Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in History

First Advisor

Ted Ownby

Second Advisor

Marvin King

Third Advisor

Charles K. Ross

Relational Format



It is often said the college football in the South is a religion. While it may be hyperbole to equate college football with religion, a visit to a southern campus on game day affirms that football is an important aspect of southern society. How did this happen? In other words, how did college football in the South become big-time? This dissertation seeks to answer that question. Focusing on the advent of football on campuses in the early 1890s until the construction of large capacity campus stadiums in the 1930s and 1940s, I argue that although football initially burst onto campuses with a groundswell of student support, the support was ephemeral. By the turn of the century, support had dwindled and athletic associations were perpetually insolvent. Despite the dearth of interest, a handful of football enthusiasts worked diligently to insure survival of the sport. Operating within a network that relied heavily on personal relationships, these football enthusiasts scouted opponents, selected officials, and scheduled games that would pay to keep their struggling programs afloat. To insure adequate gate receipts, athletic directors jockeyed to secure contests in growing cities, especially Atlanta. The competition for these cities, however, caused tensions within the personalized sporting community and a severance of athletic relations between universities occasionally occurred. The formation of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) in 1894 to govern eligibility rules, and its ultimate dissolution over the application of the one year rule, marks a turning point for southern football. Disagreements over the one year rule, whereby players had to wait one year before playing, between larger universities who favored the rule and smaller universities who opposed it, led to a splintering of the SIAA. Breaking away from the smaller programs, the larger and more successful programs formed the Southern Conference, the precursor to the current Southeastern Conference. In doing so, they laid the foundation for the rise to prominence of big-time football. Progressive college presidents also played a crucial role in the development of the modern football spectacle. Recognizing that football was an effective “public relations weapon” to promote their school, secure needed alumni support, and ultimately increase state appropriations, they encouraged the development of strong football programs. Their support was paramount for the growing success of football. The construction of modern, large capacity stadia on campuses marks the final step in the development of modern football. By constructing these cathedrals to football, which necessitated a high level of student, alumni and community support, universities were announcing that their programs had come of age and achieved big-time status. A recurring theme throughout this study is how football illustrates the gradual emergence of the modern South. After the Civil War, the South underwent a series of economic and social changes. A self sufficient agricultural economy was replaced with a market economy based upon the production of cash crops—primarily cotton and tobacco. Cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham blossomed into centers of commerce. Despite these changes, the South remained an economic colony of the North and mired in crippling poverty. Using football as a lens to examine southern society highlights how the South from the 1890s until World War II, was a region in transition, a blend of old and new, modern and traditional. The protracted development of big-time football programs reinforced the slow emergence of the modern South.



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