College Football Fever Is Nothing New in the South

The 1893 Georgia Bulldogs football team.

C. Vann Woodward would have become perhaps the most influential American historian of the 20th century, but he was in just his second year as a lowly assistant professor of social science at the University of Florida in November 1938. His friend and faculty colleague Bill Carleton was away from Gainesville recuperating from a thyroid illness, and Woodward wrote to update him on recent campus happenings. His missive to Carleton revealed a sentiment all too common among succeeding generations of professors plying their trade at Southern universities whose administrators and alumni alike seemed to see the key to enhancing the school’s reputation not as investing in its academic standing, but going all in to juice up its prowess on the gridiron:  

“This was homecoming weekend, just over—and I hardly stuck my head out the door… a succession of football defeats has cleared the air somewhat now, and I am glad of them. There seems to prevail a sane attitude on the campus once more, especially since Oxford, the captain, was dropped from the team for not attending classes. And the ‘Senate,’ (i.e., Tigert) upheld the action. [J.J. Tigert was the president of the University of Florida and a noted advocate of expanding intercollegiate athletic programs who had been instrumental in the formation of the Southeastern Conference.] The Alligator [student newspaper] applauded the action. There seems to be a general sobering up, and the realization that football is not the sole concern of the University. But for a while the uproar of the alumni was disgusting. They yelled for [head coach Josh] Cody’s blood, for Tigert’s, for the team’s. The Board of Control met and pondered. Rumors and counter rumors! Streamer headlines in the papers! Gov. Cone—silent on his death bed for months and incapacitated—returns to life to “save the situation.” Gives an interview. Will give Florida a winning team etc., etc., ad nauseum administration frantic with thousands of dollars due for unpaid scholarships. And every decision in the University from the B. of Control to the friends of the library turning on whether the team would win the next game. Nauseating really! But now things look better. All agree the three final games will be defeats and cease to worry about it.”

It is frequently difficult to figure out how college football fans develop such overheated expectations, and it was especially so in this case. Prior to 1938, in five seasons of SEC play the Florida Gators had accumulated a combined conference record of 22-26-2 and could claim but five victories against SEC opponents not named Sewanee. After two seasons at Florida, coach Josh Cody had won eight games and lost 13. His 1938 team would finish 4-6-1, and he would be fired after the Gators went 5-5-1 in 1939. Contrary to the impression Woodward conveyed, Florida had actually beaten Maryland 21-7 in the aforementioned Nov. 12 homecoming contest, though after back-to-back losses to Boston College and Georgia. The team was 3-5 at that point, with its other two victories coming against Tampa and the ever-hapless and outmanned Sewanee. The Gators lost their opening game by two points to Stetson and, despite a huge sendoff at the rail station featuring the university’s vaunted “72-piece band,” their trip to take on the then-Mississippi State “Maroons” in Starkville ended in a 22-0 thrashing. Deposed team captain Jimmy Oxford from Leesburg, FL was neither a quarterback, running back nor wide receiver, but a center, who stood 6′ 1″ and weighed under 200 pounds. Despite Woodward’s smug assurance that the team would tank in its last three games, the Gators managed to tie Georgia Tech and eke out a win over Auburn before falling to Temple in the season finale. 

The loss to Temple warrants a brief reminder about historical context. Where Temple would venture into the SEC lair today only with the promise of a payoff commensurate with losing half a dozen starters to shattered collarbones and shredded ACLs, the center of gravity and momentum in college football had yet to complete its southward migration in 1938, a year in which Auburn lost to Villanova, Georgia to Holy Cross, and Kentucky to Xavier. Between 1900 and the opening of SEC play in 1933, teams representing current members of the Ivy League had claimed at least a share of 16 national championships, while teams now playing in the Southeastern Conference accounted for five. In fact, ironically enough, the leaders of a number of Southern universities had seized on achieving gridiron pre-eminence comparable to that of the major Northeastern and Midwestern schools as a key to gaining ground on them in the scramble for national prestige on all fronts. Although Georgia managed to win six of its eleven encounters with Yale between 1923 and 1934, the latter was favored going into each tilt, and over the entire span, the Bulldogs from New Haven had deigned to meet the Bulldogs from Athens on their own turf only once, in 1929, for the fabled dedication of Sanford Stadium. Though this seemed quite a concession, officials and coaches at Georgia deemed it a fair price for the additional cred that came with regularly rubbing shoulder pads with a football program with 27 national championships on its resume.

