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An in-depth Q&A with author and sportswriter Kyle Veazey



“Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation.” author Kyle Veazey


Matt Stevens


STARKVILLE - Former Mississippi State University sports reporter Kyle Veazey has pinned a book about the MSU men's basketball program under head coach Babe McCarthy defying a state court order and traveled to East Lansing, Mich. to face Loyola University in the 1963 NCAA Tournament.  


The book titled "Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation." has been published this month by The History Press. You can pre-order a copy at ChampionsForChangeBook.com. 


Veazey, a personal friend of mine, will have two informal book signings this weekend:  




Saturday 2-5 p.m., Strangebrew Coffee House on Hwy. 12 in Starkville  




Sunday 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Restaurant Tyler, 100 E. Main Street in Starkville  




The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog, thought in order to promote Maroon Madness this weekend in a historically significant season (first under new coach Rick Ray), it would be appropriate to promote Veazey's historically significant book on the MSU program in a phone interview Thursday morning. 




Q: It's my understanding the idea of this book came after a movie night at Davis Wade Stadium, can you elaborate? 




A: "It was after a MSU football practice in 2009 and they still do the movie night on the video board and this was the Thursday before the spring game and I didn't have to write the next day, which is a rarity and so when football practice was done I just said to myself 'it's a nice night I just want to go' and they played the "Game of Change" documentary (about the 1963 MSU team) before the move "Remember the Titans" and that's the kind of history I enjoy reading about and I just left there thinking 'cool I have to read the book' and over the course of a few week I searched Google and libraries and there was no such book. This was a punch in the face to me to say 'well, you always wanted to do one, this is a great opportunity for you'. I didn't start in the fall because I got married and we were moving and you know how it is but the next spring in May or June of 2010 is when I started. It was a two year process including 25-30 interviews and tons of hours watching microfilm go by." 




Q: I know you feel a deep connection to Mississippi: the state, the people and the culture, so try to put into words for me what it means to in a sense write a history book involving the state. 




A: "That's a fantastic question because you hit the nail on the head right there. I love Mississippi ever since 2001 when decided to go to school there. I have always been fascinated with their history just because it is so complex and quite frankly, not all of it is worth being proud of but if we don't write about it or talk about it, we haven't done much of anything about that. I did not set out to write a sports book. I did not want to write a sports book. I wrote a book about the history of an event or an era that dealt with sports at Mississippi State. I wondered over time as I was doing this, do we blow this out of proportion and does a sporting event really matter with all the much more grave things going on in Mississippi at the time and I don't honestly know the answer. The best guess I have is yes because William Winter, the former Governor of Mississippi, and who I think is Mississippi's elder statesman now for the book and I asked him 'now be honest with me, did this really matter?' and he didn't let me finish my question and said 'absolutely it mattered'. When you think about the time of it was, I have a line in the book that says 'it didn't change things in Mississippi but it certainly helped the change happen over time' and yeah, for me to tell a section of Mississippi's story is really humbling and it's a fun thing to do too because I don't think a lot of people broadly don't know about this story. To be able to share it is a great honor." 






Q: Not to give away too much (because The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog wants you to sell as many books as possible) but if you had to narrow it down to one person, who are you most happy that you were able to get interviewed for the book? 




A: "Babe McCarthy passed away in 1975 and so I knew going into it that being able to paint a picture of Babe McCarthy would be a challenge. However, it was a challenge I had to tackle because he is the most important character of the entire book. He is the beginning, middle and end. You couldn't gloss over who Babe McCarthy is, good or bad. I was really fortunate that his son Jim and his widow Leverne both agreed to talk to me. I went down there one day in Louisiana where they live and sat in Jim's house for five hours talking to both of them. It was fantastic to them and some people that played for Babe at Baldwyn (Miss.) High School. Obviously people will know I talked to Bailey Howell and Doug Hutton and Leland Mitchell and I'm not here to gloss over that. I needed to talk to those people but I was most happy with being able to talk to those people who knew Babe McCarthy the best. A lot of people know the name and that he was a coach but people don't know how colorful and interesting story he had to really come up from nothing in Baldwyn, Miss., and coach an SEC team in the greatest heights possible in the era of Kentucky's greatness. I don't think people truly appreciate what he did and the people that knew him best. That was a real treat." 




Q: Any significance interest to do a book about a sporting event but also get to speak to historical political figures in Mississippi as we look back at history in a hindsight fashion? 




A: "I do. I think the reason that area of history fascinates me is because it was such an incomprehensible thing that a society would treat a race of people differently like that. Also, that it happened so recently ago. Racism still goes on and I get that but I'm talking about institutional racism happening like that. It was just a generation or two ago. My parents remember when the schools were integrated and that to me seems so amazing, out of time and out of step. William Winter was Governor in the 1980s but was a ta collector in the 1960s and he knew a lot of what was going on then. A lot of key figures like Dean Colvard passed away in 2007. He left a memoir called "Mixed Emotions" and is a really an intimidate look at what he was going through and how he dealt with the situation. It was a great help. He and his predecessor Benjamin Hilbun left boxes and boxes of stuff that I was able to go through and see all the reaction they got. They saved every telegram they got, every working paper they had. It was a great gift to a historian 50 years later I can assure you. Fortunately most of the players on this team because they were 19, 20, 21 years old are still with us. Unfortunately a lot of the people that made a lot of the decisions and committed some of the acts have passed away. There's a lot of historical record on that though." 






