Stuart Stevens is one of the biggest names in political strategy. Stevens’ resume includes working for President George W Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. He’s also an accomplished author, including The Last Season, which centers on Stevens attending Ole Miss games with his father in 2013.
I spoke with Stevens about his book, what college football means to the South and whether or not Ole Miss can beat Alabama for a third consecutive year. For the full interview where we discuss the 2016 election, click here.
Parrish Walton: What did you learn writing [The Last Season] that you didn’t already know?
Stuart Stevens: I’d always grown up having a sense how fortunate I was that I had great parents and all of that. I was really struck by that again coming back to it as an adult; just how fortunate I’d been. I was always every much in a hurry growing up and very ambitious.
My father had done all of these things and I felt like I needed to live up to what he had done. I was really struck by how much Ole Miss and Mississippi in general had changed. I spent a lot of time in Mississippi as I have a lot of family there, but not much relaxed time.
You know how it is when you come in a visit the family. It’s usually a holiday or this or that, and you know you’re coming in on a certain day and you have four days or whatever and it just changes things. I spent a lot of time in a relaxed fashion and a lot of time on the Ole Miss campus, which was great.
What is your earliest college football memory?
SS: Going to Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi.
I grew up around Belhaven (University) and we could pretty much walk to Memorial Stadium. That’s when the Egg Bowl and a lot of big games were held in Memorial Stadium. Now they don’t do that anymore.
Going to those games was great. My parents were always big about having pre-game parties at my house and there would always be a party focused on whomever it was we were playing.
PW: How did you avoid going into law?
SS: My father was a lawyer and he started a firm with his friend. My grandfather was a lawyer and a judge. He had read law at Ole Miss, which was how it was before you actually got a law degree. My dad is 98 and is the oldest living member of the Ole Miss Student Hall Of Fame, which as he says at 98 you get by default. My mom went back to school and got degrees and pursued a lot of different interests very passionately.
My father never put any pressure on me to (get into law). It’s interesting. There was never any pressure. My grandfather and my father’s older brother had a law firm. My father’s older brother got sick when my father was overseas in [World War II].
He came back and took the law firm over, and I’m not entirely sure my father would have gone into law otherwise. He went to Ole Miss and Ole Miss Law School and then he went into the FBI, where he was when WW2 broke out.
PW: Why didn’t you attend Ole Miss like most of your family?
SS: I really wanted to see parts of the world I didn’t know. I really wanted to go west. I was really fascinated by the West. As far west as my parent’s would allow me to go was Colorado.
So I went to Colorado College. For me it was restlessness. I wanted to see more of the world. I had a big interest in outdoor sports like climbing, and I spent five summers in the North Carolina mountains and I got to do a lot of that and was really drawn to it. And I still am.
I had been very involved in this wonderful boy scouts troop in Jackson. It was a big influence in my life. We had these two scout leaders who would take on these trips and they were never canceled for anything. Bad weather, tornadoes, hurricanes… it was a really fantastic experience. I really was drawn to that stuff, and that led me out west.
I will always have a connection to college football. I lived in New York when I got out of college and I lived there for years before I knew anyone who wasn’t from Mississippi. It was a whole group of us. Particularly back then, a lot of people left the state.
I really liked being in New York, I spent decades there, but nothing was more depressing than on Saturday’s in the fall when you turn on the TV and you had to watch the Yale-Holy Cross game. I’d be like, “are you out of your mind?”
I was with a group that went up to see Columbia play, and it was so depressing. A friend of mine went to go back to an Ole Miss-Alabama game the next weekend and he never came back to New York.
PW: Do people outside of the South understand why college football matters so much?
SS: I think it’s different. There are a lot of complicated reasons why college football is so big in the South. And I don’t think there’s any one reason, but I do think that the fact that we didn’t have pro teams in the South played a role.
Also, for a while, going back to the 50s, 60s and 70s, a lot of people were really down on the South with the civil rights difficulties… sort of the Mississippi Burning era. Football was something Mississippi and Alabama did at a very high level, and I think there was sort of an inelegant pride in that.
I’m fascinated by the intersection of sports and civil rights in the South. I think in many ways college football in the South played a role similar to rugby in South Africa. It was really the first time blacks and whites cheered together. And I think it was a very powerful socializing influence that was very positive.
If you think about it, arguably the last battle of the Civil War was fought there on The Grove in 1962 over the integration of Ole Miss. Now the only time you have a riot like that at Ole Miss is when some African American football player committed to Ole Miss changed their mind and went to Alabama. We’ve gone 180 degrees from then, and that really wasn’t that long ago. It’s amazing, really.
