Given the recent success of the Southeastern Conference, it’s easy to mistake the South’s obsession with college football as a trend of convenience or a byproduct of the conference's unprecedented success on the field.
But, the South’s preoccupation with college football is hardly a matter of simplicity or temporariness. To the contrary, the intertwining of Southern culture and college football is a direct, deeply rooted reflection of the South’s history, the innovation of the game itself and the resources that the Sun Belt affords.
Hall of Famer Marino Casem, longtime coach at Alcorn State and Southern University, is credited with arguably the most apt summation of the game's significance in the South:
On the East Coast, football is a cultural experience. In the Midwest, it's a form of cannibalism. On the West Coast, it's a tourist attraction. And in the South, football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day.
If he were less quintessentially Southern and thus slow to take offense, Tony Barnhart would likely scoff at the notion that college football’s popularity in the South is merely a fad. Instead, when asked about the game’s roots and its ties to Southern culture, Barnhart paused with an intentionality that exudes wisdom before concluding, “Like all things in the South, the importance of college football can be traced back to the Civil War.”
Such a stance may not be unique in and of itself, but it carries a certain weight coming from a man who goes by the nickname “Mr. College Football” and is the author of Southern Fried Football: The History, Passion, and Glory of the Great Southern Game.
Barnhart does not mince words—or concepts—when discussing the game’s relevance in Dixie. "The South came out of the Civil War in bad shape," Barnhart said. "It was almost exclusively agrarian while the North was much more industrialized. Southerners always felt those in the North were looking down their nose at us."
Barnhart identified the mindset of the South at that time as, "We may not be able to beat the North in the war or economically, but by God we can beat them on the football field."
For a nation that was just a few decades removed from the Civil War, such a distinction became a rallying cry for the oft-embattled South.
The North/South rivalry propelled college football through the early portion of the 1900s, while the Great Depression and two World Wars strained and refined the adolescent United States. Football, a game defined by a gritty yet strategic nature that was comparable to the era itself, increased in popularity.
In the North, the continued development of urbanized metropolitan cities yielded a slew of professional sports franchises. By the mid-1960s, dozens of pro football teams had popped up in major cities across the Northeast and Midwest. In the rural Southeast, however, there was a distinct absence of such organizations until the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins took up posts in 1966.
This, according to Bleacher Report’s Charlie Bennett, further cemented the South’s preoccupation with college football. "If you were a football fan living in the South, you had to take an interest in the college game. There just wasn't an alternative," said Bennett, who has also spent time as a beat writer covering the likes of LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Clemson.
Two generations of Americans in the South grew up embracing the game of football, and out of displeasure with the North and geographic proximity, the overwhelming majority flocked to collegiate allegiances rather than to the professional brands offered by the NFL and the AFL.
Changes in the South and in Football
Quite paradoxically, a few changes within the game initiated by stereotypically the slow-to-adapt South kept football on top in the bottom portion of the country.
After posting an impressive 60-5-1 record and winning three national championships between 1961 and 1966, Paul “Bear” Bryant encountered a drought of sorts, winning just 28 games over the following four seasons. By 1971, Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide were back to their old ways, winning 11 ballgames, and in 1973 he won his fourth national title.
The difference was the presence of African-American players on the Crimson Tide roster. In 1971, Bryant signed the University of Alabama’s first black scholarship athlete. Alabama was hardly the first school to recruit African Americans, but Bryant’s efforts to attract such student-athletes in the still racially charged South were far from common.
Barnhart summarized the significance of this era:
The South didn’t dominate in the 1960s. At that time, the best black athletes went North or to black colleges and universities to play. That changed in the early 1970s when Bear Bryant began recruiting African-American players. After he did it, everyone in the South felt they could do it. There’s no way that you could overstate the importance of that social change.
In the early 1990s, the South altered the landscape of college football once again, this time through conference expansion. During a contentious series of meetings in Destin, Fla., the SEC decided to expand to add two teams and install the nation's first conference championship game.
As the meetings drew to a close, Gene Stallings, then the head coach at Alabama, walked out and told Barnhart, “We will never win another national championship in the SEC.”
