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My profile of SEC Commissioner Mike Slive from August of 2010
This initially ran as a four part series on FanHouse.
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, the most powerful man in college sports, can’t find an empty room at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham, Ala. It’s Friday, a couple of minutes after noon, and the SEC’s media days will be officially over in a little more than an hour. But all of the hotel’s conference rooms are still occupied by national media outlets. CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, Comcast and XM/Sirius are all still working to produce original SEC content that will air on their outlets.
Slive, a diminutive white-haired man with perpetually hunched shoulders and a forward thrusting walk, like a soldier on a march carrying a backpack of supplies, stomps from one end of the hallway to the other, pausing for an instant to speak with a representative of the Fiesta Bowl and then grasping the right hand of LSU head coach Les Miles for a private chat that is filmed from a distance by two television cameras.
“I thought CBS would be finished by now,” he says, once he’s finished talking to Miles, one of the three head coaches who have won the five SEC national titles in football since Slive became the league’s commissioner in August of 2002. Now, he scrunches up his small eyes, eyes so tiny that at times it’s difficult to make sure they’re even open, and sighs. “I’m not sure where we’ll go,” he says.
An assistant suggests two chairs at the end of a hallway, public, but private enough, she says. After stepping over several layers of television cords to reach the chairs, Slive is unimpressed: “This won’t do, let’s use our room.”
The two of us enter a large room filled with copiers, computers and leftover snacks for the leagues interns. Slive pulls out an old chair, takes off his navy suit coat and drapes it over a box of papers behind him. He stretches, blue tie rising on his white shirt. “First time I’ve had that jacket off in a long time,” he says. Sitting down, he crosses his right leg over his left knee and bobs his brown-soled shoe gently.
In five days, Mike Slive will turn 70. He doesn’t want a large party or attention, he just wants to surround himself with his family at his home and relax. Mostly, right now, Slive is tired, ready for the media days to be complete. He began the festivities on Wednesday with a state of the SEC speech that drew national attention for its condemnation of agents and the NCAA rules. Those rules are designed to protect players from those agents and, according to Slive, they aren’t working in the modern era.
Nearing completion of his eighth year as SEC commissioner, Slive has negotiated the most lucrative television deal in college sports history, sits at the helm of a conference that has won four consecutive BCS football titles and recently pointed out that his league is so strong that, while other conferences are obsessed with buyouts and binding contracts to maintain membership, the SEC requires only a $50 annual fee and has no buyout provision. As if that wasn’t enough, every coach, athletic director and president immediately defers to Slive in matters of league business because they trust him implicitly.
All of this conspires to make Slive, a graduate of Dartmouth, the University of Virginia law school and the LLM program from Georgetown, the most powerful man in college sports. While Slive’s educational pedigree is that of an aristocrat, a man who has always been comfortable among the wealthy, his background is decidedly middle class. “Neither of my parents went to college,” Slive says. Born in Utica, N.Y., Slive’s mother didn’t work and his father held a variety of jobs, from refrigeration to selling shoes to meat cutting.
The latter was Mike Slive’s first job.
Slive grins, the eyes disappear, white teeth, dimples, “If you went in the grocery store, I’d be the guy in the white coat. And like in ‘Rocky’, I know how to break beef and bring it down. That’s how I worked my way through school,” he says.
“In the summers I worked for a food chain in upstate New York, it was called P&C at the time, like a Publix,” Slive says, “I would be the vacation swing person in this area. I would come in when a meat cutter went on vacation. I’d work in Little Falls, New York for two weeks or Oneonta, New York or Ilion, New York, wherever. I actually, at one point, got permission from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers Union Local District 1 Sam Talerico president to allow me to work in the summers. And I even did that while I was up at Dartmouth.”
Slive stretches out his hands in front of him. Surveys all 10 digits. “My last day, I counted 10 fingers and said, ‘Thank God,’ ” he says, more laughter as the eyes disappear once again.
