FAMU COMES FIRST
Every era has its shape and its own momentum, but fundamental truths regarding great leadership qualities do not change with the times. The current situation at Florida A&M University reminds me of my first experience with crisis management during my first year at FAMU in 1968. The leap from student to director of sports information immediately following graduation and working with giants like President B. L. Perry, Jr., Coach Jake Gaither, and Director of Bands William P. Foster created its own form of shock and awe.
All three were commanding leaders: authoritative, brillant, and forceful with powerful egos to match their considerable accomplishments. Sometimes their egos clashed and many times I was a witness to the storm when their professional aims crossed boundaries and invaded the others' space. But, they never forgot that FAMU came first! Their anger never rose to the level of acrimony. And it was never witnessed by the public or even around FAMU employees unfamiliar with the full context in which they sometime expressed dissatisfaction about anything.
I was in President Perry's office late one evening helping him get ready for an Orange Blossom Classic Meeting the next morning. The Orange Blossom Classic was a FAMU creation that rose to become the nation's most prominent postseason black college championship game. We were just about to leave when Coach Gaither called. I sat frozen with anxiety as clearly the exchange had become heated and was getting hotter with each passing minute. The issue seemed to be about the band and the length of its halftime performance.
When the call ended, Perry said, "I cut it short because it was clear that we were not making any progress." I must have looked worried because he said, "Eddie, my good man, it is going to work itself out."
The next morning, the atmosphere in the room was uneasy as all of the committee members seem to be aware that a contentious issue was on the table. All members were present when President Perry came through the door trailed by smoke from a burning cigar he held between his fingers. As soon as Perry entered, Gaither stood up with that famous smile, shook Perry's hand and said, "Mr. President, I was just telling Dr. Foster about the wonderful work his band is doing and how much the Marching 100 means to the success of the Orange Blossom Classic." To my astonishment, Foster then joined the men and said, "Mr. President, I informed Gaither that the band is simply trying to spread excellence so we can be as good as his football team."
Perry then pulled Gaither and Foster over to the corner of the room and whispered something, and all three broke out in riotous laughter. It was as if someone had opened a window and the tension began to evaporate with the rising outdoor sun. They were great leaders who never forgot that FAMU's real enemy was not in the room; it was out there somewhere, plotting its latest chicanery on one of Florida's greatest treasures. FAMU's Board of Trustees and its administration should follow their lead and "always remember when dark clouds gather on the horizon," FAMU comes first!