than being ignored." Hubbard's defensive coordinator, Fred Goldsmith, agrees. "We've experienced a lot of success," he says, "and little fanfare."
Another reason might be that A&M is a Division 1AA school (one of 38 in the country). That means it exists in the mysterious territory somewhere beneath the powerhouses, but nearer to the big time than, say, Millsaps. Actually, the most plausible reason is A&M's schedule. The Rattlers have fashioned their streak against the likes of Alabama A&M (2-9 in 1977). "We're going to have to change our schedule," Hubbard admits, "but the problem is there aren't a lot of people looking to play us." Hubbard recently sent out 40 letters to lesser members of major conferences suggesting games with A&M. Two schools wrote back to reject the idea; the rest didn't respond at all. Although there is a rumor A&M may have the University of Miami on its schedule next year, the truth is Miami hasn't agreed to play and probably won't. "The sad fact," says President Smith, "is that we do not get the opportunity to prove our quality."
Smith may have a point. After a hiatus of sorts brought on by integration, black college football is on the rise again. The NCAA scholarship limitation that went into effect last year means that quality players are available to schools other than Division I juggernauts.
And nowhere is this rejuvenation more evident than at Florida A&M. Hubbard has built his team with athletes deemed an inch too short, 10 or 20 pounds too light or a tick too slow to play in the big, big time. But the key to Hubbard's success is he knows how to coach. Goldsmith, who is white, says, "People think of black football as unsound and razzle-dazzle. We play a Michigan defense and an Ohio State offense. The one criticism of us is we're dull."
From 1945 through 1969, A&M generally ruled the black football world under legendary coach Jake Gaither. But his successor resigned after his first season; the next coach died in the job; and Hubbard's immediate predecessor was fired. By then the program was a shambles. Woody Hayes, among others, advised Hubbard to stay at Ohio State.
But Hubbard took the job at A&M in 1974, and proceeded not to take Tallahassee by storm. He even had trouble getting in to scout his first high school game because he had no identification. "Look at this Rose Bowl watch with my name on it," fumed Hubbard. The ticket man shot back, "Mickey Mouse has his picture on his watch and I wouldn't let him in either without identification."
Soon, however, Hubbard had A&M football on the road to victory. In 1975, the Rattlers were 9-2, the first time in 11 seasons that they had won that many games. And while they were 6-3-2 in '76, Hubbard felt he had players who were winners. The proof is the winning streak. Goldsmith says, "Rudy is optimistic even when he has no cause to be." Which explains why Hubbard thinks he can raise $100,000 this year from boosters who never have given more than $5,000; he is now about $85,000 short.
And sometimes Hubbard is impatient. It took him four years to get a tower built on the practice field so workouts could be filmed. Now the tower is complete—but a miffed Hubbard is still waiting for the steps to be attached so he can climb up. Appropriately, there's a sign outside Hubbard's office saying, "Getting things done around here is like mating elephants. It's done at a high level. It's accomplished with a lot of roaring and screaming. It takes two years to get any results."
Hubbard had to wait for his confidence in Quarterback Chester to pay off. When Hubbard first saw Chester, on film, as a high school senior, he was appalled to find him alternating at quarterback with a sophomore, on a team that went 2-8. That was bad enough, but the film ended with Chester being hauled off in an ambulance with a broken arm. Nevertheless, A&M decided to take a chance. "He was big," says Hubbard. Today Chester, who is 6'1", 195 pounds, is the Rattlers' best pro prospect. "I can play," he says. "I always reach for the stars. I want to be a Supreme Court Justice."
It was Chester who directed the Rattler blitz of Howard on Saturday, engineering three touchdowns in the first quarter. In A&M's first drive, Albert hit Wingback Bobby Hawkins with consecutive passes good for 31 and 28 yards. Freshman Mike Solomon then went 12 for the score. Three minutes later, Chester passed 12 yards to Tight End David Greene for another touchdown. And just before the end of the quarter, he guided a 59-yard scoring drive, which was climaxed when Tailback Ike Williams, who rushed for 120 yards, went over from the two. Howard came back to score the second touchdown of the year on the Rattlers, but A&M was obviously superior and would extend its streak. Late in the game, Solomon emphasized the point with another score on a three-yard run up the middle.
Hubbard denies the winning streak is subjecting him to pressure. "This is fun," he insists. "Pressure was being an untried head coach with no wins. This is gravy." Indeed, he seems to relish high-risk situations. When he was assistant at Ohio State, he once screwed up his courage and went to Hayes' office to ask for a chance to really coach. Said Hayes, "If you coach, what am I going to do?" The thought was not lost on Hubbard, who is very much the coach at Florida A&M.