Missouri's bid to join SEC affords opportunity to reflect on cultural identity

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 25, 2014
University of Florida Gator fans erupt in pandemonium at The Swamp in Gainesville, Fla. as a touchdown is scored against the University of Tennessee in September 2007.

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. 


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"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."

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Nick Gass November 1, 2011 | 1:35 p.m.

We want to add your voice to this conversation. What do you think defines Southern culture?

—Nick Gass
Community outreach team, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 1, 2011 | 1:52 p.m.

"What do you think defines Southern culture?"

Columbia apparently is the epitome of a Southern college town:

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer November 1, 2011 | 2:08 p.m.

Jimmy, check out how our Facebook fans felt about Southern Living's declaration that Columbia was a Southern college town:

— Joy Mayer
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Kelly Cohen November 1, 2011 | 3:01 p.m.

I love this article, Alison! Keep up the good work!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 1, 2011 | 3:47 p.m.

Assuming "cultural identity" includes cuisine, Tiger fans need to be introduced to BOILED PEANUTS, a true South Carolina delicacy. Boiled peanuts are found at football games, county and state fairs, bar mitzvahs, etc.

My niece and her husband live in South Carolina. He grew up in North Carolina (graduate of NC Sate and Clemson) and on occasion he eats boiled peanuts.

They are brown, very slimy, and messy to eat.

I'm going to revert to my original comment about this conference change: culture, and all that nonsense, is a side issue: this is being done for money. George Kennedy has previously agreed with me, right here in this newspaper, and George and I almost never agree.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders November 1, 2011 | 4:38 p.m.

Cultural identity doesn't mean squat in an athletic contest. Historical rivalries however, mean everything from a fan perspective.

What I find surprising is that the local media has done so little to put the heat on Deaton. The longer this drags out, the worse the outcome, regardless of the decision.

Is the media trying to protect MU by being so quiet? Why isn't he ambushed by a reporter every step he makes, every minute of the day? Where are the articles calling for his resignation?

Oh well, at least Mizzou won their first SEC away-game.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor November 1, 2011 | 4:44 p.m.

I don't know if football madness can be "owned" by the SEC. Not to say that we are as football crazy as LSU or Alabama. We have other sports like basketball and wrestling, which they barely pay attention to, that thrive here. However, I would argue that Texas and maybe even OK are every bit as football crazy as the SEC schools. I see the football craziness as a southern thing and not an exclusively SEC thing. I was on my way to spring break in southern Texas a long time ago. We had three Missourians in the car and one guy we picked up on the way from Texas. We passed a "college" football stadium on the way in a small town that I didn't think had a college. I asked the guy from Texas what college that was. He laughed and explained it was a small high school. This small high school had a football stadium that would match the football stadiums at SEMO or CMSU... (or whatever they are called these days...)
So, yes the SEC has a few schools that are footbal crazy, but so does the current Big 12. I think you would find the exact opposite situation that Overby described above when contrasting a football game day at Texas vs Kentucky or Vandy (two teams likely in our half of the future SEC...).
Plus, I have never met BBQ I didn't like. I can learn to grill gator ;-)

(Report Comment)
Gary Fuenfhausen November 1, 2011 | 4:54 p.m.

Alison, this is the best cultural overview of Columbia and the MU culture I have ever read. I have lived in the Deep South, Western MO, Mid MO, and the West, so I really appreciate what you have written. You did an excellent job. Thanks.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 1, 2011 | 5:13 p.m.

Grilled 'gator, yes; boiled peanuts, no. :)

"Wots de name of yo huntin' dawg?"

"Ah calls 'im 'Fido.'"

How you spell 'Fido'?"

"Ah spells it F-I-D-O."

"Wot kinda Cajun are you? Ever'body knows 'Fido' is spelled F-I-D-E-A-U."

[At that point a third Cajun enters the conversation.]

"You two are the dumbest Cajuns ah ever did see! Ever'body knows that 'Fido' is spelled P-H-I-D-E-A-U-X."

