I’m a historian of modern American culture interested in ways that sports affect identity, and influence political and social structures. My research explores how sport creates opportunities and changes the environment of successful athletes, coaches, teams, and their communities.
My approach to research is simple: I use familiar character to tell unfamiliar stories. The familiar faces of popular culture and sports heroes frame my inquiries into complex issues — such as race, gender, politics, and identity — allowing me to tell unfamiliar stories. Iconic figures are central to my method because they serve as a gateway, luring readers (and students) to deeper understandings of the American past. I’m particularly drawn to the history of sports because it permeates so many categories of analysis, offering the opportunity to craft rich and dynamic narratives about American life.
In my master’s thesis I explored the lives of iconic Native American athletes, Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. As sport heroes, most people know about their athletic careers, but little about their lives as Native Americans. My study focused on the power of sports to create a middle ground where Native American athletes were able to coexist, cooperate, and assert their identity in broader American society. Although this middle ground did not create equality, it provided increased agency to successful athletes. Within this sporting middle ground, I analyzed how Thorpe and Mills used sport to navigate the political, social, and cultural structures that framed their lives and challenged expectations of Indianness through their activism in Native American causes.
My dissertation is entitled “From Dust Bowl to Dynasty: Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma.” Under Coach Bud Wilkinson, the University of Oklahoma football team captured 3 national championships and 14 conference titles, while compiling winning streaks of 31 and 47 games. The latter winning streak remains a major college football record. This unprecedented success displaced the painful memories and pejorative stereotypes of John Steinbeck’s “Okies” from the Great Depression, enabling Oklahoma to attract new industry and brand itself as a state of loyal, Cold Warriors, celebrated by Merle Haggard’s classic song “An Okie From Muskogee.”
Like my earlier work, my dissertation examines notions of identity and ways that sport provides new opportunities. Unlike my master’s thesis, however, it focuses on collective identity by exploring conceptions of image, civic boosterism, and state pride. I argue that the success of the University of Oklahoma football team helped create a new era in Oklahoma history. I position Oklahoma and the team’s dramatic rise parallel to the ascent of the Sunbelt, as both were aided by a favorable political climate and strong leaders in the 1950s. The Sooners football dynasty also highlights conversations about masculinity, loyalty, civil defense, racial integration, and higher education during the Cold War, allowing me to use sports to explore a complex historical moment. The project is less about college football itself and more about its impact and ability transform a state. It is a both a cultural and political history of Oklahoma and of college football during the immediate postwar era.
I have blogged ideas and short pieces from my dissertation at Sport in American History and on my personal blog. You can read them here:
- “OU Football and the ‘new Oklahoma.'”
- “Big Blue and Big Red: Sports, Collective Identity, and the Invention of Tradition.”
- “Vernon Louis Parrington and the Beginning of Oklahoma Football.”
- “Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma.”
- “Becoming a Sooner: Prentice Gautt and the Integration of Oklahoma Football.”
- “Sanity, Subsidy, and Ransom: The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma and the Birth of NCAA Probation”
- “The Bud Wilkinson Show: Television, the NCAA, and the Cold War.”
- “Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (part 1).”
- “Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (Part 2).”