Remembering former SEC commissioner Mike Slive who helped change college football

Remembering former SEC commissioner Mike Slive who helped change college football

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015, after Mike Slive retired as SEC commissioner. It has been updated.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Mike Slive never really looked the part of the most powerful person in college athletics.

Slive, who died Wednesday at 77 after a lengthy illness, was the Southeastern Conference commissioner who led the league to unprecedented success both on and off the field and managed its growth from a regional conference to national giant during his 13-year tenure.

Slive had announced he was beginning treatment for a recurrence of prostate cancer shortly before he retired as SEC commissioner in July 2015. He said he’d been first diagnosed with the disease in the late 1990s. He had been working as a consultant to the SEC since his retirement.

He was the conference commissioner pushing for a playoff in college football long before that was the vogue thing to do among his peers. He was on the front end of bringing autonomy to the Power 5 conferences so that they could better be able to provide for the athletes.

On his watch, the SEC secured a footprint in the state of Texas with the addition of Texas A&M and also added Missouri during the conference expansion phase, and he oversaw the creation of the SEC Network, which helped send revenues soaring around the league.

“He was a real visionary, and I don’t think any of us will ever forget the impact he had nationally on the sport,” former Florida president Bernie Machen said.

That’s not to mention the SEC’s record-breaking streak of seven straight national championships in football by four different schools from 2006 to 2012.

“That won’t be broken in your lifetime, my lifetime or anybody’s lifetime,” Slive said in 2015. “I tell people that I never say never, but that’s a never.”

Just like he never saw himself as a power broker, mover and shaker or anything other than a trustee of a very sacred public trust.

“He always laughed about the whole ‘most powerful man in college sports’ thing,” said close friend and former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton.

“He just didn’t view himself that way. He viewed himself as somebody who was going to do his job, somebody who knew what his plan was, somebody who was going to stick to that plan and trust the people around him and not be worried about what everybody else’s plan was.”

One of the most renowned forward thinkers at any level of athletics, Slive didn’t like to look back. It’s just not who he was, but he obliged when asked what he’s most proud of during his tenure as SEC commissioner.

It had nothing to do with titles, revenue or legislation and had everything to do with his core values of inclusion.

Back in 2015, Slive swelled with pride over the fact that it’s no longer news in the SEC when a black man is hired as head football coach.

Templeton deserves the credit for pulling the trigger in 2003 when Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom as the SEC’s first black head football coach, but Slive helped set the tone.

And for that, Croom will forever be indebted.

“I never heard him say it, but after the fact, I did realize how important it was to him, to have an African-American coach in the conference,” said Croom. “Somewhere in the process, he made it known to athletic directors and presidents that he wanted to get that done. That’s what it takes sometimes, somebody with his clout and his power to create that kind of awareness.”

Since Croom’s hiring, there have been four more black head football coaches in the SEC, including former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and current Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason.

“It was not just a sports event, but it was a historic, social event, and that meant we crossed some barriers, that had we not crossed them, we could never be the best we could be,” Slive said in 2015. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that we’re a league of opportunity.

“It was such a big story. The story now is that’s just who we are.”

“I don’t know of anybody in college football who has had a greater impact over the last 10-to-15 years than he has.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban

Good luck in finding a time when the bigger picture wasn’t front and center with Slive, who had a quiet confidence about him that was infectious. He was never the loudest guy in the room. But that was by design.

“Some people, when they speak publicly, they get louder and more forceful in trying to emphasize a message,” said Mike Glazier, who partnered with Slive in the late 1980s as part of the first sports law practice concentrating exclusively on representing colleges in NCAA-related matters, back in 2015. “That’s not Mike. The more he wants people to understand, the softer he’ll speak. He will say it directly and softly, but there’s a lot of force behind those words.”

Lane Kiffin can attest to that. Before coaching his first game at Tennessee, Kiffin was busy stirring up things and sparring publicly with Urban Meyer, then coming off his second national title at Florida. And somewhere along the way, Steve Spurrier also managed to be pulled into the fray.

It made for some entertaining theater, for sure, but Slive wasn’t amused. It wasn’t the SEC he wanted the rest of the world to see.

So during spring meetings in June 2009, Slive stepped out of his Teddy Roosevelt mode of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He kept the big stick, even waving it for emphasis, and proceeded to light up his coaches.

“We closed the door, and I went on a little tirade. I actually swore,” Slive said in 2015, almost apologetically.

While Slive didn’t address anybody in particular during his blistering tirade, he was looking directly at Kiffin the whole time. Kiffin had also gotten under Slive’s skin for committing a series of secondary NCAA violations while at Tennessee.

“That’s not me so much, but it’s how I feel about the league. I can’t tolerate somebody who comes in and doesn’t respect it,” explained Slive, who that fall fined Meyer $30,000 for violating the SEC’s code of ethics when Meyer criticized officials. “No coach is bigger than this league. No commissioner is bigger than this league. No student-athlete is bigger.

“The league is here for everybody. That’s one of my hot buttons. You’re going to respect the league.”

