The I-AA Rattlers topped the Hurricanes 16-13 25 years ago.
By IBRAM ROGERS
Published October 6, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - It's not hard to notice the eyes of a team determined to do the unthinkable.
The night before arguably the most important game in the history of the Florida A&M football program Alvin Hollins Jr., assistant athletic director for media relations, saw that resolve in the eyes of an undefeated (3-0) Rattlers team.
It was 25 years ago, but their focus wasn't on whether Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev would followup on an offer to withdraw 20,000 soldiers and 1,000 tanks from East Germany. It wasn't on Pope John Paul II becoming the first pontiff to walk through the White House.
In the team meeting on Oct. 5, 1979, all eyes were focused on what they had to do to win the first showdown with Division I-A Miami, which was 2-1.
"They made up their mind that they were going to win," said Hollins, then in his first year in his current position.
The Rattlers' resolution emanated from them wanting to prove to the college football world that this team, which went undefeated (11-0) in 1977 and won the inaugural Division I-AA championship in 1978, could play with the big boys of Division I-A.
Twenty-five years ago today at Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium with 34,743 in attendance, the Rattlers, ranked No. 1 in I-AA, achieved their purpose, verifying the greatness of that late 1970s team with a 16-13 win over Miami.
"On that day they outplayed us," remembered Miami's coach, Howard Schnellenberger, now the coach of the Rattlers' Oct. 30 opponent, Florida Atlantic. "On that day they were a better team than us."
That win would be the last time FAMU would beat a Division I-A team, as they've lost 10 in a row since, half of them to Miami.
Three of those losses occurred this season to Illinois, Tulane and Temple, respectively, in the first three weeks of the season.
Current FAMU coach Billy Joe said he has told his players several times this season about that special win that is still resonating 25 years later.
"Whenever we play a Division I-A team, I let them know that we've beaten a Division I-A team before," said Joe, who has yet to play Division I-A Virginia Tech, Florida Atlantic and Florida International this season. "And it can happen again."
Because it has happened before.
In 1969 in the next-to-last game in the career of legendary Rattlers coach Jake Gaither, Division II FAMU upset Division I, predominantly white, Tampa 34-28. The Rattlers would play the Spartans four more times and lose each before Tampa eliminated its program in 1975.
Nevertheless, the Rattlers defeat of Miami still stands out because of the way the Rattlers pulled it out.
After each team put 13 points on the board in the first half, the Rattlers defense put the clamps on a very good Hurricanes offense, led by quarterback Mike Rodrigue, by continually laying ferocious hits on receivers.
"After a while they started short arming the ball because they didn't want to stretch out and catch it," said FAMU's coach at the time, Rudy Hubbard.
FAMU had trouble scoring too in the second half until Vince Coleman kicked a 34-yard field goal with 3:49 remaining to put the Rattlers up three.
Starting on their own 20-yard line on their ensuing drive, the Hurricanes marched down the field until they reached first and goal on the Rattlers 3.
First down: No gain for Miami halfback Smokey Roan.
Second and third down: Rodrique passes were batted down.
Schnellenberger had a decision to make. Instead of going for the win on fourth down, he elected to send 18-year-old sophomore kicker Dan Miller on the field to try to tie the game with a 20-yard field goal.
"The fact that we forced them to say, "Let's just get out of here with a tie,"' Hollins said, "that in itself would have been a victory."
With Gaither, a living legend at the time who had won 203 games (34 losses) in 25 years at FAMU, watching with his wife, Sophie Mae, from the fourth level box, Miller's kick sailed about 1-foot wide of the left upright.
"There's not much to say," Miller told reporters after the game in a quiet locker room while pandemonium reigned on the field, in the stands and on the streets of Tallahassee. "Everyone did their job. It was a good snap, a good hold, good blocking. I just missed the kick."
Directly following the game, the players tossed their helmets in excitement and couldn't stop congratulating each other while being overwhelmed by fans who had run on the field. And their pleas of celebration were not dominated by, "Wow! We won! We won!" but more, "I told you so."
"We went into that season thinking that no one could beat us," said Coleman, who went on to have a successful baseball career in the major leagues. "That was just the mentality of the whole team. We didn't take a back seat to anyone."
Hubbard, who Joe passed for second place in all-time wins at FAMU when the Rattlers defeated Tennessee State 21-15 Sept. 24, had a conviction the Rattlers were going to win that was so strong that immediately after the game when everyone else was celebrating his mind was elsewhere.
"After the game my mind started going on to what we had to do to beat Morris Brown in the next game," said Hubbard recently, who compiled 83 wins as the Rattlers coach from 1974 to 1985.
Even though they were confident and showed they had a better team, a Division I-A team losing to a Division I-AA always has been an extremely rare case. But it does happen occasionally like it did on this date 25 years ago.
"When you put 11 people on the field against 11 anything can happen on any given Sunday or Saturday," Joe said. "Anytime you play the lottery, albeit you only have one in 15-million chance to win, sometimes you win. That's why people play the lottery."