Southern Strategy: The SEC Network and College Football's Red-State Roots

What ESPN's new network says about the spirit of the South, and the history of the game

The Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after the SEC Championship Game
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The Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after the SEC Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome on December 1, 2012 in Atlanta, GA.
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On a Thursday afternoon in mid-August, almost 40 years to the day after Richard Nixon resigned from office, ESPN launched its eighth cable channel, a wholly self-assured venture known as the SEC Network. The SEC, in this instance, has nothing to do with American monetary policy; this SEC is the Southeastern Conference, a conglomerate of southern universities that has dominated college football over the past decade.

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And so it came as no surprise that less than an hour into the SEC Network's first day of programming, the conference's commissioner, Mike Slive, set the tone for the entire channel by making the unsubtle observation that this was "the most successful launch of a new cable network in all of cable history."

I don't know about Slive's credentials as a television historian, but I can tell you this: His self-regard is not entirely misplaced. It's almost unfathomable to imagine a scenario where the SEC Network, which reached agreements with nearly every major cable provider in advance of its launch, somehow fails to make it. The network is an extension of the most wildly popular and successful college football entity of the modern era; before last season, the SEC had won seven straight national championships, and last January, Auburn (playing Florida State of the Atlantic Coast Conference, a school located roughly 35 miles south of the Georgia border) came within one defensive stop of winning the fifth consecutive national championship for the state of Alabama alone.

It's hard to describe the South's relationship with college football unless you've seen it for yourself. It feels more intensely personal than anything I've ever seen in any sport, and all the SEC Network has to do to succeed is reflect this relationship in a way that doesn't seem patronizing. And so the network will show some live football games (starting Thursday, when the major-conference season kicks off with a game between Texas A&M and South Carolina), and it will employ the evangelistic presence of Tim Tebow, and – perhaps most crucially – it will feature a daily simulcast of the radio show of Paul Finebaum, the newspaper-columnist-turned-provocateur who in recent years has become the Howard Stern of the South, a host with a show so popular that even his regular callers have developed their own followings.

And here is where you might be asking: What does any of this have to do with Richard Nixon?

The answer is simple, and yet it's not simple, because this is the South we are talking about, and nothing is ever very simple when it comes to the South. The SEC Network is not, of course, an overtly political channel. But it's almost impossible not to think about politics when you watch the SEC Network, because these two elements – Southern politics and Southern football – have been entwined for almost a century. In many ways, one begets the other, which is why, if you are a blue-state leftist who finds yourself flabbergasted by the psychology of red-state pride, a few hours spent watching the SEC Network might prove enlightening.

If we want to dig deep, we can trace the origins of the SEC Network all the way back to 1926. That was the year Alabama – four years after their first big victory, over Penn in 1922 – defeated Washington 20-19 in the Rose Bowl. It was a victory that occurred at an especially opportune time, the very moment the South was struggling to come to terms with its self-image in the wake of the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Ku Klux Klan membership reached an all-time high around that same time.) There was, wrote author Don Yaeger in his book Turning of the Tide, a prevailing notion in most of the country that Southerners were "fiercely resistant to change and progress, as many of the northern and western presses depicted the Dixieland Bible Belters as stubborn, backward-thinking simpletons."

And so, because it happened when it did, Alabama's victory became something far more than a football game. When the Crimson Tide arrived back in New Orleans, they were greeted as heroes; one newspaper declared that their win was "the greatest victory for the South since the first Battle of Bull Run." Said one Alabama player: "We were the South's baby."

The following year, the Crimson Tide again went undefeated, and they mustered a 7-7 tie with Stanford in the Rose Bowl. That second consecutive season of success proved that the Tide were no fluke; those two seasons established, for the first time, the notion of southern football as a force replete with meaning. Over the course of the next several decades, Alabama became the conference's marquee program. In the late 1950s, the Tide hired a former player named Paul "Bear" Bryant, and in 1966, as segregationist governor George Wallace, hampered by term limits, offered up his wife as a surrogate candidate (she won with 63 percent of the vote), Bryant went undefeated with an undersized all-white team, losing out on the national championship to Notre Dame, which had tied Michigan State. (This fact that so galled writer Keith Dunnavant that he wrote a book about it called The Missing Ring, in which he declared that "the Crimson Tide was no match for George Wallace and all he represented.")

Three years later, sensing an opportunity to further Nixon's southern strategy, a presidential aide named Harry Dent spotted a New York Times article headlined "In the South, Football is a Religio-Social Pastime." He drafted a memo that suggested if the president "wants to see and be seen by a tremendous crowd of enthusiastic southerners, I suggest we consider sending him to one of the big football rivalry games." And so Nixon did just that, and more: He attended the Texas-Arkansas game, and decided he would award a plaque to the winner declaring them the number one team in the land. And even though Nixon's utter obliviousness to the fact that Penn State was also undefeated that year resulted in a comical amount of political backtracking, the template had been established: The way to the region's emotional heart was through football.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that remains largely true. College football is tied so deeply to the morale and identity of the South that it's almost impossible to imagine prying them apart. The sport is such a collective source of pride that even fans of heated rivals will chant "S-E-C" in solidarity when one of their own wins a big game against an intra-regional rival. And this is why the SEC Network has been designed to reflect that unflappable self-esteem, and this is why the SEC Network matters as something more than just another cable channel in a sea of cable channels: It may be the most fascinating reflection of the complex and polarizing notion of Southern pride that we've ever witnessed on television.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.