Today there are many HBCU Fall Classics, and we all know of the NCAA Orange Bowl. However, at one point in history, the two crossed paths and the Orange Blossom Classic was the biggest game in black college sports and for its time, would have rivaled the revelry of today’s Orange Bowl.
In 2007, as Super Bowl XLI converged upon Miami, with a historic meeting between Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith – the history of the Orange Blossom Classic came to light.
Decades before Super Bowl XLI, with its history-making confrontation between African-American head coaches, similar encounters took place every year. The setting was the Orange Blossom Classic, the unofficial but de facto championship game for the all-black colleges of the segregated South.
From its inauguration in 1933 to the full integration of college football, the Orange Blossom Classic provided the showcase for such coaches as Eddie Robinson of Grambling, Jake Gaither of Florida A&M, John Merritt of Tennessee State and Earl Banks of Morgan State.
Regularly drawing crowds of more than 40,000 to the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami, the game was a key element in the parallel universe of black college football, a game with its own black coaches, stars, publicists, parades, bands, radio stations and sports journalists. In one of the paradoxes of race in America, segregation afforded opportunities in sports, as well as business, academia and the ministry, for a black middle-class to develop and operate its own institutions.
“Given the lack of opportunities for black coaches in the N.F.L. during that era, you could say the Orange Blossom Classic was their Super Bowl,” said Michael Hurd, a former sportswriter for USA Today who has written several books on the history of black college football. “The coaches who took their teams into the O.B.C. were extraordinary men who were well-versed in X’s and O’s, who also knew how to mold great players and build championship teams, and you can extrapolate that to contemporary black coaches.”
The Orange Blossom Classic began as the brainchild of J. R .E. Lee Jr., a business administrator at Florida A&M and son of the school’s president. Florida A&M always played host for the December game, and late in the football season would invite another top black team as its opponent. (Now the classic is a regular-season game between Florida A&M and Florida International.)
Never did the significance of the Orange Blossom Classic show more clearly than in the four meetings — 1955, 1964, 1967 and 1969 — between Florida A&M under Gaither and Grambling under Robinson. Robinson would go on to accumulate the most victories (408) of any college football coach, while Gaither would register one of the highest winning percentages (.844) with a career record of 204-36-4. Both produced scores of players for the N.F.L.
The 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, for instance, had as its opposing quarterbacks James Harris of Grambling, who became the first black quarterback to regularly start in the N.F.L., and Ken Riley of Florida A&M, who became an all-pro defensive back for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The events on the field, though, only hinted at the broader roles played by Gaither and Robinson. The son of a minister, Gaither had aspired to a career in law until his father’s death made him the family breadwinner. Nonetheless, he went on to earn a master’s degree at Ohio State, do graduate study at Yale and assemble a coaching staff on which every member held an advanced degree — this at a time in the 1960s when, according to census data, only 3 percent of black adults even had a bachelor’s degree.
Robinson also earned a master’s degree. Like Gaither, he had to go north to get it, at the University of Iowa, and had to return south to have any chance to be a head coach. White coaches at white colleges who refused for years to recruit black players — Bear Bryant at Alabama, Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, among others — treated Gaither and Robinson as professional peers, attending the same coaching clinics and conventions.
Precisely because men like Gaither and Robinson enjoyed a tenuous status in the Southern white world, and because they rarely spoke publicly on behalf of civil rights, they came under a good deal of private criticism.
Still, the caustic view of those coaches overlooked their self-appointed role as molders of men — a trait cited these days about Coaches Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and Lovie Smith of Chicago. Both Gaither and Robinson insisted that their athletes go to class and earn degrees.
Stoic in the style of their generation, both coaches spoke little of the indignities they endured. The first faculty housing Robinson and his wife, Doris, received from the state of Louisiana, for instance, was the leftover barracks from a nearby camp for German prisoners of war. In an oral history made in the late 1970s, Gaither recalled his trepidation driving to Florida A&M in 1937 to take his initial job as an assistant coach because there had recently been a lynching in Tallahassee.
His racial consciousness also emerged as he traveled through Florida speaking at various graduations, building dedications and alumni events on the black side of segregated communities.
“I love to think of my people fighting in the war of the Revolution — giving birth to the greatest democracy the world has ever known,” he said in 1952, at an awards ceremony for the black employees of a wood-pulp company. “I like to think of my people following Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle of San Juan Hill. I like to think of the part my people played in the war to save the Union. I like to think of how valiantly my people fought in the Argonne Forest of the first World War. I like to think of the courageous stand of my people in the Battle of the Bulge. I like to think of the glorious history the Negro has.”
That history, as of this Super Bowl, has caught up to where men like Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson were a half-century ago: in charge in a championship moment.
Read the perspective of fans, athletes and coaches as they reminisce about the Orange Blossom Classic here.