SEC historian explains colorful culture of Missouri's new conference

Thursday, September 13, 2012 | 11:09 p.m. CDT; updated 7:02 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 14, 2012
Mark Windham, a University of Tennessee professor, speaks at the Missouri Theater on Thursday about the history of the SEC. Windham is a professor of plant pathology, but he has also taught a freshman class on football for the past eight years.

COLUMBIA — From 1966 until 1991, 10 football teams competed in the Southeastern Conference. Mark Windham, an expert on SEC history, referred to them as the "happy 10."

"That is until we let the chickens and the pigs in," Windham said, referring to the South Carolina Gamecocks' and Arkansas Razorbacks' inclusion into the conference in 1991.

Windham, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Tennessee, came to Columbia to lecture on his other area of expertise — the history of SEC football.

Roughly 60 spectators sat in the Missouri Theater on Thursday night for Windham's presentation, which outlined the origins of the SEC and explained some of the cultural eccentricities in Missouri's new conference.

Windham spent particular time on the lavish life of SEC mascots. "Uga" — Georgia's bulldog, for example — flies to every away game on a chartered plane and has air conditioning in his doghouse in the Georgia stadium. Mike the Tiger, LSU's half-bengal, half-siberian tiger mascot, lives in an outdoor compound the length of half a city block. He can be viewed 24 hours a day on a live webcam on the mascot's official website, Windham said.

"He has paid dental and medical and goes to the ballgame for free," Windham said. "There's not a Cajun in the state that wouldn't trade places with him."

An avid SEC football fan for the last 50 years, Windham founded a freshman course about the history of SEC football seven years ago at the University of Tennessee after he was stunned by how little his students knew about the conference.

He has since spoken at University of Tennessee alumni chapter meetings, private business gatherings and regional conferences. He said he's using his visit to Columbia as a chance to learn about MU's traditions and develop a lecture for his class.

Windham has toured campus, the athletics facilities and made stops at Sparky's Ice Cream, The Heidelberg, and Addison's during his stay.

"The first time I saw the columns, they flashed on the screen during an SEC commercial," Windham said. "My wife and I thought, 'where the heck is that?' When I pulled up to campus Wednesday, there they were. They are magnificent."

Windham said he's fielded lots of questions about SEC traditions from MU students, who seem worried about what to wear to SEC games.

"I just say, 'Be yourself,'" Windham said. "The fans at Ole Miss wear blue blazers and eat off sterling silver plates. At Tennessee, we're thankful if our students show up with shoes."

Unlike MU fans he's talked to, Windham isn't worried about the Tigers fitting in.

"Once you've played every team, it's old hat," he said. "You're new, you're novel, but it's not going to last. I guarantee you, every SEC fan sees the Tigers as standing in between them and Atlanta (the location of the SEC conference championship)."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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