What a year it has been! It’s difficult to realize it during the day-to-day grind, but 2015 has been an amazing year for me. At the end of each December, I try to take stock in what I’ve accomplished and sketch out goals for the next year. Revising last year’s post, I didn’t quite meet all of the goals I had for myself. I wanted to write more than I did. I hoped to be further along on my dissertation. That’s a goal that remains for 2016. Despite falling short, I still believe that 2015 was successful because I’ve continued to move forward and grow as a teacher, scholar, and person.
Highlights from 2015:
- I started 2015 with lots of blogging and continued throughout the year. Sport in American History grew exceptionally fast. We moved from 2 posts to 3 per week (and will have 4 in 2016). I wrote about a variety of topics, ranging from bowl games, Jerry Tarkanian, the Kansas City Royals, The Black Athlete, and ideas about collective identity and public ownership in sports. You can see an archive of these post on the blog.
- In the process of writing these posts, I embraced the limits of my own knowledge. Collaboration and co-writing is rare in history. I used blogging a space to experiment with collaborative writing. My Purdue colleague, Wes Bishop and I wrote 2 posts together, combining his background in labor history and social justice activism with knowledge of sports. I’m really proud of how the posts turned out.
- In the spring semester I was able to work closely with my advisor teaching a new general sports history course. I really enjoyed seeing how he taught the class (and comparing it with how my MA advisor taught his). I took lots of notes to use in the future. This experience bled over into the summer where I helped him select and gather supplementary readings for a reconfigured version of the course (which he taught as a visiting professor at West Point in the Fall). Both experiences were insightful and will shape how I develop classes in the future.
- In fact, I immediately put many of those lessons to work. I was hired in April by the African American Studies program at Purdue to teach a course called “The Black Athlete.” While the course existed before I taught it, I was given the freedom to make it my own. Over the summer I blogged my way through the development process, choosing books, designing assignments, etc. Then, this fall I taught the course. It was a great class and my students seemed to get a lot of out of it. After the semester ended, one student wrote me, thanking me for an eye-opening class. “I’ve never taken a course similar to this one before, and I am leaving this semester with so much more knowledge about all of the topics we discussed than I would have imagined.” Notes like that make all the work that goes into teaching worth it.
- In June, I graded AP U.S. History Exams in Louisville, KY. Surprisingly, I got more out of it than the nice paycheck. I met some awesome high school teachers, Purdue alums, and professors. A few already knew of me from the sports blog! We had great conversations about teaching, grading, and life — often over drinks.
- Although the end result was disappointing, I attempted to publish an academic article during the summer, too. I spent quite a bit of time working on it, when I should have been writing dissertation chapters. Eventual publication still isn’t out of question, but I’ve taken a break from working on the article after a couple of rounds of revisions and reviews. Though I’ve written book chapters, review essays, and encyclopedia entries, I’ve never published an academic article. It’s always seemed like an opaque process that no one can really explain. The advice I’ve gotten from other has been decent but also somewhat contradictory. Putting myself out there and going through the process, while extremely frustrating at times, has been a great education. It’s taught me to think strategically about my writing. I hope that the piece eventually sees the light of day (if not, it’s part of a larger future project).
- I appeared as a guest panelist on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in August.The panel was about the Kansas City Royals image, which I wrote about in July. The Royals have long been my biggest sports obsession. I’ve followed them my entire life, so being able to talk about them, as an expert, on national TV was a dream come true; an absolutely amazing and unexpected experience. It did so much to validate all of the hard work I’ve put in to becoming a sport historian and building the sports blog.
- Speaking of the Royals… after a disappointing Game 7 loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series, they channeled their frustration into an amazing 2015 season. I was able to see them play twice in Chicago. The first game was in May at Wrigley Field with my brother and sister-in-law. Watching baseball with my brother is probably my favorite summer time activity. The Royals won 8-4, beating 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arieta. I saw my second game in July at U.S. Cellular Field with fellow Purdue grad student and suffering Pirates fan, Ed Gray. We caught game 1 of a double-heard, but were unable to stay for game 2. KC won 4-2 on an extremely hot afternoon, when the Chicago winds refused to blog. I unfortunately never made it back to Kansas City for a game. It didn’t matter. The Royals didn’t me to continue their winning ways. They easily won the AL Central by 12 games en route to amassing the best record in the American League. It was the Royals first AL Central title because their last division title came under the old 2-division system (which ended in 1994).
- The playoffs deserve their own bullet point, because like 2014, they were a wild ride. Despite the odds and deficits, the Royals refused to give up. Their win probability reached single digits in an elimination game against Houston — I nearly broke my phone at the bar in frustration — but they miraculously rallied to win. This happened in several games throughout October. Unlike 2014, they didn’t sweep anyone. They ground out each series with the confidence that they would not be denied. Their strong belief in themselves proved to be true as the Kansas City Royals became the 2015 World Series Champions. I still get chills writing that. Like my ESPN appearance, the Royals winning the World Series is something I’ve dreamed out most of my life.
