September 1, 2013
From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 09, 2013
Field invasions, smashed furniture, vandalised goalposts, student arrests… it’s all part of the bitter college football rivalry in the USA ’s Southeastern Conference league. Franz Lidz, former senior writer at Sports Illustrated magazine, dons a protective helmet and finds out what it’s really like.
If rivalries are the lifeblood of American college football, then the fields of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) run redder than the battlegrounds of the American Civil War. SEC football currently spans 11 states – from Florida across to Texas – and 14 universities, all fiercely proud of their sporting reputations. The most bitter rivalry of all, however, is that between Mississippi State University and, just 80 miles away, University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, as it’s known. Both colleges are locked in perpetual class warfare.
Partisans of these two universities have despised each other since long before American football first came to the Mississippi Delta. Mississippi State was born in 1880 thanks to a working-class boycott against the very aristocratic Ole Miss. Originally known as Mississippi A&M, it was quickly nicknamed People’s College. It now boasts a larger percentage of black students than any major state university in the South. On the other end of the social spectrum is Ole Miss, founded in 1848, and a bastion of landed gentry that constantly battles against a racist image.
The intensity of these SEC rivalries should never be underestimated.
They divide families, strain marriages and test lifelong friendships.
Indeed, its name is derived from an old slave term for the wife of a plantation owner. Although Ole Miss took up the new sport in 1893, and Mississippi State in 1895, the colleges wouldn’t agree to play until 1901.
Even then, kickoff was delayed for 40 minutes while both sides disputed the eligibility of the opposing team’s players. Mississippi State eventually prevailed 17-0, its student newspaper accusing Ole Miss of “dirty play when the referee was not looking.”
Dirty or not, the Ole Miss Rebels went on to lose the first 13 meetings, outscored by a total of 327 to 33. After finally winning for the first time (7-6, away at Mississippi State) in 1926, their delirious fans rushed the field to tear down the goalposts. In response, bloodthirsty home supporters bolted from the stands, brandishing cane-bottomed chairs. Mississippi mayhem ensued. The home team’s yearbook later reported: “A few chairs had to be sacrificed over the heads of these to persuade them that it was entirely the wrong attitude.”
There are few more glorious sights than when a university breaks a losing streak against its local rival and the players joyously hoist the trophy in the air. SEC victory hardware takes the shape of everything from food (the Golden Egg of Ole Miss and Mississippi State) to footwear (LSU Tigers’ and Arkansas Razorbacks’ Golden Boot, which, at 175 pounds, is the heaviest trophy in American college football). There was even once a beer barrel (Kentucky Wildcats’ and Tennessee Volunteers’ Border Bowl), though that 74-year-old tradition was discontinued in the late 1990s after students died in an alcohol-related car crash.
But the most important bounty at stake is bragging rights. Sixty minutes of football give the winning school the privilege to crow for the next 364 days. “People talk about the Alabama versus Auburn game on New Year’s Day,” marvels former Alabama Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings. “They talk about it on Christmas Day. They talk about it on the Fourth of July.”
They’re still talking about Stallings’ predecessor, Bill Curry. In 1987 Curry’s team lost to Auburn 10-0. In 1988 his club won nine games, but lost to Auburn 15-10. The following year Curry took a 10-0 team that was ranked second in the country down to Auburn and lost 30-20. In 1990 Curry was coaching at Kentucky.
Rivalry between these two universities was once so bitter, hatred so strong, that games had to be played on neutral ground.
Between 1948 and 1989 they faced off in the state’s main city Birmingham. Before that there were no games at all between the two universities for 41 years thanks to a long-running dispute over referees’ pay. The disagreement ended only when the respective college presidents, at the insistence of the Alabama state legislature, agreed to bury the hatchet – literally – during a bury-the-hatchet ceremony in Birmingham’s Woodrow Wilson Park.
The most bitter rivalry of all is between Mississippi State University and, just 80 miles away, University of Mississippi. Both colleges are locked in perpetual class warfare.
The party spirit at some of these SEC games is legendary. The annual contest between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators was once famously called “the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party”. The first toast was 98 years ago in Jacksonville. Until it settled there again in 1993 it was a moveable tailgate party with stops in Gainesville, Macon, Savannah, Athens and Tampa. In a nod toward political correctness, it’s now officially known as the Florida–Georgia/Georgia–Florida game. In past years, fans from each university were grouped in alternating sections of the stands, their contrasting school colours making Jacksonville Municipal Stadium look like a giant beach ball.
But what really drives the spectator parties is not the cocktails, rather the rivalries.
One of the biggest is between Tennessee Volunteers and Alabama Crimson Tide, mostly because the latter is the only SEC university to have won more games, conference titles and national championships. A major reason for their superiority is Bear Bryant, a former student and player who ended up coaching his alma mater’s team for 25 years, from 1958 to 1982.
Asked why he returned to his university, he said:
“Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come running.” Always sporting his trademark hound’s-tooth check hat, Bryant loved beating Tennessee so much that he’d distribute post-game victory cigars. When he eventually retired he held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history.
The intensity of these SEC rivalries should never be underestimated. They divide families, strain marriages and test lifelong friendships. A fan website for the Tennessee Volunteers sums it up neatly: “What compels so many of us to travel great distances, expend huge sums of money, lose sleep, risk personal injury, get arrested for disorderly conduct… It is a question of pride, of respect, of tradition, and (sometimes) insanity.”
Populous is currently working with Texas A&M on the redevelopment of the famous Kyle Field stadium in Texas.