“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.'”