In the mid-1940s, the state of Oklahoma was steeped in an embarrassing identity crisis that college football helped solve.
John Steinbeck's 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and the 1940 film adaptation told a story of fictional “Okies” whose lives were destroyed by the Dust Bowl. The tale spawned an unflattering, widespread image of ignorant and backward Oklahomans.
After World War II, University of Oklahoma President George Cross and the board of regents decided to invest in a football program that would embolden the state and make it proud.
Now imagine an entire region of the United States chasing similar affirmation through football, and you have the Southeastern Conference, a league of universities sprawled across states that lost the Civil War and, in some ways, never stopped fighting it. So as the Big 12 — and the rest of college football — works to end the SEC's seven-year run of national championships, it's important to remember what they're up against beyond Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel and Nick Saban: A football culture unlike anything else in America full of fans, administrators, coaches and players hell bent on being No. 1.
That culture has manifested itself in the thousands of fans who load up RVs and follow their favorite team to every game, every season.
Or in the simple, yet powerful “S-E-C” chant that transcends inter-conference rivalries anytime a fan's Southern “Us vs. Them” instinct kicks in, like when on the eve of the 2011 Sugar Bowl, an Arkansas and an Ohio State fan brawled on Bourbon Street.
After the Razorbacks fan took control of the fist fight, the crowd proudly belted out, “S-E-C! S-E-C!”
It's a culture that's spreading into Texas and was on display last January inside Cowboys Stadium, where Texas A&M routed former Big 12 bedfellow Oklahoma. Aggies fans rubbed salt in the wound as time expired with their new conference's hallowed chant.
Oklahoma State fans will experience the SEC culture at its 2013 season opener in Houston's Reliant Stadium, where it meets Mississippi State on Aug. 31.
“The South finished second once before. Ever since, it has been determined to finish first,” Ray Glier wrote in his 2012 book, “How the SEC Became Goliath.”
Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the South's shameful treatment of African-Americans created a lasting, negative image of the region and its citizens. But during that time, Bear Bryant's Alabama football teams won six national championships, giving the South a much-needed source of pride.
The University of Alabama has been the stage for a couple of the region's most embarrassing historical events, so is it any wonder it now houses the South's most successful college football program?
The Tuscaloosa campus was transformed into a Confederate military school in the early days of the Civil War, and as a result, Union troops burned it to the ground.
And, of course, Alabama Governor George Wallace famously stood at the door of the university's auditorium in an attempt to block the enrollment of two black students in 1963.
“In the '30s and the '40s and whatnot, when Alabama was a backwater place, it meant a lot to suddenly be better at something, and football is what they were better at,” said Clay Travis, a Tennessee writer and radio host who has written two books on SEC football.
“I don't think it's uncommon for states to find something they can excel in and take it to the next level.”
Even today, jokes, sarcasm and condescension are heaved at the South in droves.
State-by-state progress reports on issues like public health, educational attainment and poverty usually show several Southern states ranked in the bottom 10.
In fact, just this month, the Trust for America's Health released its annual obesity rates by state, and found that seven of the bottom 11 fall within the SEC footprint.
“I think maybe in the SEC, the fans take it a little more seriously because every other day when USA Today comes out with some sort of new survey that was done in other walks of life, those Southern states are ranked 48th, 49th and 50th,” said CBS college football analyst Tim Brando, who grew up in Louisiana and has covered the SEC for decades.
“I think they love being ranked first, second and third rather than 48th, 49th and 50th.”
The SEC became America's premiere collegiate athletic conference through visionary decisions and innovation, like the creation of major college football's first conference championship game, and rabid fan bases built during an era when professional football didn't exist in their region.
Young men raised in SEC country dream of competing in the league, which has outpaced other conferences in recent years in players sent to the NFL.
SEC football coaches are the nation's highest-paid, its facilities are state-of-the-art and game day atmospheres are unmatched, an across-the-board evenness born of the SEC's equal revenue sharing.
The SEC's football culture continues to be fed through landmark media-rights contracts, a new deal with ESPN to create the forthcoming SEC Network, which will debut in 2014, and crazy conference media days overflowing with autograph seeking fans.
“In every region, there are places that are passionate about football,” said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. “They have great programs. I just think the difference in the South is that there are more of those kinds of places.
“They grow up with it being a very important part of their community's culture, and they're very dedicated and committed to it being good. They hire the coaches and pay the coaches, and fire the coaches if things don't go well.”
After “The Grapes of Wrath” was published, United States Rep. Lyle Boren blasted it as “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.”
All these years later, his son and University of Oklahoma President David Boren oversees the football program that became — and still is — an important confidence booster for the state.
The same reassuring football identity prevails across the SEC, which shows no signs that its domination of college football is slowing down anytime soon.
Brando said, “Football is something that — regardless of what other issues there may be — a fan knows, ‘Hey, we may suck at that, but by God we're the best at football.'”