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The day after my second son was born in September of 2010, the phone rang. It was 7:30 in the morning and my son, who had been born around eight in the evening the previous night, was less than 12 hours old. I was bleary-eyed and sleeping at home with our oldest son, then two years old, while my wife stayed behind in the hospital. I reached over to pick up the phone call, expecting it to be my wife checking in on our oldest son.
Instead it was SEC commissioner Mike Slive calling to congratulate me on the birth of my second son.
Five years later, this past Christmas Day, Slive called to check on my family as well. Both actions were emblematic of Slive’s tenure at the helm of the SEC and I was far from the only person he treated this way. One of the most powerful men in college athletics history wore his power lightly and was exceedingly courteous, a gentle soul in an industry filled with some of the most competitive men and women in all of sports. Despite being the most powerful man of his era in college athletics — a position that frequently creates as many enemies as it does allies — in all my time covering the SEC no one who actually knows Mike Slive has ever said a negative word about him to me. Not publicly, not privately, not ever.
It’s an extraordinary record. And one that I suspect is owed to Slive’s best strength — he’s a consensus builder who manages to lead people in the direction he believes is the best without actually forcing them there. It’s a rare trait in powerful men or women. How many can rise to positions of prominence without making enemies along the way? I’ve thought and thought of historical figures in positions of power who have been as beloved as Slive and the only one that comes to mind is Robert E. Lee. Which, given both men’s prominence in the South, is particularly apropos, notwithstanding Slive’s roots in New York state. Of course, Slive’s got a better record than Lee, too. He actually won his war.
When Slive took over the SEC in 2002, the league had revenues of $95.7 million and, despite its fervent fan bases, was more adept at feuding than winning. Schools turned each other in for petty rule violations, squabbles ensued, the rest of the nation didn’t have to beat the SEC, they just waited for the SEC schools to beat up each other. Passions ran so high that it was impossible to find a neutral observer. Enter Slive, a New Yorker who had hardly spent any time in the SEC’s footprint before he took the job. Indeed, Slive had never been to any of the 12 SEC campuses prior to taking the job of commissioner.
As a result, Slive entered the league — and the South in general, a place he’d never lived — as a sort of cultural outsider, a blank slate of observation. In 2010 he recalled the first time he ever heard the SEC chant, at a bowl game, walking on the field, a 62-year-old man entering the winter of his life, with the twinkling eyes of a young child. “I love that (chant). I love that. When I stand at a bowl game and we’re about to win and I hear that, or at our championship games, it never ceases to give me a thrill,” he said.
Asked where the cheer comes from, Slive responded, “I think probably, and this is just one man’s view, I think it’s probably cultural, sociological and historical. Way back in the 1920s when things were difficult, all of a sudden football programs had enormous success and became a source of pride, have continued to be a source of pride. It’s something that is very special and I think it’s just something that is so unique.”
In 2002 the SEC was still a regional conference full of individual strength, but not yet the most valuable brand in college athletics. The SEC was provincial, a Southern obsession that didn’t register very highly on the national radar. While the stadiums filled up and roared on Saturday, the games weren’t all televised, the cathedrals of Southern exceptionalism, the rowdy stadiums filled to the rafters with diehard adherents, were woefully underexposed. The conference had won national titles in football in 1979, 1980, and 1981, but was just emerging from a decade of title futility with championships in 1992, 1996, and 1998. In Slive’s first full year LSU won the 2003 title. Then national titles followed in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. That 2010 title, won by Auburn over Oregon, gave the SEC more football national titles in Slive’s first eight years as commissioner than the conference had won in the preceding thirty years. More titles followed in 2011 and 2012, a bevy of national acclaim, and the resulting television dollars to match sent the conference’s coffers overflowing.
The SEC, a conference that had always had a chip on its shoulder, had gone from David to Goliath.
After the 2012 title, as confetti fell to the Orange Bowl field and Alabama players celebrated their destruction of Notre Dame to win the conference a seventh straight title, Slive approached me on the field with a huge grin on his face, “I don’t know when it’s going to end,” he said, “but no one will ever equal this record. No one.”
