At this point, most Ohio State fans probably only know two things about Florida A&M. Their marching band (recent tragic history notwithstanding) is excellent, and their football team is going to absolutely get boatraced by Ohio State. Early lines vary between 51 and 57 points, and some are saying the Rattlers may be the worst team to play at Ohio Stadium in the modern era.
That might be true (Florida A&M doesn't have a running back who has rushed for 100 yards in all their games combined), but that doesn't mean Florida A&M doesn't have a rich football history worth celebrating. In fact, college football in general owes quite a bit to Florida A&M and other top HBCU (Historically Black College and University) football teams. Breaking the Line, a new book by New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman, details the legendary 1967 season of Florida A&M and Grambling, and how it changed football, and Civil Rights.
First, a quick reminder for you kids who forgot your history. HBCUs existed because most public universities in the South weren't integrated. A top running back prospect, if he was black, wasn't allowed to play in the SEC, and might not even get a chance to play at some of the integrated universities in the west, midwest or east. HBCUs were established so these students (and athletes) would have somewhere to go. You've probably heard of many of them, like Howard, Alabama A&M and Southern, along with Grambling and Florida A&M, both of which rose to become dominant football programs during the 50s and 60s.
The Rattlers were led by legendary coach Jake Gaither, who actually got his master's degree at Ohio State. After being denied entrance at a coaching clinic at Duke, even when he offered to work the event as a janitor just so he could listen, he became known for establishing a wildly popular coaching clinic once he became the headman at FAMU. Some of the more famous attendees included Bear Bryant, Darrell Royal, and some guy named Woody Hayes. Behind the innovative rushing attack of Gaither's Split-T offense, the Rattlers dominated HBCU football. But Gaither had his eyes on something bigger.
So did Eddie Robinson, fellow HBCU coaching titan, of Grambling. While both programs had sent dozens of players to the NFL, neither had managed to get a quarterback drafted in the NFL, despite several competent passers. Back in the late 60s, the prevailing thought in football circles was that blacks weren't smart enough to handle QB duties, and their "natural athleticism" was better suited towards defensive back, running back or wideout. Their scrambling around might do well in college, but not in pro football, a line of thinking that hasn't totally vanished. Robinson's main goal, besides beating Florida A&M and winning a Black College Title, was showcasing quarterback James Harris enough to get him drafted.
Gaither was dead set on finding a way to set up a football game between the Rattlers and a "white college" somewhere in the south, both to prove the worth of his own squad, and to help demonstrate that such a game wouldn't collapse society. Finding a way to make sure a radical proposal politically possible involved some complicated politicking with the white, conservative power structure, made even more complicated given the explosive Civil Rights era around them.
Both coaches struggled with the best way to lead historically black institutions at a difficult time. Both men obviously sympathized with Dr. King and others, and as leaders of excellent football teams, they carried a lot of credibility, but what do they do? If they endorsed marches, protests, sit-ins, etc, they may be popular with the students, but seeing as their universities depended on state function from white legislatures to function, was it worth jeopardizing the future of their institutions? This became an especially difficult question, as demonstrations at Grambling caused Louisiana to threaten to bring in the National Guard, a decision that could have resulted in loss of life. In Breaking the Line, we see an excellent case study on the difficult lines leaders must tread in order to help everyone.
Breaking the Line also shows how while the game itself has changed dramatically since 1967, many issues surrounding college football haven't. Mack Brown would certainly sympathize with Gaither, an already older coach whose recent dip in historically strong production was causing some to wonder if he wasn't a little past his prime. He struggled with finding a way to innovate his offensive scheme, which had worked brilliantly for a decade but was now losing its effectiveness a little. Gaither worried injuries, about support for his administration, about recruiting, and everybody worried about their players off the field. Some things haven't changed, from Amos Alonzo Stagg to Urban F. Meyer. Mark Richt has always been losing control of something, somewhere.
While the book may drag a little near the end, Breaking the Line digs into these complicated racial politics, leadership questions and deep history, while not losing sight of exciting football action. It's easy to take for granted some of the progress the sport has seen, or that football can be such an important vehicle for social change, but Florida A&M fans likely won't make that oversight.
The Rattlers have a history that's still worth celebrating, even if the present isn't quite so rosy.
You can buy Breaking the Line here.