And so it is.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson November 2, 2011 | 12:11 a.m.

Nick Gass asks, "What do you think defines Southern culture?" The question seems to assume there is one "Southern culture". I quibble with that, I think there are Southern cultures, plural. The South is not as homogenous as some may think. Sure, there are similarities across the region, from Florida to Missouri, from Maryland to Texas. But there are numerous sub-cultures. I think this is too often ignored.

There are various cultural differences between the Appalachian South, and the Deep South; between the coastal South, and the mid-continental South. There's an old saying about Florida, for example: that the further north you are, the more southern it is. Demographically, there is truth in that.

Even within the traditional, white southern, Scots-Irish populations within states, there are cultural, linguistic, and political differences. East TN is different from west TN. Even in MO, you notice this, from the Bootheel, to the Ozarks, to Little Dixie in mid and NE MO, all of which can be considered "Southern". Cajuns in LA are very different from Anglo-centric folk in north LA. Throw in German pockets from Westphalia and Freistatt, MO to the Hill Country of TX, to the back-country of SC. Differences in African-American sub-cultures, too, from St. Louis to rural SC, to New Orleans.

Years ago, I went to job training with a gentleman from MS, a graduate of SEC's Miss State. Over beers at Sundeckers in STL, he asked me, in the Civil War, were you Missourians "with us, or again us"? I said, yes. We both captured, and defended, Vicksburg, for example. When Lee was surrendering at Appomattox, there were African-American Missourians charging the works at Fort Blakely, AL, defended by white Missourians. History and culture are much more complex than we often think.

How does this translate to conference re-alignment, football, etc.? Other than the fact that we will still loathe Kansas, I don't know.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 2, 2011 | 5:52 a.m.

@ Richard Saunders:

Your comments deserve a response from someone, but you may have to settle for me. In over 55 years of observing the workings of this university I've noted that it operates with a great deal of secrecy on the part of its decision-makers, and that also includes matters not having to do with athletics. Obviously, a certain degree of secrecy is necessary in conducting the affairs of any business or institution of higher learning, but situations can be carried to extremes.

At any point in this odyssey - first apparently involving the Big 10 and now the SEC - have Tiger fans been polled to determine what THEY would like to see happen? Obviously you can't do that when you are in secret negotiations with another athletic conference, but it could have been done BEFORE that. Are fans considered irrelevant? Are MU's academic departments no more than a life support system for its athletic department?

Nebraska seems to be holding its own in Big 10 football. We can assume that the Big 10 got what it wanted; maybe the SEC will too.

I've no comments concerning Brady Deaton.

(Report Comment)
Chad Levitt November 2, 2011 | 10:49 a.m.

It's simple. It is about money and The University of Texas is to blame as much as anyone else. So far 3 universities have defected and Missouri is just a few days away (or so it seems) from being number 4.

(Report Comment)
Steve Bellis November 2, 2011 | 8:46 p.m.

As someone from KC I am sad that it appears that MU is going to throw away 100 years of history. In the SEC Mizzou will be like the in-law at a family reunion. People will be friendly. We might even enjoy ourselves, but it won't be the same. We are at the center of the Big 12. We will always be on the fringe of the SEC. Are we really saying that we most identify with Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas? Really?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 4, 2011 | 3:15 p.m.

If ONLY this city could make North Carolina-style pulled pork barbeque....then and only then would I consider we have a smattering of Southern culture.

Many advertise it, many try....but no one succeeds.

Not even close.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 4, 2011 | 3:23 p.m.

Oh.....and crab cakes.

Real, honest-to-goodness, lots-of-crab-chunks-and-not-so-much-breading-seasoned-to-perfection crab cakes. The "seasoned" part is the hard part. Many try, but no one succeeds.

Once upon a time long ago I paid 8 bucks for a Charleston, South Carolina crab cake no bigger than 1/2 the size of a medium muffin. Best thing I ever ate, bar none. Nothing else even comes close. You could smear a bit on your forehead and your tongue would knock you out tryin' to get to it.