Slive’s matriculation at Dartmouth was unexpected. “I was in my homeroom class in high school and my teacher said there’s a gentleman outside who wants to see you. Big guy. He introduced himself and he was from Dartmouth and he said, ‘We understand you play football and we’d like you to come to Dartmouth.’ So my dad and I, at some point, got in a car and drove up there. I saw it and loved it. But I’d never heard of it (Dartmouth). When I got there, due to the nature of my community, I was somewhat ill-prepared academically.”
By the nature of his community, Slive means working class. He grew up rooting for the New York Giants and the Utica Blue Sox, a minor league team that would stock the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies on their pennant run. The man who would one day revolutionize the world of televised college athletics is old enough to remember listening to sports on the radio. “I can still remember when television came … we’d only get one football game a week and it would be the New York Giants. That was the era of Sam Huff, Charlie Conerly, Y.A. Tittle, Roosevelt Brown, Kyle Rote, Alex Webster, Frank Gifford and so that was all we knew, so we were big fans.”
Slive saw few college athletic events in person. “I remember going to Syracuse and seeing Jimmy Brown play against Colgate in a game that I remember, to the best of my recollection, that he scored 42 points. He kicked field goals then, too.” [Editor’s note: Brown scored 43 points on six touchdowns and seven extra points]
In 1950, Slive’s father took him on the train to New York City where the two “went to Ebbets Field and saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies and then the next day we went to Yankee Stadium and saw the Yankees play. I was 10 years old. And that was about it for the games I would have seen growing up,” he says.
Growing up in Utica, Slive played every sport. “Everything had a season and our lives were defined by the season,” Slive says. “You played football in the fall, baseball in the spring, basketball in the winter, it was all very organized and defined in those days.” Slive was best at football, the sport that would one day draw the attention of the big man from Dartmouth, and even 50 years after the games, he can recall specific plays from his career at quarterback.
“I have a recollection of a game that we were losing 12-0,” Slive says, “against a town called Oswego. There was only two or three minutes left to play and we won 13-12.”
Less than a year ago, Slive would return to his hometown and be inducted into the Utica Sports Hall of Fame. “I said in my remarks that I don’t know if there’s ever been an experience in my life that meant more to me than playing high school football. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of men. All of a sudden it becomes a family and the uniqueness of it and the excitement of it … and I think even after all the wonderful experiences I’ve had in my life — I’ve been very fortunate — I still think that was the best, greatest, most fun experience for me.”
Slive’s football career ended at Dartmouth, and he switched to lacrosse where the first game he’d ever seen was the game he was playing in. He lettered for three years in lacrosse, but his transition to the Ivy League was not without its struggles. Struggles that, even 50 years later, still leave him empathizing with SEC athletes who enter the conference ill-prepared for the rigors of college academics. “I won’t even tell you what my (test) scores were coming into college,” Slive says, “because I didn’t have the background. I was able to overcome them (the test scores), but they were horrible, horrible.”
After graduating from law school and serving a short stint as an assistant athletic director at Cornell, Slive practiced law, served as a judge and dreamed of being involved in college athletics. He was such an accomplished judge, in fact, that he turned down an opportunity from New Hampshire’s governor to become a superior court judge.
Slive said he didn’t want to travel.
Slowly, as the years progressed, being a lawyer and a judge slid Slive further and further from his dream, that of becoming an athletic director. “I’d read the sports page every morning and think I’d like to be a part of this,” Slive says. Until one day he noticed a job posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a magazine to which Slive maintained a subscription for this very reason. Now married to Elizabeth, the sister of a classmate of Slive’s at Dartmouth, with a six-year old daughter, a lovely home, a partnership at a law firm and a settled life in Hanover, the job posting struck Slive as irresistible:
Assistant Executive Director of the Pac-10.
Never mind that Slive had only the faintest notion of what the Pac-10 was, had only been to California a couple of times in his life and lived with his wife and daughter in Hanover, over 3,000 miles away from the Pac-10’s offices.