- In September, I made the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. It was a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment trip to watch the Packers play my Kansas city Chiefs on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs lost, but I got to experience of the few must-see NFL stadiums. I toured their Hall of Fame, sampled the local beers, and ate some of the incredibly unhealthy that Wisconsin is famous for. It was a fun trip both as a fan and a scholar.
- In October I met Olympian John Carlos. He gave a fantastic talk at Purdue. I took some notes to use in future classes.
Written out, it’s clear that teaching, blogging, and sports dominated my 2015. In 2016, I’ll continue many of these activities, but need to do a better job of prioritizing my dissertation. Now that I have my class prepped, I should have more time to write. I’m eager to establish a better writing routine and use blogging to help make progress on the diss. While my dissertation is priority #1 for 2016, I already have a lot planned.
Plans and Goals for 2016:
- 2016 will begin with another semester teaching “The Black Athlete.” I’ve made a few changes to the class based on the fall, but nothing too significant. I’m excited to teach it again and continue to develop my own teaching-style.
- On the dissertation front: I’ve been writing in pieces lately, but I’m starting to get a better idea on how to sew them up into bigger chunks. I feel confident that I can quickly finish a couple of chapters that I’ve been playing with. I’ve committed myself to having a new chapter to my advisor before the beginning of the term, and I hope a second new chapter will follow not long after. I’m scheduled to present another chapter a works-in-progress event in early April, which gives me another deadline to focus on.
- Right now, I’ve got 2 conferences and a workshop scheduled. In March I’ll be participating in the “Public History and the Potential of Sports History Museums Working Group” at the National Council for Public History meeting in Baltimore, MD. It builds off of some conversations I’ve had with Kathy Shinnick and Josh Howard about developing more conversations between sport historians and public historians. Somewhat related, I was accepted to participate in the Doing Sport History in the Digital Present Workshop at Georgia Tech in May. My paper explores the transformative power of blogging to reshape and redefine scholarship, bridge disciplinary barriers, and open up sport history to a variety of people from different backgrounds. Finally, I have a panel proposal in for the annual convention of the North American Society of Sport History also in May at Georgia Tech. The panel is entitled “Teaching Sport History in the Digital Era” and looks at different approaches to digital pedagogy — both online and in traditional classrooms. If all goes well, I could get at least one publication out of these conferences. Also, as always, if you’re planning on attending any of these events, let me know! I’m always down for nerdy conversation and a beer.
- Building off of my NASSH panel, I’m working to develop an online version of ‘The Black Athlete’ course for summer 2016. It’s a great opportunity to teach over the summer while traveling and gain experience with online teaching. During the spring I’ll be building the course shell and redesigning my assignment for an online audience. I’ve been playing with how to best digitize lectures. Luckily I’ve got some generous colleagues who’ve been through this process before to guide me.
- The conferences are a part of larger Southern Trip I’m planning for May 2016. My parents and my older sister live in South Carolina. My Uncle, who’s an English professor, lives in Georgia. I’m planning to spend an extra week or two visiting them while I’m in the area. This includes driving my old truck, playing with my niece and nephew, visiting the ocean, and complaining about Carolina BBQ is.
- I’m hoping to return to Louisville to grade APUSH exams again. This is still up in the air a bit. I may have a wedding to attend, or I may not be selected for on-site grading. I’d really like to go back to Louisville though.
- Baseball is a requirement for any good summer. I try to attend at least one or two MLB game, and visit new stadiums. Milwaukee’s Miller Park is only about 4 hours from West Lafayette, and is on my list of stadiums to visit. I’d also love to see a game in Atlanta when I’m there, if possible.
As you can see, 2016 is already looking to be pretty busy. My major goal is to finish my dissertation. I’d like to have the majority of it drafted by the middle of the fall so I can go on the job market. It’s the only thing I have left to accomplish in graduate school and the only thing holding me back from moving forward. I’m reading to take the next step. I plan on doing that in 2016.
This week I’ve been Tweeting and sharing stories and links about the events at the University of Oklahoma. The video showing racist behavior by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity members is disturbing. I’ve tried to add some context by sharing my research into the history of Oklahoma and the university. During these discussions, I’ve payed particularly close attention to OU Football Coach Bob Stoops. He’s done a tremendous job of coming out against the actions and taking a firm stand against racism. President Boren has also done an admirable job providing quick, decisive leadership. The fraternity has already been shut down. Two of its member have also been expelled for their behavior.
Today news came out that Coach Bob Stoops, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the University of Oklahoma football did not practice yesterday (which was supposed to be their first spring practice). Instead, they met at the football complex, prayed together, and then marched through campus arm-in-arm demonstrating against racism. The Oklahoma Football Twitter account Tweeted pictures using #notonOUrcampus and #Sooners Stand United.
