Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Southeastern Conference (1932-2024)

In November 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President for the first time, thus launching a new era in American politics.  One month later, in December 1932, thirteen members of the old Southern Conference left to form a new conference:  the Southeastern Conference.  Those members were:

University of Alabama
Auburn University
University of Florida
University of Georgia
Georgia Institute of Technology 
University of Kentucky
Louisiana State University
University of Mississippi
Mississippi State University
University of the South (Sewanee)
University of Tennessee
Tulane University
Vanderbilt University

The founding of the SEC formalized the tripartite division of Big-Time College Sports in the South.  In the East, the schools that would form the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953, were heavily influenced by the notion that Southerners should be led by an elite caste of high-minded people.  (There is a reason that the University of Virginia is known as the Cavaliers.)  From an intellectual perspective, this viewpoint was well-represented at the University of North Carolina, which has long stood for a form of genteel Southern liberalism.  In the Southwest, the tremendous resources of Texas led to a culture of extremes -- you could choose the elitism of the University of Texas, the devout social conservatism of Baylor, or a variety of options between them that continue to the present day.

But the people who lived between the Appalachian Mountains in the East and the Sabine River in the West had their own views.  Politically, this is country that largely belonged to Andrew Jackson -- and as a result, it has always trusted the views of average people more than it trusts the views of experts.  Because average people tend to love tradition, this region has often been very traditional.  But this region has never been very good at accepting authority, and thus is generally uncomfortable with the type of overt elitism you might find in Charlottesville, Chapel Hill, or Austin.  In 1933, this region was starting to see some glimmers of hope after many years of difficulty, and they knew that their people were very excited about college sports.  So striking out on their own made a huge amount of sense.

In fact, the creation of the SEC was a watershed in the history of the region.  For the next 90 years, millions of people who lived in these states identified with the SEC, and marked their seasons by its calendar.  Sewanee couldn't afford to stay in the conference after a few years, and so dropped out.  But the other 12 original members stuck together until 1964, and by that point the SEC had become a major force in Southern life.  SEC fans didn't just root for their teams -- they rooted for their conference (and their vision of the South that it represented) against the teams from the ACC and the Southwest Conference.

By the mid-1960's, Atlanta and New Orleans were entering a new era of their own, and so Georgia Tech and Tulane left the SEC.  But the original ten members stuck together until 1991 -- going through integration, negotiating early TV deals, and building the legend.  The SEC never lost its popularity, but in the 1980's there was a marked contrast between the success of the region -- which was enjoying significant economic and population growth -- and the fact that SEC teams usually couldn't compete with Florida State and Miami in football, or with North Carolina and Duke in basketball.

In retrospect, the SEC of the 1980's was a gold mine waiting to be discovered, and Roy Kramer was the person who figured it out.  Kramer became the sixth Commissioner of the SEC on January 10, 1990, and within seven months the SEC had announced plans to add Arkansas and South Carolina.  For the first time, the SEC had reached into the territories traditionally controlled by the Southwest Conference and the ACC.  Even more importantly, the SEC could take advantage of a loophole that allowed any conference with 12 teams to play an extra football game as a conference championship.

From 1991 to 2012, the SEC went through a golden era.  After years of being a scrappy underdog, the SEC finally had the type of monetary and media support that its fans wanted.  The schools took that support and used it to build much stronger programs -- not only in football (which the SEC began to dominate) but in almost every other sport.

By 2012, the SEC had become so strong that both Texas A & M and Missouri were eager to join.  Now at 14 teams -- including one team in the heart of Texas and another from the old Big Eight -- the SEC had truly become a Super Conference.  But still, the SEC's slogan -- "It Just Means More" -- underscored the popular traditionalism that had been key to its success all along.

Over time, however, the Conference that had started as an underdog had become so powerful that its success disrupted the rest of college sports.  This fact created a whole new challenge for the SEC and its region.  For years, the SEC looked out for the interests of its fans, regardless of what that meant for the rest of the country.  But as the 2020's began, that approach became more and more difficult to maintain.  After all, it doesn't do you any good to win the National Championship unless there are other teams across the country that can give you a game.  And as the NCAA faced more and more legal challenges, and the rest of college sports became unstable, the SEC faced hard choices about how to proceed.

