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ESSAY Turning theTide College Football and Southern Progressivism by Andrew Doyle he southern poet and critic Donald Davidson asserted that the South of die 1920s "disproved the axiom that two bodies cannot occupy the same space."1 An emerging urban society built upon the secular gospel of progress and innovation coexisted uneasily with an agrarian society wedded to a more traditional value system. The fondest dreams of an earlier generation of New South boosters reached at least partial fruition during that decade. Rapid economic growth over the previous half century had extended industrial capitalism, mass culture, and the ethos of consumerism into a region still largely rooted in the mores of a rural folk culture and conservative evangelical Protestantism. While the southern commitment to sectional reconciliation on northern terms was irrevocable, the terms ofthis phase ofthe long surrender were hard for all but the most ardent of southern modernizers to swallow. The Soudi ofthe 1920s was movinginexorably closer to the American cultural and economic mainstream, but the rise of religious fundamentalism, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the increasing intensity of sectional hostility revealed the profound misgivings with which white southerners beheld the emerging order. Southern college football is a complex and richly nuanced cultural text that offers insights into the searinginternal conflicts that beset the South during this period . The University of Alabama's stunning upset victory over the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl is arguably the most significant game in southern football history, but it did more than establish the legitimacy of southern football. This game possessed a deep and multifaceted symbolic importance that illustrated the profoundly mixed emotions with which white southerners beheld their fitful and incomplete movement into the American cultural and economic mainstream.2 Like the New South movement itself, early southern college football was an amalgamation ofinnovation and tradition. In the early 1890s, progressive-minded southerners eager to build a rationalized industrial society adopted the fashionable sport ofthe northeastern bourgeoisie as a cultural component oftheir mod28 ernization program. Many tradition-minded southerners, especially the leaders of southern evangelical denomina- Southern Colhoe tions, were aghast that students atvenerable soudiern uni- r ,1 ¡1 · versifies had taken up this brutal new Yankee pastime. Yet J southern football proponents muted this opposition by Complex Cultural imbuing the sport with the trappings of sectional pride.» rr They grandly proclaimed that die personal combat oftheJJ gridiron recalled the glories ofthe southern martial tradi- insights into the tion and compared southern football heroes to Lee,Jack- ç +Lr+In son, or Stuart. The faithful sang "Dixie" atgames at a fastJ tempo to rouse the fighting spirit of their heroes and at a ........................ slow tempo as an andiem, and observers likened soudiern college cheers to the Rebel Yell. Southern football achieved overnight popularity in the 1 890s despite the embarrassing weakness of southern teams. In 1 890 Princeton defeated the University of Virginia, the strongest team in the South, by die embarrassing score of 1 1 6-0. This first major intersectional game portended thirty years of repeated humiliation at the hands ofYankee teams. Crippled bywoefully inadequate budgets, tiny enrollments, and the two-decade head start enjoyed by their northern counterparts , southerners were nonetheless eager to test themselves against northern competition. Northern universities took advantage ofthis southern desire for intersectional competition and scheduled southern teams as designated victims in early season warm-up games, offered southerners highly unfavorable splits of gate receipts, and rarely deigned to play southern teams on their home fields. This was in keeping widi the ordained order of things, for as sports historian Michael Oriard observes, "commoners come to kings, not kings to commoners." From the 1 890s through the early 1920s, southern teams embarked on trips invariably described as "northern invasions," invariably lost the game, and returned home to congratulations for having defended die honor and traditions of the South. A sportswriter for the NashvilleAmerican was so thrilled tiiat Vanderbilt managed to lose to Michigan by the respectable score of 18-0 in 1905 that he proclaimed the game to be Vanderbilt's "greatest triumph since the team was organized."3 Southern football improved dramatically during the 1920s. Thanks to the region...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 28-51
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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