In vintage Slive fashion (it was the former district court judge in him), he wanted to make one thing clear regarding his beef with Kiffin.

“In fairness to Lane, when he came back, we had a conversation, and he knows it’s all about what you do now,” Slive said during Kiffin’s tenure as Alabama offensive coordinator. “He’s done a wonderful job and been a big hit for the league. That’s all history. That’s not how Lane and I are today. He’s been a delight.”

There’s no doubt Slive looked out for the SEC first and foremost, but even those in neighboring conferences appreciated how he carried himself. Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford were friends and competitors for nearly 20 years, going back to Slive’s days as Conference USA commissioner. They were both proponents of a playoff before their counterparts in other conferences jumped on board, and Swofford said Slive’s candor during all of the expansion wheeling and dealing was comforting.

“There was so much speculation out there that had no basis at all, and Mike was solid and straightforward throughout all of that just as he has been with everything else,” Swofford said in 2015. “Having been a judge, that shows in his diplomacy. He knows when to be a little more assertive and when to back away. He knows how to build bridges and how to build relationships, and you can’t help but respect somebody like that.”

“Mike was the best consensus builder I’ve ever been around, and a lot of that was because of his style,” longtime Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley added. “As someone who’s analyzed different leadership styles, I used to love to watch him work a room. He wasn’t a guy who pounded on tables. He was thoughtful and respected and listened to everybody’s opinions.”

Spurrier always appreciated the way Slive treated everybody the same and his diligence in doing what he felt was best for the conference, no matter whose feathers might get ruffled.

“He’d tell it like it is,” Spurrier said in 2015. “If anybody — me, [Nick] Saban or some of those guys — were bitching about stuff, he’d say very calmly, ‘Here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s why we’re going to keep doing it,’ and then we’d quit bitching about whatever we were bitching about, because he was usually right.”

“I don’t know of anybody in college football who has had a greater impact over the last 10 to 15 years than he has, with what he’s been able to do,” Alabama coach Nick Saban added, “and he’s done it with a lot of honesty, integrity and treated people with a lot of respect.”

Outside the SEC’s borders, Slive had his share of rivals, none more obvious than Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who similar to Slive also played a prominent role in shaping the current landscape of college athletics.

Delany, along with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, expressed concerns when former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was reinstated and allowed to finish the Tigers’ 2010 national championship season despite the NCAA’s acknowledging that Newton’s father had shopped his son through a third party to Mississippi State in a pay-for-play scheme.

Delany said the NCAA missed an opportunity to stand up, and there should have been “consequences” for Newton.

Slive didn’t fire back at Delany or his other critics (and there were many), but he was adamant the NCAA’s decision was a just one based on the fact that Newton was unaware of his father’s actions.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said having Slive on his side was invaluable.

“He had to know what went on before anybody else did. We had to prove to him and answer his questions,” Jacobs said. “He had to be satisfied because he wasn’t going to put the conference out there. The toughest questions came from Mike, not the NCAA. Once we got through him, the rest was easy.”

Slive’s understanding of the NCAA’s enforcement process and how it works was a huge asset for SEC schools, but he was even more committed to cleaning up the league’s image and avoiding serious violations in the first place. When he arrived as commissioner in 2002, nine of the SEC schools were either on probation or being investigated.

“He made it known that you had to answer to our conference office as much as you did to the NCAA if you broke the rules,” Saban said.

Slive insisted he was more of an advocate for SEC schools and didn’t interfere in the NCAA process, although former Georgia president Michael Adams said Slive’s relationship with David Price, the former NCAA vice president for enforcement services, was always a plus.

“I think Mike helped two or three of the schools that were the worst offenders, and I’m not going to name them, but you know who they are,” Adams said. “He was a pretty effective plea-bargainer in a couple of cases and endeared himself to two or three presidents. He was a good lawyer and thought like an NCAA investigator, and the fact that he went back with Price a long time was very helpful.”

Slive’s willingness to fight for his schools planted the first playoff seed in his mind. When Auburn was shut out of playing for the 2004 title despite going undefeated, he started thinking of changes.

“He was so calm and yet so deliberate and looked around the room and said, ‘We can never let happen in this league what happened to Auburn University this year,'” said Jacobs, remembering his first athletic directors’ meeting. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“He was proposing a plus-one system, which eventually became the four-team playoff. That was 10 years ago. He was out front of everybody.”

As a negotiator, Slive had few equals, even though he didn’t go about it in a heavy-handed way.

Templeton remembers a meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, with ESPN executives when the two sides hit a stumbling block after nearly two weeks of negotiations.

“The issue had gotten to a stalemate, and Mike looks at me and says, ‘Let’s go for a walk,'” Templeton recalled. “I said, ‘A walk?'”

So Slive pushes his notebook back, looks at everybody and says, “I’ll be back … maybe.”

Slive and Templeton walked around for a while, and finally Templeton asked Slive, “Don’t you think we need to go back?”

Slive casually responded, “We’ll go back tomorrow and let them sleep on it tonight.”

The issue was resolved before the next meeting convened.



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