In 1992, the SEC played college football’s first ever conference championship game. Quite appropriately, Stallings’ Alabama Crimson Tide, the nation’s second-ranked team, squared off against Steve Spurrier and the 12th-ranked Florida Gators. Alabama prevailed in a highly publicized 28-21 classic.
Four weeks later, Gene Stallings and Alabama upset top-ranked Miami with a 34-13 victory and secured a national championship.
The SEC’s expansion to 12 teams proved to be a success, and the conference championship provided yet another opportunity for the league to demonstrate its strength. That initial championship game put Southern football in the national spotlight and on the forefront of collegiate recruiting.
Winning, of course, facilitates recruiting to the same extent that recruiting facilitates winning. In that regard, it’s not surprising a region that is home to so much gridiron success would also be home to the nation’s recruiting giants.
In 2013, seven of the nation’s 11 best recruiting classes (as identified by 247Sports) hailed from the Southeastern Conference. An expansion through the top 15 spots of that same list adds ACC Southern powers Florida State, Miami and Clemson.
But attracting talent isn’t all about winning. The impassioned fanbases and pageantry of Southern universities serve as programs' greatest recruiters.
Jacob Vane won a BCS National Championship as a fullback with the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2009. Like many other college football players, the tale of his recruitment is one of shock and awe. "I was sold by the atmosphere at Alabama as soon as I stepped onto campus," Vane said. "I went to a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and I decided that’s where I needed to be. I was going to do whatever it took to play there."
Two details quickly differentiate Vane’s tale from others. First, he was a walk-on. He readily admits the challenges of making the team and staying on it were significant, but he added, "I have no regrets because of the way that experience impacted my life—all for the better."
The second point of distinction: Vane didn’t visit Bryant-Denney Stadium for a major SEC contest; he visited for the program’s annual A-Day Spring Game. In true Southern fashion, Alabama fans, starved for college football during the offseason, turned out in full force to watch a glorified intrasquad scrimmage. Vane, who had other collegiate opportunities, chose the rigors of SEC football because of the excitement surrounding an Alabama spring practice.
Vicki Michaelis, a Colorado native, spent 12 years covering sports for USA Today before taking up a post as the director of a new sports media program at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She says the South's commitment to activities like spring football "truly make football a year-round sport, which is not the norm."
Obviously, other resources stem from fans’ enthusiasm and aid in the recruitment process. Facilities are no longer as simple as locker and weight rooms, but rather they are a measuring stick in the college football arms race. And, the programs with revenues to spend on such upgrades predominantly reside in the South.
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If one spends his dollars where his heart lies, it’s not difficult to identify the passion of Southern alumni.
These passions, however, are not limited to financial donations, apparel purchases or season-ticket renewals. They are deeply seeded in everyday life.
Michaelis said that during her first weekend in Athens, she received a stern warning. "They told me not to go out on Saturday if I wasn't going to the game because it would be too hard to get around. I'd been in Boulder and thought game days were a big deal at Colorado, but nothing like this."
In Dixieland, even the most sacred of events cannot interrupt the revelry of Saturday afternoons. Jacob Vane pointed out, "In the South, you don’t get married on a Saturday during football season." He clarified, "Well, you can. But don’t expect many of your invitees to be in attendance."
Down South, everything—even the commercialization of alcohol—is filtered through the eye of college football. Even Kentucky, a state known more for its basketball and its bourbon than its gridiron prowess, is not above this standard. In March of 2012, Maker’s Mark introduced a commemorative bottling of its signature whiskey. The bottle featured former Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Tim Couch. An equal-opportunity bottler, the bourbon giant followed up a few months later with a collectible bottle featuring Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.
When Fancred, a social-media app designed specifically for sports fans, launched in 2013, Southern football wasn’t just part of the company’s growth plan, it was the plan. Fancred CEO Kash Razzaghi explains:
Our strategy upon launching Fancred was to initially entirely focus on penetrating the SEC football market. Statistics show that, on average, these fans spend more time and money following and watching their favorite teams. Although, we've now grown our user-base throughout the country, our biggest spikes of traffic are during SEC football games...this includes other major events like the World Series and the NBA Finals.
