We are riding a daily wave of news as to whether there will be a 2020 college football season. It should come as no surprise that teams in the South are particularly hanging to the hopes of playing. The game has become ingrained into the culture of the South. Because of that, some may not know that the game actually started far up north. That is the basis behind CFB’s new history book
The Origins of Southern College Football: CFB’s New History Book
A book comes out this week that tells the story of how a game that started in the Ivy League became part of southern folklore. The Origins of Southern College Football: How an Ivy League Game Became a Dixie Tradition was written by Andrew Bell. He told us the book “tells the story of how and why college football became the South’s most popular sport.” He looks back at the history of the game and its parallel to the history of the South.
Bell comes from a college football family. His grandfather played college football. His family has a long history as fans of the game. Bell did his undergraduate work in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s. In our conversation with him he said, “George Teague’s ‘strip’ play during that game was what I call a ‘flash bulb moment’ in my life that I will always remember. My jaw hit the floor when I saw it happen in real time, and I still occasionally watch the play on YouTube whenever I’m feeling nostalgic, Bell said.
He went on to earn a Ph.D from George Washington University. As a historian, Bell said that he naturally became curious about the history of college football in the South. During this research, he found that many sources do not contain “political and cultural contexts.” He wanted to create something that truly encompasses the story of the game, as well as what was going on in the country. Bell says that his, “book is as much a story of America in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era as it is a history of southern college football.”
Early Years Of Southern Football
Many educators in the South had earned degrees at Northern schools. This leads to the stories of where many picked up organized football. They would take this new game back down South with them in the late 1800’s, where it quickly took hold. Organized college football “provided relief from the boredom of agrarian life and it gave Southerners something to be proud of in a region that was often stereotyped as underdeveloped and illiterate,” according to Bell. He also makes the point that it helped unite the Old South and New South. This was accomplished through a variety of new college traditions.
College football in the South really took off in the early 1900’s. During this time, many of the teams began to see success. In 1917, Georgia Tech won the South’s first consensus National Championship. In 1926, Alabama defeated Washington in what many historians consider “the game that changed the South.” Bell disagrees, however. “Plenty of non-Southern teams continued to win national championships during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s,” he points out. According to Bell, the 1926 Rose Bowl was merely the most publicized turn of events. This was due to the popularization of radio leading up to the game.
With how ingrained college football is in Southern culture, it is hard to imagine an alternative. But Bell says that if football had not been there, then it would have been baseball. “19th century Southerners were like 20th century Cubans and Japanese—all three groups were defeated by the United States military and thus absorbed their conqueror’s culture and pastimes,” Bell says. In fact, baseball was already taking root in the South before college football was. Within two years of the end of the Civil War, UNC was already fielding a baseball team.
In possibly the most important question, Bell was asked who he believed would win the 2020 National Championship. He flipped the question around by saying, “what if the College Football Playoff is suspended because of the pandemic? We might have to go back to naming co-champions. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world in my mind—at least there is historical precedent.”
As we wait for definitive decisions on what is to come of the 2020 season, a look back could help us understand how the game we watch evolved. It is interesting to think that the powerhouse of college football could have been replaced by baseball. College football has such a monopoly over weekends in the South, it is hard to imagine something else having that sort of appeal.