Also on Monday, top-recruit Jean Delance announced he would not attend OU and decommitted. These actions illustrate the importance of football as a symbol of the university. I’ve focused predominately on the actions of the football team at OU because it’s my area of research. My dissertation explores the OU football dynasty during the 1950s, and how it came to represent the state and create pride for its citizens. Football became a symbol of not just the university, but also the state. Bud Wilkinson, the football coach during that era, became one of the most important people in the state (this later led him to run for political office). The central role of football in the state is significant, and thus the leadership of its coach is crucial for gaining the attention of Sooners. After all, as my study shows, football played a key role in shaping the state’s culture. I believe Stoops and the OU football team continue to do so today.
Race and football has a long history together. The University of Oklahoma was the second to last football program to integrate its team in the old Big 8 (Missouri was the last). Though they were 14 years ahead of their biggest rival, the University of Texas, who integrated in 1970, it was a slow process. OU faced two Supreme Court cases during the late-1940s that would eventually force integration of the university. It took nearly four years from the first lawsuit until African-Americans were finally admitted. Once admitted, the University dragged its feet. Using railings and ropes, it tried to keep black students separate in classrooms. University President George Cross received hundreds of letters. Many of them from local residents deploring the idea, while out-of-state writers shamed Oklahoma for treating African-American students like animals, caging them off with ropes and railings. Soon, there were similar concerns about the integration of the student union and the football stadium. Could black students attend games? Would the intensity of sports cause problems? Administrators debated the pros and cons. Though George McLaurin and Ada Lois Sipuel sought educational equality, not athletic integration, they clearly got the ball rolling.
Indeed, in 1950 coach Bud Wilkinson announced that he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team. A few tried out, but no one made the team until 1956. Prentice Gautt, a fullback from Oklahoma City became the first black player on the University of Oklahoma football team. He was a standout athlete at all-black Douglas High School. During his high school career, Gautt played in the first-ever integrated game in the state of Oklahoma. He was also the first African-American to play in the state all-star game, though he was a late addition and it required special permission.
Gautt’s success at OU was due, in part, to the support he received from the African-American community in Oklahoma City. According to Sooner Magazine, “A group of black doctors and pharmacists in Oklahoma City had funded a four-year scholarship for a scholar-athlete who could make the grade at OU.” This would save Wilkinson, and presumably other OU coaches, from having to use an athletic scholarship on a black player, which undoubtedly would have created a quite a controversy among fans and boosters. Because of Gautt’s athletic prowess, he easily could have chosen to attend another school who had offered him a real scholarship (a year later Gautt was given an athletic scholarship), but OU’s football clout meant more to him. They were the best team not just in Oklahoma, but the entire country. Playing at OU allowed him to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.
The Sooners were in the middle of a 47-consecutive game winning streak when Gautt joined the team. The 1956 team was named national champions for the second year in a row, but because of eligibility rules Gautt was relegated to the freshman team. Oddly, I’ve found relatively little coverage of Gautt and the integration of football at OU in the mainstream white press. Because of the earlier Supreme Court cases, the papers seemed to believe that Oklahoma was progressive and had moved beyond race. This, of course, was not true. The newspapers do reveal some of the difficulties Gautt faced. A few of his fellow freshman refused to play along side an African-American. Because of this, one of these teammates decided to leave OU. Most, however, supported him. When the freshman team was denied integrated dining following a game in Tulsa, they chose to walk out in solidarity.
According to Sooner Magazine, Gautt was sure to go out of his way to appease Southern customs, such as avoiding being seen with a female classmates. “When class was over, she would go back to the Quad, and I’d go the same way to practice,” he told the magazine. “I can remember slowly putting up my brushes one at a time, washing them and washing them and thinking `Holy cow, we have to do all of this…” Indeed, he struggled to have much of a social life in Norman and instead often drove to back home to Oklahoma City.
He earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year (just as the winning-streak ended). On the varsity team he continued to face racism. In Texas, state laws prohibited housing Gautt with the team in their Worth Hotel in Fort Worth before the big OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, so other arrangements had to be made. Like earlier, the team showed solidarity and changed venues with him. Despite these set backs, Gautt stuck with it. During his junior year, he finally came into his own on the field. He was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. Success helped Gautt become more accepted on campus and in Oklahoma.
Following his playing day at OU, Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He stayed in Cleveland for a year before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. After seven years with the Cardinals, Gautt retired and became an assistant for Dan Devine at Missouri in 1968. While coaching, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology focusing on minority athletes. Eventually he joined the Big 8 (and later Big 12) as an assistant commissioner.
Gautt’s experience at Oklahoma shaped his later career and how he viewed race and athletics. In a TV interview during Bud Wilkinson’s 1964 U.S. Senate campaign, Gautt outlined some of his experience at OU and his views on Civil Rights and racial issues in sport.
Well you know this problem of integration, the Civil Rights bill, the Public Accommodations bill, they are, to me, when I hear people talk about it, it’s a big farce. Because it is easy for a person to get up and say I’m for civil rights, I’m for equal opportunity and I’m for this and I’m for that. But I believe until you make the first move in acting, or acting out what you’re saying, it’s no good.