Florida football had appeared to be building up quite a head of steam in the 1920s, and despite having no state funds to dip into as the Great Depression set in, President Tigert had gone out on the flimsiest of financial branches by persuading 10 of the team’s biggest boosters to join him in taking out personal loans to expedite construction of Florida Field in 1930. (Fittingly enough for a venue ultimately known as “The Swamp,” construction had been delayed by drainage problems.) Despite the Herculean effort required to make it a reality, the brand-new 22,000-seat facility seemed to foretell a glorious future on the gridiron for the Florida faithful, especially after the university joined a dozen other schools in the states south and west of the Appalachians, including Tulane, Georgia Tech and Sewanee in withdrawing from the bloated 23-member Southern Conference and forming the brand-new Southeastern Conference, which officially opened play in 1933. 

Alas, instead of the meteoric rise to greatness anticipated in Gainesville, the next 20 years proved to be a generation of sustained deflation for Gator Nation. (Not too shabby, huh?) Coach Dutch Stanley’s 1934 squad managed to go 6-3-1, despite winning only two conference games. The next time Gators would notch a winning season overall was 1952 (Yep, that means 18 consecutive losing seasons), and only in 1954, twenty-one years into their SEC tenure, would they post their first winning mark within the conference. The Gators were hardly off and running at that point, though. They would be stripped of what appeared to be their first conference title in 1984 for recruiting violations. Only in 1991, nearly 60 years after joining the SEC, would they claim their first league title on the up and up. There would be seven more by 2008, not to mention the national championships of 1996, 2006 and 2008. Many more were surely in the offing, and sooner rather than later, assumed the by-now thoroughly wild-eyed Gator masses. 

Alas, however, the curse of high expectations was once again about to take a big ol’ Gator chomp out of their hind parts. After the departure of two-time natty-winning coach Urban Meyer in 2010, the jacked-up Florida faithful quickly found themselves grappling with the fearful prospect of an imminent slippage back into irrelevance and mediocrity.  Despite winning 10 or more games four times over the next dozen years, there would be three seasons, including two of the last five, when the Gators finished below .500. Over this span, the university pink-slipped three head coaches while soothing the pangs of separation with payouts sizable enough to slacken the jaws of Putin’s oligarchs. At this point there is no shortage of angst around Gainesville town as a fourth would-be restorer of the faith, Billy Napier, late of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, currently preps for his debut amid loud wailing about a dearth of young men on the roster capable of bench-pressing an ox or outrunning a cheetah, and athletic facilities too lacking in glitter and plush to win the hearts of those who can do either. 

Meanwhile, our young Professor Woodward had become disenchanted with the University of Florida almost on arrival, and he was gone after two years. He would go on to spend the bulk of his career at Johns Hopkins and then at Yale, where, by the 1960s, the annual gridiron dust-up with the lads from Harvard marked the apogee of football fervor thereabouts. Even so, if Woodward were still around, he would not be slow to recognize the irony—or naivete—of his long-ago proclamation that the campus community had had finally come to recognize “that football is not the sole concern of the University” at a place where, even when the $118,000 spent to construct Florida Field in 1930 is converted to current dollars ($2.1 million) it comes to less than a third of what the school is paying its brand new, little-tested head football coach for the upcoming season.

James C. Cobb is the B. Phinizy Spalding Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia.