The road to the Celebration Bowl for Florida A&M started on a Sunday last November.
That is when the Rattlers learned — despite a 9-win regular season — it did not qualify for the FCS playoffs.
From that point, the message for head coach Willie Simmons was to make sure the team didn’t find itself in a position where it did not control its destiny — no more relying on going unbeaten.
No more relying on receiving help from other teams to win a SWAC championship or earn a postseason opportunity after losing the season opener.
The 2023 season had to be different. FAMU had, as Simmons usually says during press conferences, leave no doubt.
“I challenged the team all year to control our own destiny,” said Simmons Friday at a pregame Celebration Bowl press conference. And not put us in a position where we needed assistance to accomplish our goals.
The first hurl Florida A&M had to overcome was to beat Jackson State — a team the Rattlers had lost to in 2021 and 2022 — in the Orange Blossom Classic.
“”It meant a lot to come home and beat Jackson State,” Riley said after the game. “(Those) boys have been riding high for the past two seasons. They’ve’ been the Alabama of the HBCUs. We had to calm them down a little bit.””
With one goal achieved, there was now the SWAC East title to chase. The Rattlers knew historically that the Orange Blossom Classic winner had the inside track on the division championship and Celebration Bowl berth.
Florida A&M was not challenged much during the regular season. The Rattlers rolled the SWAC with an 8-0 record. The team’s only loss was a two-score defeat versus FBS South Florida.
“This team has preserved through a lot this season, and I’m proud of how they’ve handled all the adversity that has come their way,” said Simmons. “They’ve been attacked personally, as a team and institution. But they’ve kept pressing on, and that’s something I’m proud of as their head coach.”
Restoring pride in the Rattlers
When Simmons was named FAMU head coach in December 2017 after a successful stint at Prairie View, it wasn’t clear — at least right away — that the program would be close to competing for an HBCU national title.
The Rattlers had just come off an 8-25 stretch in the previous three seasons under then-head coach Alex Wood. Even though Simmons was coaching elsewhere before ending up in Tallahassee, he was reminded daily of the program’s struggles when he was head coach at Prairie View and offensive coordinator at Alcorn State.
“Morale was really low. I’m married to a Rattler,” he said. “Although I was having personal success at other places, on Saturday afternoon, it was a 75 percent celebration. We were happy that we won, but she was down because FAMU had lost.”
Simmons said the program, while atot a rock bottom, needed retooling that first year in 2018. The players didn’t have an appreciation for the university. None of them could recite the school’s alma mater. Spirit within the football facility was low.
Before FAMU could win, the players needed to establish pride in the program first.
The Rattlers, then a MEAC program, went a 9-2 in Simmons’ first season but were ineligible for postseason play. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 season for the Rattlers. By the fall of 2021, Florida A&M was in the SWAC. And since entering the now 12-team league along with Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M has won 22 of its last 24 games against conference opponents.
Currently, FAMU has the longest winning streak in the FCS, with 10 consecutive victories without a loss.
Winning the Celebration Bowl would obviously mean the Rattlers would have captured the program’s first HBCU national title since 2001. It would also signal how far Florida A&M had come.
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