Football has been a mainstay of sports and team-oriented recreation in the Great Plains region for more than a century. Since early settlers opened schools and towns began to organize community sporting activities, football has played a prominent role in the culture and identity of the region. High school, college, and professional football teams in the Great Plains have enjoyed great success throughout the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century.
High school football in the Great Plains is played by eight-player teams in the smallest communities and on the simplest of playing fields as well as by students in some of the largest and best-equipped school districts in the United States. The latter is especially true in the region's largest state, Texas, where some high schools have facilities and budgets that would be the envy of many smaller college programs. The role of high school football in serving as a community identifier is visible every day on the local landscapes, where many small towns and larger cities have signs and water towers proclaiming the successes of the local team. The level of community identification with the high school football team has also been well established in the popular media, as is evident in several major motion pictures such as Varsity Blues (1999). The impact of high school football on the West Texas communities of Midland and Odessa was also critically chronicled by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist H. G. Bissinger in his book Friday Night Lights.
While high school and Little League football continue to play a major role in the everyday life of people throughout the Great Plains region, no form of sport has brought more recognition to the region than college football. Legendary college basketball coaches have parlayed their talents in the region, and college baseball and other sports have also achieved much, but it is the college football teams from the Great Plains that have had unparalleled success over the past fifty years. During that time, Plains schools have won outright or shared sixteen national titles, as determined by the year-end polls of sportswriters and coaches, with the University of Oklahoma winning seven, Nebraska five, Texas three, and Colorado one.
These four teams represent the most successful of the region's college football programs, but they are not the only ones that have triumphed on the gridiron. In 1958 the Big 8 Conference, one of college football's most important leagues, was created. This conference was comprised of Iowa State University, Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, and the Universities of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Two of these universities are outside the formally defined Great Plains region (Iowa State University and the University of Missouri); the remaining six are located along the peripheries of the region. While not all of these programs have not had the accomplishments of the dominant programs in the league, all have had their moments in the college football spotlight. Oklahoma State thrived in the 1980s, not least because of Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, who set numerous conference and national rushing records during his time with the Cowboys. The University of Kansas launched the Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, and in the 1990s the Kansas State Wildcats became one of college football's most successful teams after decades of suffering as one of the nation's poorest programs.
The Big 8 Conference became synonymous with the Great Plains region, but prior to the 1990s, college sports in Texas were dominated by the Southwest Conference (SWC). This conference was comprised of eight universities from Texas (the University of Texas, University of Houston, Texas Tech, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, and Texas A&M University), together with the University of Arkansas. Unfortunately, this group of programs came to symbolize the problems afflicting college football in the late 1980s and 1990s. At one point seven of the eight Texas programs were on probation with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for various rules violations, and Southern Methodist University is the only program in college football history to suffer the "death penalty": the suspension of the program for one or more years. While rules violations were rampant in the SWC, the Big 8 was not without its own problems. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were found to have committed major rules violations as well. By 1995 major college football in the region was in disarray, so a plan was put in place to restore respect in the sport. The Big 12 Conference was formed in 1996, comprising the Big 8 programs plus four of the schools from the SWC: the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech, and Baylor University. In the first five years of the conference's existence, two schools from the league won or shared the national title–Nebraska in 1997 and Oklahoma in 2000.
Colorful coaches and players are often part of college football, and the Great Plains region is no exception. Oklahoma has benefited from the coaching careers of Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, Chuck Fairbanks, and now Bob Stoops; Nebraska has contributed coach Bob Devaney and the twenty-five-year head coaching career of Tom Osborne; and Texas was led by legendary coaches Dana X. Bible and Darrell Royal. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White was an all-American at Colorado.
Professional football in the region has had a shorter but also a successful past. Both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs were charter members of the original American Football League in 1960. Each of these teams has won the ultimate pro football prize, the Super Bowl, with Kansas City winning in 1970 and Denver winning twice, in 1997 and 1998, the latter game closing out the storied career of quarterback John Elway. Like the major college programs of the region, these teams are located along the periphery of the Great Plains. The most successful of the professional football teams located on the edge of the region is the Dallas Cowboys. Founded in 1960 as an expansion team in the National Football League, the Cowboys were led for twenty-nine years by coach Tom Landry. After an uneventful first five seasons, the Cowboys played in more Super Bowls than any professional football team, winning the title five times.
The rough-and-tumble sport of football in the Great Plains can be seen as a parallel to life in this often difficult region–hard but leading to triumph and attainment. The Great Plains has seen success in football at all levels, from the small high schools around which family life and Friday nights are often centered in small prairie towns to the national championships of wealthy college and professional teams.
G. Allen Finchum Oklahoma State University
Bissinger, H. G. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Dortch, Chris, ed. Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook: 2001 Edition. Dulles VA: Brasseys, Inc., 2001.
Watterson, John Sayle. College Football: History, Spectacle, and Controversy. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.