Married in 1968 to the woman he affectionately calls Lizzie — the Slives would fly to Miami Beach for a seven-night honeymoon, stay at the Eden Roc Hotel, eat out for every meal and do all this for $600 — Slive approached his wife with the paper and pointed out the job opportunity.
“Should we do this?” Slive asked his wife.
“She said: ‘I don’t have a dream, right now, but if you have a dream, let’s follow your dream.’ “
Years later, Slive’s voice still catches when he tells the story. He pauses for a moment, clears his throat.
The family relocated to California and two years later, moving back east, Mike Slive had achieved his dream. He was athletic director of Cornell University.
“That’s what I always thought I wanted to be,” Slive says. “Then I found out that I didn’t want to be an athletic director after all.”
It was 1983, and Mike Slive was 43 years old.
He went back to Hanover, N. H., and opened up a one-man law office, uncertain whether he’d ever be involved in college athletics again.
In 1991, eight years after beginning his one-man New Hampshire law practice that had come to focus exclusively on NCAA issues, Mike Slive accepted his first commissioner’s job, as head of the Midwest Conference. Successful as a commissioner of that league, four years later, Slive accepted an offer to become inaugural commissioner of the newly formed Conference USA. And seven years after that, in 2002, Slive became commissioner of the SEC, replacing Roy Kramer. At the time, the SEC was bringing in $27.7 million in revenue, a little over $2 million from television and bowl revenues were redistributed to each team.
By 2010, the eighth year of Slive’s tenure, the SEC would redistribute $209 million in revenue, just north of $17 million per team. While 2010 would mark the 29th consecutive year that the SEC led college football in attendance, what was the primary reason for the extraordinary growth in league revenue of 800 percent in just eight years?
One word: television.
But how did Slive make it happen? How did he lead the SEC to the richest payday in the history of college sports?
The plan began two years before the SEC’s television contract expired. Slive, the boy who’d grown up listening to New York Giants games on the radio in an era before televised sports, began planning for the sell of the SEC’s television rights by paying close attention to the Mountain West’s deal, the Big Ten’s decision to start its own network and the NFL’s launch of its own network. The decisions made by those three leagues left the SEC with a fundamental question to answer: whether the league wanted to follow the Big Ten’s lead and form an SEC Network or enter into an agreement with an existing network to carry its games.
This issue was complicated by the local multimedia rights retained by the individual SEC universities. This was an issue that the Big Ten didn’t have when that league chose to form its own network. “The Big Ten back in the 1980s, for whatever reason, all the television was ceded to the conference,” Slive said. “Whereas in the SEC, although the conference had the ability to take first pick (of televised football games) and then what was not taken (by the networks) could be utilized by what we’ll call local multimedia packages, those packages (the SEC’s local multimedia) had been built up and had substantial value for many of our institutions.”
The local multimedia rights, which in conjunction with retained bowl money, led to every school in the conference “well exceed(ing) $20 million per team” in bowl and television revenue. As a practical matter, many of the larger schools were left with much more money than than for their local multimedia packages. That’s additional television and bowl money that is already included in the BIg Ten’s payout to its teams, money that the league never takes in the SEC. As the conference set out to craft a new television deal the goal was nothing less than nationwide domination, manifeSECt destiny.But how would the league do that? Ultimately Slive and the SEC determined they needed to satisfy four major objectives to meet their goal with a new television deal: “One would be obviously equity,” Slive says. “Two was the ability to have academic programming. Three was that we would have the ability to brand ourselves in a way that was positive. Four, we could take care of all our sports.”
As Slive and his team at the SEC prepared to enter negotiations, they began to believe they might be able to “have our cake (keep the local multimedia packages) and eat it too (partner with ESPN),” Slive says. Aided in negotiation by recently departed former ESPN vice president Chuck Gerber, who Slive says provided invaluable knowledge for the league, ESPN and CBS ponied up the largest rights fee in college sports history. Over the 15 years of the deal, the SEC would net $2.25 billion from ESPN and $825 million from CBS, over three billion dollars combined. “They addressed them all (the conference’s four goals), and,” Slive smiles like a cheshire cat, “the revenue was robust.”