Gautt believed in action, and he thought words were meaningless unless the were backed up. Bud Wilkinson backed up his word and Gautt supported him for Senate because “I have experienced it [Wilkinson’s actions].” During the interview, Gautt explained one example where Wilkinson stood up for Gautt and cut through racist views on the football team.
In 1959, uh we had a problem. We had, I was up for all-American, we had several fellas on the team that resented this. They didn’t think that I should have been up. They began to talk about me behind my back. We played Northwestern, we lost a very crucial game, our first game of the season. We came back we beat a team just barely, then we went to Texas, we played, we lost the game. We came back for practice that Tuesday. Tuesday we had a lousy practice. And he called us up in a huddle, and he said everybody in. We were really amazed because practice wasn’t over. He came into the dressing room we were in there milling around, talking with each other, and everybody sat down as he came in, and he said I want to talk to you for a moment. He said the fellow you’ve been talking about, he didn’t do, he didn’t ask for this all-American publicity. He didn’t ask for anything, the sportswriters selected him. He had the publicity from the paper. And I think it’s unjust that you talk about him behind his back. And until all of you decide that you want to play ball, you want to play together, that you’re men enough, and then stand up and tell him the things that you’ve said about him behind his back, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. And he walked out and slammed the door. Well, immediately fellas began to stand up and apologize to me for what they’d said. We band together, got together and we played wonderful football, at least up until the Nebraska game, which we lost. I think that was one of the first time Oklahoma had lost to the Big 8, one of the Big 8 foes, in pretty good a while.
(The quotes above are from this video interview).
Wilkinson was able to provide this leadership because, according to Gautt, he was “a secure person who felt pretty good about who and what he was.” He had the respect and the authority because of his success and his position within the state to say “You can he a part of my program. Regardless of what other people think or feel or do, I want you to be a part of my program.” This, in turn, put Gautt at ease and allowed him to trust his coach.
The response at OU follows this tradition. President Boren’s strong words have been followed by swift action and expulsions. Coach Stoops, like Wilkinson, has displayed remarkable leadership as well. Monday’s protest demonstrates to Oklahoma football players, and fans of the program, that its leader will not tolerate racism.
Gautt’s words, his example, and his determination still loom larger for the Sooners. The Prentice Gautt Academic Center connected to Memorial Stadium supports Oklahoma athletes academically. Likewise, until his death in 2005, Gautt frequently returned to OU to offer his wisdom. In 1987 he told Sooner Magazine, “Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go in terms of people relating to people. We’re not talking about just black to white and white to black: we’re talking about people relating, families, husbands and wives, kids and other kids. Underlying that is a message of love–what it really means to care for somebody.” As Oklahoma moves forward, I hope these words from one of the school’s most important racial pioneers guide it. It’s heartening to see Stoops and the football team lead the way. Like Wilkinson and Gautt breaking barriers in the 1950s, the cultural importance of football remains important and will go a long way in starting the healing process.
It’s that time of year when we reflect on all that we’ve accomplished and look forward to a productive year ahead. Sometimes I feel unproductive and discouraged about my work, but the exercise of compiling a list of everything I accomplished helps put things in perspective and motivate me for the year to come. It also helps me think through my goals and how I plan to approach and achieve them. It’s probably an old throwback to my running days. I wan an obsessive logger of my miles and times, etc. (I still use running-log.com on occasion) Looking at all of my personal data helped me better understand my body and discover what worked and didn’t work in my training and racing. This fall I struggled quite a bit with anxiety and insomnia. One of the recommendations I got to help manage that was to log my sleep and its quality. I’m hoping that by doing a similar type of reflection on my academic work I’ll be able to see the bigger picture and refocus my energies on the goals ahead. I apologize if any of this reads like bragging or self-congratulating. Self-reflection has always been a big part of my personal routine and is something that I really value.
- In February I was interviewed by TSN 1260 in Edmonton, Canada. They had me share the story of Billy Mills on their segment “The Greatest Stories Ever Told.” It was my first radio interview, but a lot of fun.
- Also in February I was gifted my current dissertation topic. After passing my exams I was playing around with a project on college football during the Great Depression. It wasn’t really going anywhere, when finally my advisor and his former student, Johnny Smith, stepped in. The new topic reinvigorated my research but it took me a while to get up to speed and find my footing. I spent a lot of time reading books on Oklahoma football, reading finding aids for archival collections, and searching for angle that was different than what had already been written. I tend to make things a bit more complicated than they have to be, but I finally stumbled into a narrative and an argument that blended the topic and my interests.
- I submitted two book reviews to the Journal of American Culture which should be published soon. I also completed a couple of entries for American National Biography, as I wrote earlier this year, my entry on Harold Connolly appeared in April 2014, and I submitted another piece on Bud Wilkinson this fall that should be out in April 2015.
