In early December 1932, more than 100 university presidents, deans, athletic directors, and baseball, football, and basketball coaches packed the two big hotels on Gay Street. Knoxville was a natural to host the annual convention of the Southern Conference. Robert Neyland’s Tennessee Vols were the big conference’s current champs, and Knoxville had a new amenity in its backyard: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which everybody wanted to get a look at. The mountains had been there all along, but never so easy to get to, with paved roads looping past vistas previously seen mainly by lumbermen. A trip to the mountains was on the weekend agenda.
Not all Knoxvillians were happy about the emphasis. One Baptist pastor took the occasion to denounce football and the “athletic craze” in general as a leading factor in the moral collapse of America. “We are living in an age when people are turning to the light, frivolous, and trifling things of life,” he said.
The national press was here—Harry Costello of the Washington Times, Dillon Graham of AP. The word in the “athletic clubs,” the betting speakeasies, was that something dramatic would happen in downtown Knoxville that week.
The Southern Conference comprised 23 colleges. Delegates of several more colleges who wanted to join attended, too, among them Father Doonan of Loyola in New Orleans. But for the last few years, the general feeling was that the Southern Conference was too unwieldy for a meaningful football league. Teams went through each season without playing most of the conference’s other teams. The rumor was that eight, including Tennessee, would split off to form their own conference inspired by the Big 10. Some were already floating a name for it: “The Big Eight.”
Most arrived on Wednesday, guys anybody who read the sports section would recognize. Alabama President George Denny, who had his name on a stadium in Tuscaloosa, came down with the flu as he arrived in Knoxville. Bama’s new coach, Frank Thomas, was there, and Georgia’s Harry Mehre, Tulane’s Ted Cox, and Auburn’s Chet Wynne, whose heartbreaking tie with South Carolina had just lost the Tigers the championship. Former UT halfback Gene McEver, now coaching at Davidson, was a delegate. Carolina’s basketball coach Bo Shepard was there, and Bob Fetzer, Carolina’s athletic director.
A few were from outside the region, like Gus Dorais, of the University of Detroit. Burt Ingwerson, the former Iowa coach, came representing LSU, which Gov. Huey Long had recently claimed was the conference’s real champion. With a conference that big, champs were theoretical.
The closed-door meetings were at the Farragut Hotel, at Gay and Clinch. Delegates were welcomed by UT president Harcourt Morgan—not yet associated with a dream called the Tennessee Valley Authority—and Maj. Bob Neyland, who was keeping his cards close to his vest. After rocketing the Vols to the top flights of American football over the last five years, and to the championship of this Southern Conference, Neyland was reportedly considering an ungodly lot of money to coach at New York’s Fordham U. Gamblers were laying 5 to 1 odds that he would take it. All he would tell sportswriters was that Fordham was “most attractive.”
Thursday was light-hearted, with afternoon golfing at Cherokee and Holston Hills; Jess Neely, Clemson's coach, was acknowledged as the golf champ of Southern football coaches.
That Thursday evening, the neighboring Riviera loaned the Southern Conference their floor show: the comedy team of Cogert and Motto, “the human jazz band,” famous for imitating instruments with their voices; Hal Moffett’s real jazz orchestra; and “an array of beautiful Girls! Girls!”
But after that, more business meetings, late into the night. Then sessions resumed Friday morning at 9:30.
By the afternoon, word was leaking out that the mutiny was much bigger than imagined. Not just seven or eight, but 13 schools would split away. S.V. Sanford, new president of the University of Georgia, confirmed rumors of a formidable new club called the Southeastern Conference.
The official announcement came that night, at a closing banquet at the Andrew Johnson Hotel. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, and Vanderbilt were now a conference of their own.
“In our good judgment the time has arrived for a more compact organization for the administration of athletics, and for a division of the conference to be made,” said John J. Tigert, the former Vanderbilt athlete who was president of the University of Florida. He insisted that the division “in no way reflected on the 10 schools remaining in the Southern Conference and that every effort would be made to promote intimate and cordial contact with the sister conference.”
If the new SEC got the Southern Conference’s best football programs, it was coincidental, Tigert insisted. It was strictly a geographical calculation, “with all good feelings and assurances that no other motives govern us.”
The name might have been a little surprising. Maybe football coaches were never that big on geography. Considering they were leaving the East out, it’s a bit odd that they added the suffix -eastern to describe this western defection. The Eastern schools would remain in the Southern Conference, but those west of there would be in the Southeastern Conference.
Economist Frank L. McVey was president of the University of Kentucky; the Ohio-born Yale grad would be the SEC’s first president.
Professor W.A. Hobbs of UNC came out with it: “We don’t feel hostile to any group that wishes to withdraw. We had hoped that the conference would be able to continue without a split. It is a disappointment to me that the South cannot stick together.”
Virginia Tech coach Clarence P. Miles, the Southern Conference’s first and current president, said, “I regret that you see fit to withdraw.... I wish the new conference everything that is best. And may you have bigger and better gates.”
Quoting Tennyson, Dean William Wannamaker, of Duke, sounded a little forlorn, if not drunk. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” he said.
Corrected: Coach Jess Neely's first name had been accidentally omitted.