If we had these two things, these measly two things, we'd be ready for the SEC (PS: We already got good cajun, so that's a good start).

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 4, 2011 | 3:40 p.m.

Some scrumptious pulled pork barbecue comes from the Birmingham, Alabama area. I've never found any that's better. As for crab cakes, I don't associate crab and crab cakes as typically Southern. Try Maryland, whose public university is not in the SEC. Steamed soft-shell Maryland crabs: eatin' doesn't any better than that!

On US 98 near the beach in the Florida panhandle there used to be a restaurant where the billboards said of their shrimp, "They Slept In The Gulf Last Night."

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble November 4, 2011 | 4:47 p.m.

I've found the idea of a move to the SEC all wrong since I first heard of it. Nothing against the SEC or the South, but Mizzou is simply not a southern school, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the football culture in those states.

As someone who graduated from MU, has family in the southeast, and has plenty of exposure to southern culture, it's clear as day to me that MU is much more of a northern/midwestern school. Add to that the deep rivalries MU established in the Big 8 - rivalries which, significantly, haven't changed since the move to the Big 12 - and you get the picture of a very consistent culture that is not remotely SEC.

This alumnus is disappointed in the powers that be of his alma mater. Would that there was a way to detach the conference from all things Texas and get back on the path of the school's identity - an identity which few seem to dispute.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt November 4, 2011 | 5:52 p.m.

MU a northern school? I knew there was something about it that was wrong but did not know what it was until now.

Maybe all you "can't give up my college days" people ought to find some REAL problem and work on that. After all it's just a ball game. nothing more nothing less.

There are a bunch of poor people who are going to have to move because the land they have their homes parked on has been sold. Problem is they haven't the money to move. Now if you took all the money spent by you upstanding citizens on just one ballgame to help these people move maybe you'd actually learn something and fix a problem at the same time. Who knows you might even like yourself again.

After some though Kevin you do sound like one of them yankees. I think if you had paid attention in class rather skipping you would have learned that when my family rolled into this area from Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and Alabama they were southern and the state has been considered southern for two hundred years. They were the ones who cleaned up this patch of woods so you could have your university and so you could get in a snit (look it up) over Texas being willing to take MU into their fold. Of course we have no laws saying you have to go to any of the games. You can go up no'th to Detroit if they have any games there.

Good Day Sir.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 4, 2011 | 6:50 p.m.

Gerald says:

Maybe all you "can't give up my college days" people ought to find some REAL problem and work on that.

Me: I already did that. Find a real problem, that is. My family and myself. The whole bunch. Years of paying attention in school, years of delayed gratification, trying to do the right things and mainly succeeding because...well...right is right and wrong isn't. Using good life's strategies. Staying on the right side of societies' laws. And times of horror and heartache, as well. Kept me fairly well occupied.

Gerald says, "After all it's just a ball game. nothing more nothing less."

Me says...true.

Gerald says, "Now if you took all the money spent by you upstanding citizens on just one ballgame to help these people move maybe you'd actually learn something and fix a problem at the same time. Who knows you might even like yourself again."

Me says, "Yes, there are a zillion things I could do with money and time. I still do some of them, but quite frankly I've grown jaded over the last 40 years at the trillions of mainly fruitless dollars spent doing that by a gov't who long ago decided they were better at charitable actions than me. I give to church, and I give to those who are infirm either of mind or body. Everyone else is either on their own or at the mercy of a not-so-benevolent-and-certainly-not-effective gov't.

And I already like myself, so that's not an issue.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt November 4, 2011 | 7:52 p.m.

Jerry to Michael Williams November 4, 2011

I am not a football fan nor am I a supporter of MU but I suspect that you and I Michael agree on a great deal.

Have a good weekend

(Report Comment)
frank christian November 4, 2011 | 9:51 p.m.