- On May 1, 2014 I launched the Sport in American History group blog. I wrote 5 posts for the blog through the year. The site itself now has over a dozen contributors and has attracted over 12,000 views. Over 400 people follow the blog and receive email updates. Following the Annual NASSH Convention it was featured on their website. The success of the blog wouldn’t be possible without all of the hard work of the contributors, my co-editor Andy Linden, and everyone who reads it.
- I won a Graduate School Summer Research Grant and a Harold Woodman Graduate Research Award from Purdue University and the Department of History that allowed me to spend the month of July in Oklahoma doing research. I completed the vast majority of my dissertation research on this trip. I came home with over 5,000 photos, 17 years of scanned newspaper microfilm, and more. I also came home with a much, much better understanding of my topic and the direction of my dissertation.
- After the trip I was able to spend a week in Kansas City visiting friends as well as my grandparents. I played some disc golf, and ate lots of barbecue. I even tried a few new place in KC as well as one in Memphis. I also visited the original KFC in Corbin, Kentucky.
- I experienced the most magical baseball season of my life. It started with a Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley Field while I was at the PCA/ACA in April. Then in May a group of grad school friends and I went to Cincinnati to check off another ballpark on the list and catch a Reds-Brewers game. At the end of July I made my pilgrimage to Kauffman Stadium to witness a solid Royals win. I attended my last game of the season back at Wrigley Field in August as the Cubs took on the Giants. Sadly, it ended up being a rainout. The Royals kept the winning ways going into October. They swept their way from the Wildcard to the American League Pennant. They fell 90 feet short from a World Championship in Game 7 of the World Series. It was an incredible ride, the first like in my lifetime.
- This fall I taught my first solo college class. It was the second half of the U.S. History survey; U.S. since 1877. The class went great and my evaluations were solid. Despite being sleep deprived and seemingly always behind on work, I thoroughly enjoyed the semester. I felt like teaching really forced me to learn history again. It’s one thing to read the historiography of events and eras, but translating that into lectures for teaching is a whole another process. Teaching made me think about history differently. It also forced me to be productive by writing new lectures three times a week, though I was unable to do much work on my dissertation. I’m so glad to have the experience and the course prepped for the future.
- In September football scholar Michael Oriard visisted Purdue. I was fortunate to spend some time chatting with him about college football, history, academia, and, of course, my dissertation. I was thrilled to meet him and chat with him. I’m a big fan of his work and own several of his books.
- In November, Billy and Patricia Mills came to Purdue. It was so great to see them again. Billy and Patricia are such amazing and encouraging people. They have a real positive energy about them and genuinely interested in others. I was able to have lunch with them and spend some time chatting about life and various ideas. He asked me about the Native American mascot controversy. He told me he was curious about my perspective as someone who studies sports history and who grew up a Kansas City Chiefs fan. I felt even more honored to learn that Billy has been mentioning/recommending my thesis to others. Billy also shared a story with me about meeting Bud Wilkinson on his recruiting visit to Oklahoma.
Research and teaching took up the bulk of 2014. I regret wasting a lot of time in the Spring of 2014 meandering through different ideas and books. Looking back I could have made better use of that time and my local resources. I felt handicapped by the knowledge that I wouldn’t really know what I was doing until I got into the archive. I guess it was a rookie mistake. You can’t make up for lost time. However, I’m hoping this foundation of research and all of the time I spent working through different ideas allows me to spend the bulk of 2015 writing. I have a book review for Sport in History due in February (which I plan to finish before the end of the break) and then a few grants early applications to work on early in the year. My guaranteed funding runs out in May, so I really need to win a grant to keep things going. Other than those things, the dissertation is my sole focus for 2015. During the fall semester and over the break I’ve been working to organize my notes and photographs to better facilitate drafting chapters. While I may need or two small research trips to pick up a few extra sources during the writing phase, I don’t anticipate anything major.
It’s scary looking ahead. Earning funding for the next academic year is crucial. So too is making serious progress on my dissertation. They go hand-in-hand. Now is the time to cut out excuses and distance myself from distractions. This probably means less conferences, book reviews, and articles. I may need to cut back on blogging too, unless I can find a way to make it a useful part of my productivity. For example, this fall I used a series of blog posts to help me draft a large part of the last chapter of my dissertation. It’s not perfect, but it gave me deadlines and feedback. It worked.
I need to set a productive tone early in 2015. I needed the same thing in 2011 when I was writing my master’s thesis. It was slow to get started. I interviewed Billy Mills in January capping off the last of my research. After organizing myself, once I got stared and into the flow of writing it went by pretty quickly. I wrote 4 chapters and revised each of them 4 times between February and my defense on June 30. If I can find a similar pace of writing I’ll be in good shape in 2015.
Since I returned home from Oklahoma I’ve been working on organizing my research and sketching out how to organize my dissertation. I have a lot of little stories and anecdotes, but I’m not sure where to place them within the larger story. I’m still unsure how to construct and layout that story.