John Stephenson, the president and CEO of the College Football Hall of Fame, echoes that sentiment, saying, "Great college football fans are everywhere...but in the South, it permeates culture."
According to Stephenson, that distinction, along with the city's proximity to large corporate sponsors, a budding tourism district and the nation's busiest airport, made Atlanta the obvious choice for the Hall of Fame's new facility.
Joe Gaddis, the head coach of Oak Ridge High School, one of Tennessee’s winningest football programs, also recognizes college football's unparalleled place in Southern culture, saying tritely, "College football in the South is larger than life."
Stopping a Speeding Train
Gaddis, a winner of 265 games during a 30-year career that has led him to stints in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina in addition to Tennessee, adds that football offers hope: "Southern college football gives young players in youth programs, middle schools and high schools something to strive for and something to dream about."
But such an allure is not limited to young athletes below the Mason-Dixon line. The nation's best talent from other regions is making its way south increasingly often. Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch, a Dartmouth, Mass., native, recently told Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph that he chose to come to the South because he wanted to challenge himself—on the field and off.
"The preconceived notion I had of the South was the complete opposite of the North," Lynch said. "But that was the biggest part of my growth as a person. Indulging in every part of Southern culture and really kind of expanding my comfort zone."
Added Lynch, "Coming down here and taking that risk was the best thing that's ever happened to me."
He's not alone in that sentiment, and that's bad news for non-Southern conferences.
When asked how conferences like the Big Ten and the Pac-12 can weaken the South’s grip on talent, Barnhart lacks optimism:
It’s getting tougher and tougher for Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan to come down here and get players out of this region. The SEC has won seven straight national championships and produces twice as many NFL draft picks as any other conference, and last year the ACC was second. I don’t see those numbers changing.
In some regards, such a confined territory of college football supremacy has diminished the North vs. South rivalry that defined the game for most of the 20th century. To be sure, SEC fans are still quick to poke fun at the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12. But references to “SEC speed” and chants of “SEC! SEC! SEC!” are increasingly in jest. After all, as the past seven years have shown, there is no doubt about where the nation’s best college football is played.
Now, the South relies even more heavily on regional rivalries as the game remains at the forefront of culture. Last Saturday’s Iron Bowl captured the attention of sports fans around the country as Auburn upset top-ranked Alabama in the most improbable of ways. Within the context of a rivalry that Charlie Bennett can only describe as a “sickness,” the finish was not only thrilling, but fitting to the game’s hype.
Football Fans By Birth, College Football Fans By The Grace of God
If the sickness that is the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn is any indication, the South’s obsession with college football, while not new, is at an all-time high. But how long can that last?
By all accounts, the only way Southern college football could alienate its multi-generational clan of loyalists would be through a prolonged lack of on-field success. And Barnhart doesn’t see that happening anytime soon:
To reverse the trend, the other conferences have got to get better players. Right now, the South has the highest paid coaches and the most 80 and 90,000 seat stadiums. But the SEC wins because they’ve got the best players, and right now the league doesn’t have to go very far to get them. If you’re in the SEC, all the players you’ll ever want, are in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and the surrounding areas.
Charlie Bennett echoed that sentiment much more bluntly, saying curtly, "I don’t see it changing."
And Southern fans' love for the game isn't likely to subside anytime soon either.
Vicki Michaelis implies that the prolonged passion for college football is so ingrained in Southerners that oftentimes they fail to recognize it. "I have to tell my students," she says with a chuckle that betrays the story as all too true, "football is not a proper noun. It does not need to be capitalized."
And yet, some students undoubtedly resist that correction. Perhaps that's not surprising.
In the South, a battle hymn can be rewritten with lyrics condemning a rival to hell.
In the South, one's Sunday best is reserved for a Saturday morning of keg beer drinking under a chandelier-laced tailgating tent.
In the South, fans can cover oaks with toilet paper to glorify a victory and mourn with vigils when the trees are found to have been poisoned.
In the South, college football isn't merely a societal interest, a cultural phenomenon or a religion. It's all of those things. And, it's a grand display of resources, a masterful agent of change and a competitive mechanism that unites an entire region.
But none of that is new.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.