Q: I think, maybe incorrectly but I digress, most MSU fans consider basketball what the school does in between football and spring football. However, describe how important it was for you to write a book detailing the significance of basketball history at MSU? 




A: "I think, and I've said this before, I think Mississippi State appreciates basketball a little bit than a lot of the Auburn's, LSU's and Ole Miss' of the world in the deep south. I think it's because of this era. A lot of fathers and grandfathers of current MSU fans were around when these teams were so awesome and therefore appreciate it a little bit more. You're right, basketball is not appreciated to the level that football is and I can't imagine that ever changing. To be able to shed some light on this and I think you speak of football history in the south, there's not a lot of secrets left. People know what happened in football seasons and players' coaches past. Basketball might not qualify there. The analogy is here (as a sports enterprise reporter for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis), I'm doing a high school football series this year and I'm not doing any college football games. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say 'wow, that's not as glamorous' and no, completely wrong. People are saturated with college football and you have to search for something to write about with college football that people don't already know. With the high schools, there are so many rich stories that haven't begun to be told. That's the analogy I have here. I have said before and I'll say again to view this book about the 1963 MSU team is a mistake. It is about the era that led up to the 1963 team, which is an important distinction." 






Q: Now that you're a published author, is there a part of this process (writing a book) that surprised you whether it was pre-publication or now post-publication? 




A: (Veazey wanted me to note that he laughed loudly at the beginning of the question so there ya go Kyle) "That's a good question. Two things that come to mind are the amount of time and effort my publisher and I went into deciding what the title would be. Every little word. It makes sense but I don't ever think about these things but the title is the most important thing because it may be the first and only thing people ever see. You need to grab a potential purchaser right there and maybe I just didn't understand that. The other thing is the amount of organization that was involved. People think you sit down to write a book and you smoke a pipe, drink coffee and you put down some flowery words from a feather pin on a piece of paper. First off, I used Microsoft Word. To me, it was about organizing all the material I got. Think about it, 25-30 interviews. Dozens of hours of microfilm. Two or three days worth of university research and lot of article I found. I had to put that into a thick three inch binder and go through it and go through it over a few days and highlight what I think is important and make sort of an outline. That was well, you you don't realize until you have it in front of you 45,000 words is a lot of words. You have so much stuff that its like a puzzle to try and make it fit. I learned a lot because I did from scratch. You know this but there's no book writing taught in journalism classes. It's just you pick it up and hope you're doing it right. I learned a lot of things that I'll take with me to whatever that next project may be." 




Q: Was it liberating in the sense that as a journalist to have that much space and number of words to play with though? Is that an incorrect assumption? 




A: "No. You're right. When you have that much space to tell a story, if there's one thing that you try to avoid is the reader gets done with the book and says 'hmm, I really wish that would've been flushed out more' or 'I wish I would've known more about this' then that's totally on the writer at that point. Newspaper stories are hampered because they have to be so short relatively speaking. If we didn't flush something out, it's probably because we didn't have space to do it. In a book, it's on me. In a book, you're trying to fight the feeling of 'I don't want to leave too much here to vagueness' because again you have no excuse. One of the hardest things about this book is everybody knows how it ends. It's one of the hardest things about writing non-fiction history. Curtis Wilkie wrote a book about the Dickie Scruggs trial (titled "The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer") and well, everybody knows Dickie Scruggs is in prison and lost that trial. If you're skeptical, you're going to say 'why would I want to read that?' and so the responsibility of the author to tell it in rich detail and with drama. Curtis Wilkie did a wonderful job with that. That was my challenge with this. Everybody knows the 1963 team went to the NCAA Tournament. My goal was to give the reader a reason to keep turning pages to get to that point. 






Q: We all know what is happening or already happened with the newspaper industry. I'm curious to your thoughts on my assumption that it seems like folks are still reading books on a consistent basis and is still a industry that is doing well?  




A: "I think good books will be read in whatever format. The one thing I say about the journalism industry is I don't readership is particularly our problem. If combine our print and web readership then I feel like we are a relevant today as however many years ago that you want to stake that on. I think the problem is much more a business model problem from what I read on the subject. Readership is still there and it's just a matter of supporting the expense structure within that. From the book standpoint, your question hammers home and can be translated to journalism. People will read non-fiction books because they know they're going to get the deepest appreciation of that topic from the book than anything else. If you have a topic, and there's a documentary about it, movie about it, long magazine piece about it or a big, fat book about it, which one has the most depth? Clearly the book. So I think people still realize books have the most depth out of any topic. That translates into journalism because I still think print journalism is at its most alive and on point when we're giving you the most depth that we can to our readers. The book has its own issues right now as pretty much every industry does. Just like still think there's a place for good, in-depth local journalism, there will always be a place for in-depth book form journalism." 




All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.



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