Following Alabama’s total dominance of Notre Dame in the BCS title game, the SEC has now won its seventh consecutive national title, cementing its absolute reign over college football. Sportswriters have speculated on the reasons for the conference’s supremacy, ranging from the popularity of the sport in the South to the massive television contract that gives its members the power to pay top dollar to hire the best coaches. Beyond sports, however, the strength of the Southeastern Conference illuminates key shifts in the country with implications beyond the football field.
It may come as a surprise to those living south of the Mason-Dixon Line that college football started in the Northeast during the late 19th century, conceived in part as a way for the children of the Eastern Establishment to establish their manhood. Theodore Roosevelt and others embraced it as a way to toughen a generation too young to have experienced combat in the Civil War. By the 1920s, college football had established itself in the South, eventually becoming the region’s passion and most popular sport.
The rise of the SEC reflects, among other things, the shift in population away from the Northeast and toward the Sunbelt since the Second World War. Weapons production and the expansion of military bases in the region during the war brought new people to the area and this trend continued as Cold War defense spending created a peacetime military establishment. Strong chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, such as Richard Russell of Georgia and John Stennis of Mississippi, used their clout to locate bases in the region and funnel defense contracts to local plants. The Eisenhower Administration started the interstate highway system during the 1950s, which strengthened transportation in the relatively poor region, paving the way for population growth.
With an improved infrastructure and lower labor costs as an attraction, manufacturing and other businesses left the unionized Northeast and Midwest for the nonunion South. Foreign companies followed, with BMW, Mercedes, and Nissan building plants in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, respectively. Over the last half-century, economic differences between the South and the rest of the country have narrowed considerably, with per capita incomes nearly reaching parity.
Improved race relations were essential to the South’s renaissance, as it was impossible for the region to move forward economically under Jim Crow, which restrained the potential of its black citizens. It is no coincidence that the much of the economic growth in the area has come since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended legal segregation. Indeed, business leaders in the area were often instrumental in pushing for change, not because of a humanitarian concern, but because of an understanding that racial disputes discouraged national and international investment.
Before the civil rights era, Southern schools did not recruit black players and were often unwilling to even play against integrated teams. Top black players went to Northern conferences like the Big Ten or to historically black colleges (HBCUs). Throughout the Jim Crow era and in its immediate aftermath, Grambling, under head coach Eddie Robinson, was an HBCU powerhouse with players like NFL Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner and Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. SEC teams squandered hometown talent, as the University of Mississippi eschewed recruiting Walter Payton, who later became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Payton stayed in state to play at Jackson State, another historically black college.
After the passage of the civil rights laws, the SEC gradually embraced recruiting black players. Vanderbilt and Kentucky became the first schools to do so in 1966 and eventually the legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant revived the Crimson Tide in the 1970s by aggressively pursuing African American athletes. In the early years of the post-Jim Crow era, some black players were likely reluctant to play for teams in the South because of strong memories of the violence of the civil rights era. Indeed, I believe the dominance of the conference today is in part due to the fading memories of the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s, as African American athletes are now more enthusiastic about playing in the Old Confederacy. In particular, the success of many black quarterbacks in the SEC over the last decade would have seemed unlikely a generation ago.
Today, the SEC is the top football conference and the South is the fastest-growing region of the country, both economically and in terms of population growth. Of course, the gains have been uneven, as Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia are more prosperous than Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. While race relations have improved and black players dominate the field, some barriers still remain. As of 2012, there have been only three black head coaches in the history of the conference.