A Brief History of SEC Exceptionalsim

Newspapers, magazines, and talking-head television shows have lauded the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as the best collegiate football league, even alleging the SEC West division was the most dominant in the history of the game.[1] The media’s ubiquitous coverage and accolades have been warranted, however, as SEC teams have won seven of the last eight national championships, including the 2012 contest when Alabama shut out its SEC west rival Louisiana State University 21-0. The SEC’s consecutive championship streak was finally snapped by Jameis Winston’s Florida State Seminoles in an enthralling 34-31 victory over Auburn in 2014, and Ohio State’s defeat of Oregon in the inaugural 2015 college football playoff capped a second straight year without a national champion from the SEC.

Prior to the 2015 semifinal match-up between the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes, fans throughout the south tweeted their support for the University of Alabama. One female student from the University of Mississippi wrote “the only time I will ever say this: ROLL TIDE.” She elaborated, “I go to an SEC school so I want to see our conference win.” “Hate bama to death but SEC,” one male Texas A&M fan tweeted. He argues “the reason why SEC is the best is because through this year we have always been top 10 or top 5.” Another fan stated “SEC is the dominant division and I don’t want people to forget it!!” The fan also asserted “little league football in the south is tougher then (sic) most other conferences teams.”

Other fans who tweeted support for Alabama represented the Big Ten Conference but wanted Ohio State to lose. One tweet read “as an alum of University of Michigan , I’ve become an Alabama Fan! #RollTide.” A male Wisconsin Badger fan, who hates Ohio State, wrote “First and only time I’ll ever say it but…Roll Tide.” Even though the sample size is small, Big Ten fans cheered for their representative to lose while SEC fans wished for an Alabama win.

While one University of Tennessee fan was happy to see SEC fans “hush” after Ohio State beat Alabama, the aforementioned tweets by southerners reveals a paradoxical show of support from SEC rivals rooting for their conference in intersectional match-ups. Yet southern pride in its football teams and region did not begin during the last eight years of southern gridiron hegemony, but rather it is a deeply rooted identity created after the Civil War and incorporates themes such as gender, class, race, and religion.

Patrick Miller’s essay “The Manly, the Moral, and the Proficient: College Sport in the New South,” examines masculinity in southern sporting events such as horse racing, rowing, baseball, and football.[2]   But football, with its emphasis on rigorous physical strength and stamina, became a masculine manifestation of southern honor, a deeply ingrained regional custom that Bertram Wyatt-Brown chronicles in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. In the Teddy Roosevelt’s American virility culture, the prowess needed to participate in football games reinforced southern white male patriarchy sentiment that was questioned due to the loss of the Civil War. The conflation between Civil War lore and college football continued into the 1920s, as Andrew Maraniss notes Vanderbilt Coach Dan McGugin’s inspirational pre-game speech included an anecdote about how the grandfathers of Fielding Yost’s Michigan team killed the Commodores’ grandfathers in the Civil War. [3] Vanderbilt went on to tie the western power 0-0, a notable achievement for the southern region that was inferior to the eastern and western schools throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

In “Turning the Tide: College Football and Southern Progressivism” Andrew Doyle asserts southern football became nationally prominent and worthy of competition in the late 1920s. Northern teams would often host southern schools and keep a disproportionate amount of gate and concession receipts because of a lack of interest in the matchup from fans. While LSU, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Auburn fielded outstanding teams with records that matched northern adversaries, southern teams lost fifteen of sixteen intersectional games in the early 1920s. According to Doyle, the University of Alabama’s 20-19 victory over the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl reverberated pride throughout the south and altered the perception of northern dominance. Even students from Auburn University, Alabama’s in-state rival, “packed their campus auditorium to follow the wire report and cheer the Tide.”[4] In Tennessee,—Alabama’s northern neighbor—Vanderbilt coach McGuigin stated, “Alabama was our representative in fighting us against the world. […] I fought, bled, died and was resurrected with the Crimson Tide.” The Atlanta Georgia also described the 1926 Rose Bowl as “the greatest victory for the South since the first battle of Bull Run.”