Ellis - "there used to be a restaurant where the billboards said of their shrimp, "They Slept In The Gulf Last Night."

Yeah, and I remembered oyster bars serving them $1.50 per dozen raw in Nawrlens and every 1/2 mile between Gulfport and BilUxi, MS, until I brought the family down, late seventies. Still have the memories.

Michael W. - Crab cakes, Conch cakes? The best? A long way from where you write about, but won't cost near $8.00. Alabama Jack's just past Homestead FL on the way to Key Largo, Key West Key whatever, entering the Keys. Keeper snook idle around their back country deck. Getting sad, still have the memories.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble November 5, 2011 | 2:42 a.m.


I was born in Texas, my family is from Kentucky, I know exactly what a "snit" is, I don't spend money on MU football, and I graduated summa cum laude from MU (which suggests I may, in fact, have paid attention in class). I also have the mental capacity to simultaneously realize that college football is less important than people being displaced from their homes, while still having opinions on both matters.

Most of your rambling rant was borderline unintelligible, but I wanted to clear you up on a few of your points.

"One of them yankees"

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 5, 2011 | 8:57 a.m.

@ Frank Christian:

I was once offered a job in Pascagoula, Mississippi (the plant produced high purity dead-burned magnesium oxide from brine taken from the Gulf). My wife and I stayed at a place called Longfellow House. There was the main house, Southern mansion type, and then they'd built cabanas around it. For the 1960s it was impressive. You took meals at the main house; the restaurant manager was a gray-haired black man, dressed like an English butler. My understanding is that while the place was called Longfellow House it had nothing to do with the poet; the facility at the time was owned by Ingalls Shipbuilding (nuclear submarines).

I passed on the job. Several hurricanes later, I'm glad I did. BTW folks in Mississippi have no concept of what zoning means. On the other hand, Holly Springs, Mississippi is one of the the nicest towns in the United States to visit.

(Report Comment)
Maggie Squires November 6, 2011 | 5:35 p.m.

As a southerner who recently graduated from Missouri, I find it highly offensive that everyone's getting so caught up in the racial tensions in deciding whether or not we'd fit into the SEC. I think it's embarrassing that someone would say that because Missouri was a slave state, it'll be okay for it to join the SEC. Or that because our campus doesn't have palpable racial tension, we won't fit in. It's insulting.

"Slave state" was the definition of the South at its worst moment, and it's a serious shame there is so much concentrated on that. It's 2011. The South has changed. Sure, there are a few horrific people still around who believe it will "rise again" and still harbor racial tendencies, but those people are fading away more and more over the years. Let's let them fade. Don't give them spotlight.

The levels of racism on campus should absolutely not be a factor that's considered in whether or not we'd fit in.

A lot of this article seems to focus on Ole Miss. Ole Miss is the absolute epitome of Southern tradition with the Grove and the dressing up for tailgating. Yes, we're lightyears away from the Hotty Toddy fancy traditions, but we won't be the only SEC fans dressed in jeans. The SEC is more than just the Deep South schools. Ole Miss is more of a caricature of the nature of the SEC than the actual nature of the SEC. Let's stop panicking that we aren't just like them.

There are reasons that Mizzou will fit in well with the SEC. We are tradition obsessed. We started homecoming. We sell out of black glitter in October as a state. We have one of the biggest Greek systems in the country. Memphis is a popular destination for fraternity formals. We are pretty football obsessed, and we're not really the strongest basketball school. We sell out the stadium. The town quite possibly does actually double on a home game weekend. Tailgating begins at the crack of dawn. And maybe this move to the SEC will inspire people to eat more of that wonderful, homestyle Southern cuisine at their tailgates.

Trust me, you won't regret that experiment.

I guess I'm saying let's take this move to the SEC and make something good out of it. Let's not focus on the racism. Let's focus on our love for tradition, which is one of the big trademarks of the SEC. And maybe eat some better food on game days, though I do love hot dogs and hamburgers.


(Report Comment)

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