With campuses and the nation in an uproar over civil rights, two legendary coaches prepared their teams for a football classic.
When Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup defeated national powerhouse and all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title basketball game, everyone understood immediately the historic implications. The significance of the Grambling Tigers’ narrow victory over the Florida A&M Rattlers in the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, the de facto championship of black college football, however, emerged only over time. Freedman (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Letters to a Young Journalist, 2006, etc.) memorably revisits an era when, due to still-widespread segregation, black colleges were at their athletic apogee. Tigers’ coach Eddie Robinson and A&M’s Jake Gaither had already sent scores of players to the NFL, but, notwithstanding their distinguished tenures, campus militants harshly criticized both for their public silence on civil rights. Innovative coaches, father figures to countless young men, by 1967, they were marginalized, even ridiculed by a new, impatient generation that knew little of each man’s struggles and achievements. Neither responded directly to the turmoil of the times, but each harbored a private ambition: Robinson to groom a player sufficiently talented and self-possessed to become a quarterback in the NFL and Gaither to play one game against a predominantly white team, a potentially explosive event for the South. During the summer and fall, they laid the groundwork for breaking both barriers. As he takes us through the season for both teams and recreates their bowl matchup, Freedman mixes in revealing information about the cultures of the schools, their rivalries with other black colleges, sensitive portraits of the coaches and players, and an evocative description of a racial and political climate that Robinson and Gaither, each working quietly, did so much to alter.
Much more than just a sports book.