Even as comparisons to the Civil War and Old South described the Tide’s intersectional bowl victory, football became a symbol of the New South, designed to emulate the northern economy through proficient industrialization as opposed to an agrarian dependent financial system. Football was a game of intricate strategy, teamwork, and respect for authority that mimicked industrial plants throughout the southern region. Southern schools continued to improve their respectability when northern coaches accepted positions south of the Mason-Dixon line, strengthening the southern game with their technical knowledge and winning experience. Furthermore, football also contradicted stereotypes of rural poverty and malnourishment, as the unquestioned health of fit football players provided evidence of residents not bedridden with hookworm. After the advent of the SEC conference in 1933, Robert Neyland’s Tennessee teams and Wallace Butts’ Georgia’s squads successfully represented their section of the country throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

By the 1960s southern football teams were battling another public relations problem that had been entrenched in the region’s history: white supremacy. When southern teams did play northern teams with black players, Charles Martin notes gentlemen agreements assured that African American athletes would not suit up for action.[5] The universities of Kentucky and Tennessee were the first to field an integrated team in the late 1960s, but schools in the deep south continued to uphold “the southern way of life” on the football field. Andrew Doyle’s essay “An Atheist in Alabama Is Someone Who Doesn’t Believe in Bear Bryant: A Symbol for an Embattled South,” demonstrates Bryant’s 1960s Alabama all-white football teams were lauded by southern segregationists and vilified by nonsouthern sportswriters. Frank Boykin, a United States Congressman from Alabama, proudly described the 1961 championship team as giving “all the home folks and people all over the South and people all over this Nation that wants us to keep some part of our way of life.”[6] Yet Jim Murray, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, vociferously criticized the undefeated 1961 Alabama team. “An all-white team has no business being No.1,” he wrote, referencing how the state of Alabama forcefully resisted the desegregation of bus terminals during the 1961 freedom rides.[7] Murray specifically protested the national championship coronation of Alabama’s 1964 squad by arguing “‘National’ Champion of war? The Confederacy? This team hasn’t poked its head above the Mason-Dixon Line since Appomattox.”[8]

Alabama residents who defended Jim Crow in Birmingham in 1963 and in Selma in 1965 created resentment from non-southern sportswriters who were wary to condone the region. One Boston Globe reporter cited racism in Alabama as a reason why sportswriters did not award a national championship to Alabama’s 1966 team. Byrant’s team finished undefeated with a 10-0 record, placing third in the wire service polls behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, who tied each other after Ara Parseghian’s controversial decision to play for the tie and not the win. The Crimson Tide settled for a match-up against the University of Nebraska in the 1967 Sugar Bowl, in which University of Mississippi board of trustee member J.N. Lipscomb told Bryant Ole Miss was rooting for him to “defend the honor of the South.”[9]

Charles Reagan Wilson delves deeper into the deification of Paul Bryant and the religiosity of southern college football in “The Death of Bear Bryant: Myth and Ritual in the Modern South.” An estimated 500,000-700,000 people attended Bryant’s funeral that began in Tuscaloosa and finished with a burial in Birmingham, rivaling the attendance record of Jefferson Davis, Elvis Presley, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funerals. In addition to the traditional black clothing to symbolize mourning, Wilson wrote “the proper etiquette seemed to be to wear Alabama jackets and caps, crimson sweaters, or vests.”[10] Guests could also purchase records, tapes, and t-shirts that featured Bryant as if they were at a music concert instead of a funeral. Articles in southern newspapers and magazines lingered for days after Bryant’s passing, with one Mississippi sportswriter, Paul Borden, asserting games against nonsoutheners were akin to “going on a crusade, and Bear was our Richard the Lion-Hearted. Bear was our best, and our best could and did beat the best of anywhere else and that was important to all of us below the Mason-Dixon line.”  Bryant’s accomplishments on the football field matched that of Confederate heroes, but he was on the winning side. As a result, Wilson concluded sport figures “are becoming prime icons of the modern South, the way the Confederate veterans were heroes in the late nineteenth century.” [11]