A few years ago, the SEC announced its decision:  the league would expand again to include the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma.  For most of the last 90 years, these were two of the football programs that the SEC had measured itself against -- now, they were acknowledging that the SEC had won, and they would rather switch than fight.  It was, and is, a tremendous victory for the SEC and its fans.  But it was also a loss.  No longer will the SEC belong to our region.  Going forward, it will be a national, and perhaps an international brand -- just like Coca-Cola.

For almost 90 years, SEC fans were proud to be scrappy underdogs going up against the bigger and richer schools in the rest of the country.  Those days have come to an end, and those of us who love this region can be proud of the success that the SEC attained.  But greater power means greater responsibility.  Going forward, fans in the old SEC heartland can't just think about what's best for their school or their region -- they have to consider the whole field of college sports.

Maybe they'll do great.  I certainly hope so.  Contrary to Lord Acton, power does not always corrupt.  Sometimes, it causes people to take more responsibility.  For a long time, folks in the SEC looked out for themselves regardless of what anyone else thought.  They can't do that any more, and maybe they will be wiser and more generous as a result.  But whatever they do, the SEC will never be the same.  Watching the SEC become respectable is like imagining Burt Reynolds's Bandit settling down with a country club membership and a big house in Mountain Brook.  

Becoming respectable always carries a price.  At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says:  "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it.  I been there before."  The SEC has always been more Tom Sawyer (let's win within the rules) than Huck Finn (let's do what's right, regardless of the rules), so I'm not surprised to see the SEC strive for respectability.  But I will miss being underdogs.


  1. Best SEC Men's Basketball Game: March 12, 1995: Kentucky 95, Arkansas 93 (OT) (SEC Final)

  2. Best SEC Football Game: November 30, 2013: Auburn 34, Alabama 28 ("Kick Six")

  3. Best SEC Men's Basketball Team: 1996 Kentucky Wildcats

  4. Best SEC Football Team: 2019 LSU Tigers

  5. Here are the conference records in football for the 10 schools who were in the SEC from 1933 to 2023:

    Alabama: 463-167-21 (.727)
    Georgia: 378-217-14 (.632)
    Tennessee: 357-233-20 (.602)
    LSU: 352-241-22 (.590)
    Florida: 342-244-15 (.582)
    Auburn: 335-275-19 (.548)
    Mississippi: 283-306-15 (.481)
    Mississippi St: 217-385-13 (.363)
    Kentucky: 190-407-12 (.322)
    Vanderbilt: 140-457-18 (.242)

  6. Here are the conference records for the same ten schools in men's basketball from 1933 to 2021 (the last year for which I could find data):

    Kentucky: 1,046-303 (.775)
    Tennessee: 788-599 (.568)
    Alabama: 840-639 (.568)
    Vanderbilt: 715-697 (.506)
    LSU: 722-709 (.505)
    Florida: 679-684 (.498)
    Auburn: 654-770 (.459)
    Mississippi St. 631-815 (.436)
    Georgia: 568-842 (.403)
    Mississippi: 545-880 (.382)

    1. Georgia's place in the standings is the most surprising for me.

  7. Best SEC Men's Basketball Coach: Adolph Rupp (Kentucky)
    Best SEC Men's Basketball Player: Shaquille O'Neal (LSU)

    1. I don't know. After seeing Georgia's overall performance, I think I'm going to vote for (Louisville Eastern's) Hugh Durham as the coach.

    2. Hugh Durham was a great coach. He also took Florida State to the National Finals in 1972.

  8. Best SEC Football Coach: Nick Saban (Alabama)
    Best SEC Football Player: Peyton Manning (Tennessee)

  9. I also hope the SEC does great in this new role, which you've characterized and contextualized so brilliantly here (in a million years, I would've never figured this out myself, but it sure seems to make sense in the ways you lay out). I'm a native of Evansville, Indiana, and Tab and Diet Coke are my two favorite soft drinks of all time.