COLUMBIA — Marvin Overby isn't sure whether Missouri is a Northern or Southern state. What he is sure about, however, is that MU's culture doesn't fit the culture of the Southeastern Conference.
The MU professor, who teaches politics of the American South, taught at the University of Mississippi for nine years. When he moved to Columbia, the football game-day experience was completely different from the one he was used to in Oxford, Miss.
"Essentially, the entire town became more or less gridlocked because of the game," he said. "And if you weren’t going to the game, you had a choice—either you sort of hunker down for the day, or you got the hell out. You don’t get that in Columbia."
While there are a few schools in the SEC that aren't "football crazy," Overby said, they are the exception, not the rule. Overall, he said, SEC schools pack more people into their stadiums, have more "rabid" fans and spend more money on football.
With Missouri seemingly on the verge of bolting from the Big 12 — the latest name for a string of conference affiliations that date to 1907 — and joining the SEC, there's plenty of chatter on blogs and over coffee about cultural identity and football traditions both here and in the South.
Geography, race and football as cultural markers
Missouri sits in the middle of the country — there's no debate about that.
Along with Tennessee, it touches the most states of any state in the nation, sharing borders with Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
"I like saying that Missouri is the northernmost Southern state, but it’s also the southernmost Northern state," Overby said. "It’s also the easternmost Western state and the westernmost Eastern state.”
So, just how Southern are we, anyway?
The editors of Southern Living magazine recently named Columbia one of the best Southern college towns. Features editor Jennifer Cole said it received this distinction because the city exhibits Southern charm, and there’s a sense of community that’s intrinsic to Southern towns.
From Cole's perspective, the Show-Me State "has a split personality, a little bit of an identity crisis."
With Missouri's size, some regions of the state display more Southern traits than others — the culture of the Bootheel seems distant from the culture of St. Louis.
Boone County, situated in the middle of Missouri, rests in "the heart of Little Dixie," author and Missouri Southern culture historian Gary Gene Fuenfhausen said.
When pioneers from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia settled in Boone County, they brought their architecture and their agriculture, making Little Dixie resemble the upper South, Fuenfhausen said. These settlers brought their slaves, and some of the first crops they grew were corn, tobacco and cotton.
William "Gene" Robertson, MU professor emeritus of community development, said the culture of Little Dixie influenced race relations in Columbia and that all the symbols of a segregated society expressed themselves here.
There's lingering resentment from segregation, he said, so the city has "a university or cosmopolitan veneer over a history of segregation that began when there were slaves here."
Historian Douglas Hunt, associate professor emeritus, sees Columbia as "a university town built on a Southern chassis." It was founded by families from the South at the beginning of the 19th century, and it was dominated by them for generations.
For Hunt, this Southern influence is most obvious in race relations. Even in the 1960s, he said, people who were educated and traveled were surprised by the severity of segregation in Columbia.
“The habit of whites and blacks living separate social lives in separate neighborhoods is still strong in the town,” Hunt said. “Traces of segregation are widespread in America generally, of course, so Columbia may not be strikingly different from university towns of comparable size in Northern or Western states. I think it's somewhat different, though, somewhat more divided along racial lines.”
Race makes the culture of the university different from the culture of the city, Hunt said.
“The university doesn't strike me as having a Southern culture,” he said. “The students at the university seem to me much more at ease with racial differences — and other differences — than the average citizens of Columbia or Boone County.”
Just as regions form cultural identities, so can universities.
Wayne Brekhus, MU associate professor of sociology, said these identities are based on where a university is located and, perhaps, its athletic conference.
Brekhus sees Columbia as being two-thirds Midwestern and one-third Southern.
“One of my friends jokes that Columbia’s not in the South, but you can see the South from Columbia,” he said. “That's pretty close to true.”
Football reflects cultural traditions
When it comes to athletics, the overwhelming opinion seems to be that if you think football's a big deal at Missouri, you've never been to a game at an SEC school, or, more specifically, a game at one of the SEC schools in the Deep South: Louisiana State University, Alabama, Auburn or the University of Mississippi.
“I’ve seen some people say that they didn't think Missouri would fit in because our football fans aren't rabid enough,” Brekhus said. “I think it's true that there's definitely more stronger, intense football cultures in some of the SEC schools.”
Brekhus added, however, that it feels like Columbia’s population doubles on game days — one sign of a strong football tradition for a Midwestern town.
While the culture of football and its traditions aren't identical across the SEC, game days are steeped in the foods and fashions of the South, including showy dresses and bow ties as well as fancy tailgate affairs with gumbo and other Southern cuisine.
At MU's centennial Homecoming game this fall, jeans and sweatshirts were the outfits of choice, and tailgaters' grills were loaded with hot dogs and hamburgers.
Joel Athey, who's been a fan for 35 years, took a break from pregame festivities to express his support for remaining in the Big 12. MU doesn't belong in the SEC, he said.
"Do we barbecue alligator meat? No. So say, 'no.'"
Harold Westhues, who was tailgating with highball glasses and a black tablecloth, was more accommodating about a move to the SEC.
"We have more of a Southern heritage," he said. "We were a slave state. We're Southern enough to fit in."
On the Rock M Nation site, which is a blog for Missouri fans, commenter Karl Wiggins, who writes a blog about Alabama football and SEC sports, offered his take on whether MU would be a good fit for the SEC.
“Outsiders view the SEC fan base as one entity culturally, but it is a mix of Southern and Eastern, Appalachian and Ozark, redneck and old money, football elitism and cultural defensiveness, Cajun and country, and 15 different kinds of barbecue,” he wrote. "You guys will fit in fine."