Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on SEC Network. The eight-part, 12-hour film, presented by Regions Bank and directed by Peabody and Emmy-winning director Fritz Mitchell, airs over the course of eight consecutive Tuesdays.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, America's South is looking to put the past behind it, and finds one path in a growing cultural passion of the North: Football. The sport steadily grows in popularity into the early 20th century through intercollegiate play, led by John Heisman along with powers Sewanee and Vanderbilt setting an early standard of excellence. In December 1932, the Southeastern Conference is officially formed.
In the early years of the SEC, through the Great Depression and World War II, many young men in the South get the opportunity to become first-generation college students, and play football. Numerous players and coaches fight in the war, including Brigadier General Robert Neyland, who leads the most dominant program of the era, the Tennessee Volunteers. Multiple SEC schools claim national titles through the '50s, including LSU with star running back Billy Cannon in 1958, prior to Cannon's epic game-winning punt return against powerhouse Ole Miss a year later.
In the 1960s, as Georgia Tech leaves the conference and the Civil Rights Movement becomes embedded in the history and image of the region, Bear Bryant, hired in 1958, becomes the face of Alabama - and SEC football. Meanwhile, other heroes of the era include Archie Manning at Ole Miss, and two-sport star Richmond Flowers Jr., who - with his father, Alabama's attorney general, fighting against Governor George Wallace - spurns the Crimson Tide for Tennessee.
As the 1970s dawn, Bear Bryant recommits himself with a wishbone offense that will generate a claim to three more national titles at Alabama over the course of the decade. Meanwhile, the rise of television sports transforms the SEC, with Georgia native Keith Jackson establishing himself as the voice of college football, as the game further embeds itself as synonymous with southern culture, and an enduring and powerful force in the lives of the young men who are part of it.
The 1980s begin with Georgia recruiting the finest halfback the South, and perhaps the country, has ever produced, Herschel Walker, who leads the Bulldogs to a national title as a freshman. Meanwhile, with college football's financial profile growing, universities reap the benefits of all the dollars. And after Bear Bryant retires following the 1982 season and passes away four weeks later, control of the SEC is eventually transferred to Pat Dye and Bo Jackson at Auburn, which at the end of the decade, hosts its arch-rival for the first time ever at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The 1990s bring change to the South, with businesses moving into the region, and the rust belt giving way to the Sun Belt - while on the football field, the SEC is transformed as well. TV deals with CBS and ESPN, combined with the introduction of the sport's first-ever conference championship game, give the league more of a national profile than ever, and expansion brings in Arkansas and South Carolina as members. Meanwhile, Steve Spurrier at Florida fashions an era of high-octane offense, and his Gators form a heated rivalry with Tennessee and quarterback Peyton Manning, though the Volunteers only win a national title after Manning leaves and Tee Martin steps behind center.
The first Division 1-A college football game played after the attacks of 9/11 is in the SEC when South Carolina visits Mississippi State. Nick Saban comes to LSU in 2000 and eventually wins the Tigers' first national championship since 1958 - a feat followed up by his successor Les Miles four years later. At Florida, Tim Tebow becomes a cult hero, and wins a Heisman Trophy and two national championships for Urban Meyer's Gators - two of the five titles won by SEC teams in the 2000s.
Over a century and a half of college football, and nearly 90 years of the SEC, so much has changed. But the conference is where the best football in the country is played - as the SEC has a run of seven straight national titles, and nine in 12 years. Expansion in 2012 brings two more programs in Texas A&M and Missouri. Meanwhile, Nick Saban arguably becomes the greatest coach in the history of college football. With the arrival of the sport's 150th anniversary, it's clear that indelible moments in SEC history encompass the very history of the region - and the very history of America.