Many point to the September 1970 contest between the University of South California Trojans vs. the University of Alabama Crimson Tide as the first racially integrated college football game in the South. However, a contest between the Florida A&M Rattlers and the University of Tampa Spartans happened a year prior, but it is often overlooked.
Coach Alonzo “Jake” Gaither’s Rattlers squared off against Coach Fran Curci’s Spartans on November 29, 1969 at the Tampa Stadium. The game was electrified by media buzz as it was the first time a HBCU football squad faced a predominantly white college team. On behalf of FAMU, Gaither lobbied to play a white school and he finally got his chance to be on the grand stage.
For FAMU alumni, students, fans and supporters, the game was a triumph. Spectators were divided along race and school lines, and there was talk of a potential riot due to the division. Yet none of those potentially explosive events came to pass and Gaither’s team overcame the pressure to defeat the Spartans 34-28.
Coach Gaither, who passed in 1994, retired a game later after defeating Grambling University to cap a 25-year coaching career. When asked about the biggest game of his career, including the six Black College Football Championships, Gaither said it was his teams victory over Tampa.
Earlier this year, the Florida State Board approved Gaither’s home to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places. He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975. He is also honored by way of The Jake Gaither Trophy, which is given to the best Black collegiate football player.