In a lot of ways the story is tailor-made. The University of Oklahoma won 47-consecutive games from 1953-1957. They also won 31-straight from 1949-1950. These two streaks serve as the driving narratives. Football and unprecedented success are the story. Yet, in other ways, they’re not the story at all. The immediate questions of “why football” and “what impact did the team and winning have on the university and state” are integral to doing good history. Those questions help separate my project from the other books written about the streak. After my research trip and doing quite a bit of reading I have answers to those questions and others.
The struggle is about organization and arrangement. What’s most logical, what supports my argument best, etc. I want to develop and foreshadow events with context and connections but I don’t want to detour too much from the “main” football story. Maybe this shouldn’t be a concern, because I feel like a lot of my little arguments and assertions take place along these side roads while football itself only loosely connects some of them. Football is the big image people notice, but the detours are what show the real, new Oklahoma in the postwar era.
The story that I think is at the heart of my dissertation is that of football as a symbol of the new Oklahoma building its image, industry, racial equality, etc. in the postwar Sunbelt. Football and winning are what people notice. It’s what makes Oklahoma and OU so unique and interesting, but along the way, parallel to the streaks, are some really compelling stories about racial integration (both of OU and the team as well as events in Oklahoma City), boosterism (Oklahoma City striving to become the “Detroit of the aviation industry”), the university’s vast expansion (with assistance from the Navy), loyalty oaths, and the state’s political influence.
Image is perhaps the overarching story, of which football is the biggest attention grabber. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets it all in motion. Oklahoma desperately wants to counter the “Okie” image and rebrand the state. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! helps. So too does a variety of ad campaigns and whistle stop tours by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce (and others). Football success, however, has the largest impact. This is undoubtedly why Oklahoma is one of the major instigators in questioning the NCAAs broadcasting policies during the 1950s. It also affects similar debates as they consider different conference memberships (with the president informing some alumni that while the Southwest Conference has less stringent recruiting rules, OU’s academic reputation would suffer).
Image really is at the fore in both narratives, it’s at the heart of what I mean when I say the “new Oklahoma” (or “Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” in my working dissertation title). The “new Oklahoma” is complex. It relies on football, the politics of pork, boosterism, mass media, and more, to reshape not just the state’s image but also its racial and economic landscape. There are hints of change in the political climate as well (though they’re not completely achieved until later). I want my dissertation to be about the construction of this “new Oklahoma” while keeping football as the central narrative trunk of which everything else branches off. It’s hard to strike that balance but I’m excited about where I’m going and I think I’ll be able to get there.
The entry I wrote for American National Biography on US Olympian Harold “Hal” Connolly went live today. You can read it here:http://anb.org/articles/19/19-01012.html It’s free to view for the first 6 months, after that a subscription is required. Although it is basically just a 1,000 word biography, it was a really fun piece to research and write. I didn’t know that much about Connolly before hand. He’s a fascinating figure. His life was so significant beyond just his athletic career. He was born with a deformed arm, he married a Czech athlete during the heart of the Cold War, he one of the first people to admit to using steroids and had a strong stance against punitive testing that he outlined in the NY Times. Later in his life he went to work promoting the hammer throw to young athletes and served as the top administrator for the special olympics. He embodies not just the Cold War era, but so much more. I hope to write more about him someday.
Next week I am launching my new group blogging project: Sport in American History! The site is still under construction as I wait for people to send me their bios, but I’ve got around 10-15 interested contributors, and a dozen or so more interested readers. The first piece will just be an introduction to the blog and outline of what’s to come. After that we’ll be taking turns posting weekly pieces that address current events, review books/films, share new research, and discuss teaching with sport. I’m hoping that it will be a great success but worry that motivating and reminding people to sign up and post regularly could prove to be difficult. The May launch is maybe a bit risky because everyone is busy with finals, but I wanted to have something up there and visible for us to advertise at the North American Society for Sport History meeting in late May. One of our contributors is really active with NASSH and has promised to spread the word. Look out for a new Twitter account for the blog too.
Beyond these two projects, my own research is going well. I’m proud of my working dissertation title: “From Dust to Dynasty: Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” though I think it makes it sound more like a biography than an exploration of race, politics, and football during Cold War era Sunbelt Oklahoma. Lately, I’ve been compiling preliminary lists of boxes and files that I want to look at when I get to the archives this summer. One of the grants I’m applying for requires it, but it’s going to be useful for other areas of my research too. I’ve had some really good conversations lately about my project and the different historiographies that I’ll be touching. There will definitely be a lot of political history, some race, and, of course, football. I hope to write a longer post on the project and its development in May. For now, the quick hitting themes are:
- Rehabilitation of Oklahoma’s image (rejection of “Okie” image)
- The expansion of the University of Oklahoma
- The integration of OU & OU Football
- Oklahoman’s as Cold Warriors
- Postwar Recovery based on the Aviation Industry and Pork Barrel legislation
- Football, Politics, and the Sunbelt/South
I could easily write a paragraph or two on each of these bullet points explaining them and my preliminary findings as well as connecting them. I’m really excited about the project and all of the different converging ideas and angels to explore. Things seem to be going well, but there’s always more to read, more to discover!