The next year Slive wore a green tie to root for Michigan State to pull off the upset over Ohio State so the SEC’s champion, either Auburn or Missouri, would play for the title once more. Michigan State won, but Florida State narrowly edged Auburn, ending the SEC’s run of dominance at seven in a row.
This past year Slive, receiving treatment for cancer, was unable to attend the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State. The man who helped to make a playoff happen was too ill from receiving his chemotherapy to watch its first games. On our Christmas call he told me that he wouldn’t be there, but in typical Slive fashion he asked me not to mention his absence. “I don’t want people to know,” he said.
While the SEC’s championship run came to an end, it’s the conference’s expansion from 12 to 14 teams and the resulting SEC Network that will be the commissioner’s lasting legacy. While Slive preached that the expansion was a generational decision and that early results wouldn’t dictate the success or failure of it, Missouri won two consecutive SEC East titles and Texas A&M had a quarterback win a Heisman and expanded its stadium to the largest in the SEC. All in three years of football.
Slive’s adroit addition of A&M and the boundless reaches of the Lone Star state, the football equivalent of Nixon to China, wasn’t without a great deal of challenges. But league employees weren’t above a few jokes. As expansion to 14 came to a head, one of Slive’s employees in the SEC office approached him with a stern look on his face, “Commissioner,” he said, “we’ve got a problem. Every time we expand there’s an old provision in the original league bylaws that says Sewanee can rejoin if they want to.” (Sewanee, a founding member of the SEC, is a Division 3 school with just over one thousand students nestled on thousands of acres atop Monteagle Mountain in southern Middle Tennessee.) “Oh no,” Slive said. It was a well played joke, but given the SEC’s dominance under Slive, Sewanee would probably have won or played for a national title too.
The SEC Network was Slive’s baby, the final legacy he’d leave a conference he saw as a trust to the people of the South. On Tuesday at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Slive pointed out that the SEC Network’s launch was the most successful in cable history, “Not just in sports history,” Slive said, “in cable history.” Slive’s fingerprints were all over the network’s launch, most notably in his hire of Paul Finebaum, the controversial Birmingham radio show host he’d developed a strong relationship with over the years. It would have been easy to create an anodyne network with no interest in offending anyone, but Slive didn’t want that, he wanted a channel that reflected the reality of SEC fandom, with all its warts and strengths, an accurate representation of Southern life. Finebaum was Slive’s bold call. And like most decisions Slive made, it has turned out well.
As the one year anniversary of the SEC Network’s August 14, 2014 launch nears, the network is in nearly seventy million homes and the revenue it will produce over the coming years will make the SEC the richest conference in the country. Only four sports networks in the country are more lucrative than the SEC Network — ESPN, the NFL Network, FS1 and ESPN2. In his final at bat, Slive didn’t just hit a home run, he hit a grand slam. The regional sports league he inherited in 2002 was now the most valuable collegiate brand in the country, and one of the most valuable sports brands in the world.
Five years ago I wrote a long profile on Slive and he discussed what the conference meant to him. “I talk about the image, this struck me, I was at a stadium and I was just anonymously walking down the concourse,” Slive said, “and I looked in front of me and there was grandma and grandpa, then a mom and dad, and then children, and they’re all walking down the concourse and then you knew that the next commissioner walking down that concourse is going to see the mom and dad as grandma and grandpa and their children there as mom and dad and a new generation of children.”
As Slive talked about what the conference meant to him he began to cry. The man who had just turned 70 years old and had never even been to an SEC campus before he was 62 had, late in his life, fallen in love all over again.
But Slive didn’t want everyone to know that the conference had moved him to tears.
The next week he called and asked whether I could leave the fact that he cried while talking about how much he loved the SEC out of the article. He was concerned some might judge him as unfit to continue as commissioner if he got so emotional while talking about the SEC.
The reality was the exact opposite.
It was one of the few times Mike Slive was wrong about anything having to do with the SEC.