Next year will mark the SEC’s 80th anniversary. The country’s preeminent modern football conference suddenly came into being on the evening of December 9, 1932, when then-Florida President John J. Tigert announced that his institution and 12 other schools had left the larger Southern Conference, effective immediately, to form the Southeastern Conference. Tigert’s announcement came at the Southern Conference’s annual meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee, the home of one of the breakaway schools. Tom Perrin, who authored a history of college football in 1987, wrote, “The main reasons for the rupture were geographical distance, travel time and expense, a great disparity between the large and small schools in the conference, and the fact that half the schools did not play each other from one year to the next, if at all.”
While today we may be on the verge of forming 16-school “megaconferences,” the Southern Conference in 1932 had 23 members stretching from Maryland to Louisiana. The Southern Conference itself formed just a few years earlier, in 1921, from schools that broke away from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), the first college athletics organization in the South. Among the SIAA’s original members in 1894 were four present-day SEC schools: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
By 1920, the SIAA expanded to 20 members, but a year later, 13 schools left to form the Southern Conference, including Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. According to a December 1920 New York Times article, the Southern Conference defectors objected to the SIAA’s refusal to declare freshmen ineligible for competition and the association’s failure to abolish the then-common practice of college athletes playing semi-professional baseball in the summer.
The defections reduced the SIAA to a second-tier conference, which nonetheless continued in operation until 1942, when it had 17 members in its final season, including present day Football Bowl Subdivision schools Miami and Memphis.
Like the SIAA, the Southern Conference quickly grew too large for its own good. The Associated Press reported on December 10, 1932, “The unwieldy Southern Conference has split along geographical lines and out of the break today emerged a new group of thirteen schools, mostly of the deep South, to be known as the Southeastern Conference.” This group included the core of today’s SEC — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — along with Georgia Tech, Tulane, and Sewanee (also known as the University of the South). The remaining Southern Conference schools were all located in Maryland, Virginia or the Carolinas: Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Military Institute, Washington & Lee, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, South Carolina and Clemson; seven of those schools — along with Wake Forest, which joined the Southern Conference in 1936 — left in 1953 to form the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Southern Conference still exists today, in the Football Championship Subdivision, albeit with completely different members. The Southern Conference’s footprint has largely been reduced to the Carolinas, with one member each in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. The longest tenured members of today’s Southern Conference are The Citadel, Davidson and Furman, which were among seven schools that joined in 1936 to rebuild the conference after the SEC schools left. Appropriately, these three schools were SIAA members in the early part of the 20th century.
Sewanee was the first school to leave the SEC, in 1940, when its religious administration decided to deemphasize athletics (the school currently competes in Division III). Georgia Tech withdrew in 1964 and became an independent after football coach Bobby Dodd objected to the conference’s policy of permitting “over-recruitment” of players (Georgia Tech joined the ACC in 1978). Tulane, the SEC’s other charter member, and the only private school in the conference besides Vanderbilt, left and became an independent in 1966; it was later a charter member, along with Georgia Tech, of the non-football Metro Conference. The Metro joined with the Great Midwest Conference in 1995 to form Conference USA, where today Tulane is a football-playing member.
The SEC remained a ten-member conference from Tulane’s withdrawal in 1966 until the 1991 expansion that added South Carolina and Arkansas. The Gamecocks’ addition was a reunion of sorts, as South Carolina had been a Southern Conference member back in 1932 when the SEC schools seceded. South Carolina itself left to form the ACC in 1953, and it was the first school to withdraw from that conference, in 1971, playing as an independent in football until joining the SEC 20 years later.
Arkansas is the only SEC member with no ties to the old Southern Conference or the SIAA. Arkansas was a charter member of the Southwest Conference (SWC) in 1915, the only long-term member of that conference not located in the State of Texas. Once the SWC began to crumble under the weight of numerous NCAA investigations — including the infamous “death penalty” against Southern Methodist University in 1987 — Arkansas announced its move to the SEC in 1990. The SWC officially dissolved in 1996, after its remaining members split between the new Big 12, the Western Athletic Conference, and Conference USA.