The depression has hit college and school sport almost as hard as it has hit other businesses, but when we get a good perspective of the picture, we may all come to the conclusion that in this one respect the depression may have been the blessing in disguise.
Years from now when people ask me how I chose my dissertation topic, I’ll recite the above passage. It was written by Glenn S. “Pop” Warner in the October 7th 1933 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. I stumbled across it while doing research for a paper I was writing about entrepreneurial coaches in the 1920s. I selected Warner, along with Knute Rockne and Amos Alonzo Stagg, as my central figures. Each are considered the “godfathers” of major college football. Since writing my master’s thesis I’ve been particularly interested in Warner, who is perhaps best known for coaching the legendary Jim Thorpe and the youth football league named in his honor. (I had originally wanted to write a biography of Warner.)
This passage, however, piqued my interest. I was drawn to it both for its shock-value and the subtle anxieties embedded in it. Warner admits earlier in the article, fittingly entitled “Football’s New Deal,” that what he is about to write “may sound like heresy, coming from one who has for forty years derived a living from training college athletic teams.” But he believes in his message. He’s uncomfortable with what football has become, with what he has made it. Ironically, however, the depression has given him hope. He suggests that it offers a chance to hit the reset button on college athletics and reexamine what they’ve become.
I argued in that first seminar paper that Warner was not alone in these sentiments. Four years earlier — less than a week before the stock market crash, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report on “American College Athletics.” The report chided the college sports enterprise writing, “apparently the ethical bearing of intercollegiate football contests and their scholastic aspect are of secondary importance to the winning of victories and financial success.”
What both of these events reveal to me is the contingency of history. How, amidst the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, did big-time college football not only survive but seemingly get stronger? What impact did the Great Depression have on big-time football? I’m not convinced that the rise of gridiron universities was an inevitable growth that began with Knute Rockne and Red Grange and “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s. Warner’s statements suggest that it wasn’t. While these are simple questions and a simple hypothesis, I hoped they’d at least provide a good starting point for further exploration.
Since this early hypothesizing and passing my prelims, I’ve started digging in and reading to discover what’s out there and what I’m going to contribute. I’ve decided to focus on the sport of college football from the 1929 Crash to attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It’s been tricky and confusing at times. After reading some sources I’ve thrown my hands up thinking that I’ve found the answers to my questions. But others have intrigued me and left me pondering other issues.
A lot of what I am seeing in my reading about college football in the 1930s is how the game is truly becoming modern. Many of the things we take for granted now and the ideas we associate with football were created during this period of turmoil. In a lot of ways it seems like the turmoil didn’t last very long and in fact caused the game to thrive.
- One example comes from a recent Journal of Sport History article by Kathleen O’Toole that suggests that the Great Depression put pressure on schools for profits and motivated them to transform the game’s relationship with radio. This created more money and pushed the sport further into the big-time. She further suggests that this push for media money is not unlike the current preoccupation with conference-wide television networks. The article comes from O’Toole’s dissertation that examines the relationship between college football and radio in the 1920s and 1930s and the move from educational to commercial radio.
- Similarly, the 1930s were the great era of bowl game creation. While the Rose Bowl had been around for quite a while, four other news bowl games sprouted out throughout the decade. As Robert Ours has outlined, the Sugar and Orange bowls began in 1935 (although forerunner began in 1933), the Sun Bowl was added in 1936, and the Cotton in 1937. These postseason games were the product of chamber of commerce interested in attracting tourists and vacationers. They put up large guarantees to the home and visiting teams. The 1935 Sugar Bowl promised $15,000 for the visiting team and $12,500 for the home team.
- The annual College All-Star Game began in 1934 between college all-stars and an NFL team. This was a huge change from the anti-professionalism of the 1910s and 1920s. Some of the money was used for charity, etc. during the Great Depression. Raymond Schmidt describes the role of the Chicago Tribune as a big supporter and organizer in his book on the history of the event.
- Brad Austin discusses how football was viewed Ideologically during the Depression. In his 2000 article in the Journal of Sport History, he shows how the game became associated with and championed by those against communism and socialism. Austin arguest that during the 1930s football was used as a tool to showcase true American, capitalist competition and strength against the corrupt and collectivists Europeans factions as well as the left-wing politicians in Washington. Although he doesn’t extend his argument beyond the decade, in many ways, he is illustrating the birth of this ideology that continues on into the Cold War uses of football and underscores why so many viewed football as an important tool during the Second World War.
- Race is another issue to consider. According to Lane Demas, UCLA was one of the few exceptions to the “gentleman’s agreements” that excluded African American players. Jackie Robinson transferred to UCLA in 1939 as was one of 5 African American on their team. USC had integrated earlier, but because of some rumors about white women and black players, Howard Jones segregated the team again.
