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.