I really give Ole Miss a lot of credit for dealing with the past. Not running from it and trying to hide from it. That’s not to say it’s perfect and that’s not to say we don’t have problems, but I think more than about any place in the country there’s been an attempt to acknowledge this very troubled past and deal with it.
I really think that’s admirable. You look at Georgetown University and how they’re just now dealing with the fact that slaves helped build it. They have a very troubled racial history but they’ve never really dealt with it. I think the state [of Mississippi] and the University deserve a lot of credit for this.
PW: Can politicians and society-at-large learn from college football and how it helped bridge the divide between races?
SS: Oh yeah. Definitely. I think they have learned a lot. There’s a fascinating book I recommend called Rising Tide, which is about the history of Alabama football focused on Bear Bryant and Joe Namath. It’s fantastic.
One of the things they get into was how Namath, who came from this very integrated Pennsylvania mill town and was the coolest guy on campus, made it un-cool for the football players to be racist. That permeated the campus to a certain degree and was a contributing factor to one of the reasons Alabama never had a terrible situation like in 1962 with [James] Meredith.
The law of unintended consequences is fascinating. I worked for Lynn Swann when he ran for Governor of Pennsylvania. Lynn was fascinated with this stuff. He said, “I was [a] second-generation African American athlete.” He said, “I grew up in Oakland. I took ballet. This was not a big deal for me.”
But he had done a lot of research and had spoken with a lot of that first generation of African American students about what they went through.
If you’re Alabama and you start off by recruiting a couple of black players someone realized that they should get some black girls on campus, too, because otherwise they’re going to be dating white girls.
You start off by wanting maybe a tight end and a running back and you end up with African American female math majors. It’s that sort of socializing element and I think that’s tremendously powerful to me. Think about this Saturday with Ole Miss playing Alabama. The team bus is going to roll in and they’re going to get out and the team now looks a lot like Mississippi.
They’re going to walk through The Grove and they’re going to be mobbed by blacks and whites and they’re going to walk past the Confederate War memorial and walk into the stadium. And that’s pretty amazing. It’s incredibly powerful in what it says about change.
I think a lot of people would have predicted that would never happen. I find it very encouraging and positive. I think that’s the magic sports have to bring people together. It’s really very extraordinary. It’s something Nelson Mandela obviously recognized and used rugby to play that role. It really affects people on an emotional and cultural level. It’s pretty amazing.
PW: What makes The Grove special?
SS: The Grove is where the first Mississippi regiment mustered up to go fight the Civil War and help lead Pickett’s Charge, which had 75 percent casualties. It’s where arguably the last battle of the Civil War was fought in 1962, and that’s pretty amazing. And now it’s this place where people gather together. That’s an extraordinary piece of real estate; all of that blood and sweat, tragedy and joy occurred right there. It’s pretty amazing.
PW: Do you get the sense that those who walk The Grove feel that and understand it?
SS: James Baldwin used to talk about the need and the aspirational achievement of normalizing race; where everything wasn’t driven by race. He wrote in an era of segregation when it was. And I think probably most people don’t think about this a lot when they’re at a game, which I think is actually very positive. It’s a step closer to normalizing race. I don’t think you want it to be one of these moments where everyone is like, “wow, isn’t this great.” I don’t. The fact that it’s not is a positive. And you know for the next generations it will seem more like that.
PW: You said college football positively affected civil rights. What role did civil rights play in changing college football?
SS: College sports in general were helped by it. We just had Alabama play USC and there was that famous game where Alabama played USC and lost in part because USC had African American players like Sam Cunningham. That really >helped drive the need to integrate these teams. That was very powerful.
Once blacks and whites cheer together for a common purpose, it’s very difficult to un-ring that bell. I just think it changes things. It some ways the segregationists understood this, which is why it was an unwritten rule that no white team would play a team that had non-white players.
There’s a great new book that came out about Mississippi State in 1963. They went and played in a tournament and it was the first time a Mississippi state university had played a team with non-white players. That was huge.
PW: Let’s get a prediction. Can Ole Miss make it three in a row over mighty Alabama?
SS: Have you ever read this book called Rammer Jammer? It’s by Warren St. John who is from Birmingham and grew up a huge Alabama fan. He wrote this book about hanging out with these Alabama fans in RVs. He got so into it that he bought himself a crappy RV. So Warren and I went to the Ole Miss-Alabama game last year. The people were very nice. He got us this fancy box with these very nice people, but I have never seen such unhappy people in my life (after Ole Miss won).
If you’re an Ole Miss fan you’ve lost before. I was like a lot of Ole Miss fans that felt they were watching two different teams when I watched us play FSU. I think Alabama is a lot weaker than it has been. I don’t know. I don’t know. If you’re a lifelong Ole Miss fan you are always hopeful. I would enter the game hopeful.