- And of course, you can’t forget about the lengthy discussions offered about the Carnegie Report and athletic reform during the 1930s. Just as the Depression launched hundreds of New Deal programs aimed at fixing the economy, there was also dozens of reform movements in response to the Carnegie Report. Ronald Smith and John Thelin have written extensively on these efforts. One of these efforts was an agreement by the Southern Conference to openly offer athletic scholarships and eliminate the shady dealings and shamateurism uncovered by the Carnegie Foundation. Throughout the decade questions of reform and pay-for-play were debated, it’s interesting that such a decision was offered while other conferences continued to reject the idea. This is indicative of slow movement, but still progress. Other efforts were led by University Presidents, like Thomas Gates of Pennsylvania, who lead a commission to come up with plan to restore amateurism to college athletics.
- Howard Savage, primary author the Carnegie Report, issued an update in 1932 that continued to badger administrators to think about the place of sports in higher education. Writing in Carnegie Bulletin 26, he questions the role of colleges in training future professional athletes. “The propriety of using educational funds to produce professional players for league baseball and football apparently has not been publicly called into serious question,” he writes, “Big league baseball, football, and hockey teams have had their share of college stars” (47). Such a development is deplorable to Savage because it downplays and devalues education. Savage suggests that by developing professional players colleges are inadvertently encouraging students to ignore their education and think of professional sports as viable future career. In many ways this argument continues today among those who question the type of education that college athletes receive while having to travel to juggle classes, practices, travel to games, among other commitments. Similarly, Savage implies that spending money on college sports is a bad investment of education funds. Although he doesn’t explicitly state why, it appears that he is implying that athletes will come to see college as a sort of minor league that they must pass through before attaining the riches of college sports. In this way, he’s anticipating many of the problems associated with the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule. The 1920s and 1930s were filled with different questions of this type that continue to resonate in our current sporting climate. Savage and other scholars were critical of the role of the mass media in boosting and perpetuating stories of sports heroes that further complicated the relationship between athletics and education. As Michael Oriard has pointed out, the media played an integral role in building big time football, spreading it west, and more generally popularizing the game. Yet, prior to the 1920s and ‘30s most of the publicity surrounding college sports was free. The commercialization of college sports was fairly limited in the world of print-media. Radio, however, changed all of that.
From reading many of these studies and my short outline, one may get the impression that the Great Depression was nothing more than a tiny blip on the metaphorical radar of the albatross of big-time athletics. While there were many genuine debates about big-time sports and their trajectory, the Depression left relatively few casualties in its wake. The University of Chicago cut its football program in 1939. Jock Sutherland resigned under pressure at the University of Pittsburgh. Sure, Howard Savage and Francis Wallace dug up dirt, but they couldn’t drum up a critical mass of supporters to subvert the dominant paradigm. Indeed, as Ronald Smith has explained, both collectivist and individualist approaches to reform failed. At the same time, radio boomed, summer all-star games and winner bowl games expanded, and by the late 1930s season ticket sales to not only rebounded, but by 1936 to surpass those of sport’s “Golden Age” in the 1920s.
This overview of my preliminary research and historiography highlights most of the major events and trends of the decade. There’s quite a bit going on. A lot of it has been covered and explored, but I haven’t seen anyone connect the dots. I know a dissertation shouldn’t be too synthetic, but my initial hunch is to approach it that way. I want to show that the decade was pivotal in developing many of the modern aspects of college football that we take for granted today. These aspects range from the Heisman trophy, bowl games, debates over professionalism, using the media to make money, among others. At this point, I’m still not sure how valid such an approach and argument are for the project.
There is still too much going on. There’s nothing really original about my argument yet, either. After describing a lot of the issues and providing an overview of the decade in a recent meeting with my advisor, he paused and asked me what I’m going to argue. I quickly replied that I don’t really know. In a lot of ways I have answered my initial questions, at least superficially. I’ve gotten a feel for the contours of the project but there is no depth. It’s a weird place to be.
Lately I’ve been struggling with what to do next. I’m continuing to read various primary and secondary sources, but I feel less guided after my initial sketch. My advisor has encouraged me to start to start with a broad review of the decade’s periodical literature. The idea is that by reading what Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Literary Digest, and the other major magazines were printing about the sport I’ll be able to get a better picture about what the culture was saying and thinking about the sport. It’s a lot to wade through and it’s been slow going.
I know there is something here and that it’s going to be a good project, but I’ve been a bit frustrated with it lately. Somedays it feels too sports focused. I want to write something that connects to larger cultural and society issues. I don’t want to be just a sports historian or a college football historian. In my others projects I’ve had issues of race, representation, or transnational connections to make. So far I don’t have that here. I think as I keep reading and working through the source I’ll find something to latch on to, but not having it bugs me. I just need to keep faith. Every time I start doing a new research project I’m reminded of the sage words of one my undergraduate professors: “The sources will guide you.”