SEC exceptionalism still resonates in 2015 despite bowl losses to its top teams.   In a January 5th piece for Fox College Football’s blog “Outkick the Coverage,” Clay Travis defended the SEC by promoting it’s 7-5 bowl record, which included the all-time high of wins (7) for a conference.[12] Yet Travis, a Nashville resident who grew up rooting for the Tennessee Vols and graduated from Vanderbilt’s Law School, conveniently omitted the facts that three of the SEC losses were by its top three ranked teams, and the SEC was 2-4 against ranked bowl opponents. Moreover, the SEC West, championed as the best division ever, lost five of its seven games.   After projecting that at least five SEC teams will win the national championship in the next teams, Travis concluded his essay with a hyperbolic message similar to southern rhetoric over the last hundred years:

The past is not dead, it’s not even past. And the SEC doesn’t even need to rise again, because it hasn’t been knocked down yet. And it won’t be. That’s because it’s the SEC’s world, the rest of college football is just living in it.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook commenters at the bottom of the article repeated Travis’ bravado.   A University of Florida fan stated “Completely agree. Do not forget that college is THE sport in the south.” An Alabama fan wrote “People don’t understand the dynamic of southern football […] In Alabama, football is 24/7, 365.” A man from Columbia, Missouri noted “The real strength is that usually the SEC’s 10th best team is about as good as other conferences’ 5th best.” “The SEC is alive and well in Knoxville Tn.,” remarked one cocky Tennessee Vols fan whose team won its first bowl game since 2008.

Again, the comments on the article are a small sample size, but they do offer proof that southerners continue to boast about their football teams, a trend that has occurred due to a fusion of factors such as gender, class, race, and religion since Reconstruction. College football fans in the south have always thought of themselves as exceptional, a self-proclaimed identity that will most likely continue even after their highest ranked teams—Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State—lose in front of a national audience.

Matt Follett is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University, where he focuses on modern southern culture.  Feel free to contact him with any questions or comments at mfollett618@gmail.com or @MattFollett.


[1]Stewart Mandel, Fox Sports, “Forward Pass: Why 2014 SEC West is the most dominant division ever” November 24, 2014, accessed January 12, 2015 http://www.foxsports.com/college-football/story/college-football-playoff-rankings-week-13-sec-west-arkansas-coach-carousel-forward-pass-112414.

[2] See Patrick B. Miller, “The Manly, the Moral, and the Proficient: College Sport in the New South,” in The Sporting World of the Modern South, ed. by Patrick B. Miller, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

[3] Andrew Maraniss, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014), 289.

[4] Andrew Doyle, “Turning the Tide: College Football and Southern Progressivism, in The Sporting World of the Modern South, ed. by Patrick B. Miller, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002),105.

[5]See Charles H. Martin, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Andrew Doyle, “An Atheist in Alabama is Someone Who Doesn’t Believe in Bear Bryant: A Symbol for an Embattled South,” in The Sporting World of the Modern South, ed. by Patrick B. Miller, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 248.

[7]Ibid, 256.

[8] Ibid, 262-263.

[9] Ibid, 265.

[10] Charles Reagan Wilson, Judgement & Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths From Faulkner to Elvis, (University of Georgia Press, 2006), .

[11] Ibid, 51.

[12] http://www.foxsports.com/college-football/outkick-the-coverage/the-sec-is-dead-long-live-the-sec-010515

One thought on “A Brief History of SEC Exceptionalsim

  1. Pingback: Blogging & the College Football Playoff | Andrew McGregor

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