“So we were able in the final analysis to accomplish what we would have accomplished by starting our own network and have the guaranteed revenue and the enormous distribution taken care of,” Slive says. “Remember the Big Ten had to, and still has to, fight those distribution battles with its network.”
In fact, there was only one small concern about the deal, would the nation’s cable operators embrace ESPNU? At the time of the deal, ESPNU was only in 23 million homes. Slive worried that if ESPNU wasn’t available everywhere that SEC fans would revolt. The 11:30 central/12:30 eastern kickoff that had traditionally been televised only in the regional footprint of the SEC would now, theoretically, be available anywhere in the country.
But first ESPNU’s distribution had to grow. And here the business minds at ESPN behaved intelligently, gambling that the cachet of SEC sports, in particular the 13 Saturday football games, would lead to such a groundswell of demand that the nation’s cable operators would capitulate and add the network to their channel packages.
And they did.
“We were the major catalyst for ESPNU moving from 23 million homes to 73 million homes in one year,” says Slive.
What’s more, the deal with ESPN offered a significant boost to the conference’s basketball television deal. “In basketball, we were woefully underexposed,” Slive says. “Now every single conference game is on.”
But it wasn’t just football and basketball. ESPN also committed to televising a whopping 5,500 SEC events over the 15 year life of the contract, an average of nearly 367 events a year. Last year, the first of the television deal, ESPN held up its end of the bargain, televising 380 SEC events.
Slive also emphasized another aspect of the negotiation that he believed had received limited attention. “As part of the new deal, any game that was ever on ESPN or CBS, we own the copyright. And the copyright going forward,” Slive says. As a result the SEC has embarked upon an ambitious plan to create a virtual network, one that exists entirely in cyberspace and will allow historical games to be streamed directly to computers and hand-held devices across the nation.
Already, per Slive, the SEC had the second-most trafficked iPhone sports application in the country last year. (ESPN was first.) Now the advanced digital packages offer a bevy of new opportunities to reach consumers who are not yet sated with SEC product. All of this fiscal success, combined with an unparalleled on-field winning percentage meant that the SEC had won the race to conference domination by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
As Slive said in his address to the league media, “Our goal was to make the the SEC the nation’s most widely distributed conference. We succeeded.”
But how would the rest of the college sports world react to the SEC becoming the masters of the collegiate sports universe?
Cue this summer’s expansion fever, a fever that many believed was brought on by the other conference’s desire to catch and surpass the SEC. As the Pac 10, the Big Ten, and the Big 12 dashed frantically across the nation’s landscape, Slive and the SEC maintained a low profile.
In fact, Slive seemed to relish his role during the expansion imbroglio, that of a latter day Aesop, stocking his public commentary with fables and aphorisms that offered limited indication of what was to come next. By late July of 2010, Slive acknowledges his fascination with the realignment talk that swept across the summer months. He shifts in his seat, grips his navy-clad knee, leans over, a professor fully intent on sharing his own inscrutable logic.
“Our goal,” says Slive, speaking slowly and with the precision of a lawyer at oral argument, “whether we were proactive or not, was the status quo unless there was a paradigm shift. Of course the right question (after that) is: what is a paradigm shift? We were prepared to do what we needed to do to react — I guess is the right word — to what might be a paradigm shift. Now whether one conference in the far west is a paradigm shift, that’s an interesting discussion we could have.”
He pauses, leans forward.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
He pauses again, wrinkles his brow, a judge in mock contemplation, as if he has just been confronted with an unexpected query.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“And people say well why do you have to change, and that’s a good question too. And my answer is the old axiom, you have two choices in life, you either move forward or you move backward, and it’s (conference expansion) probably as much a perception issue as it would be anything else.”
Slive pauses and smiles, delighting in his verbal wordplay, the delicate dance of a lawyer’s tongue. “Is it an analogy to say that we were a little like a duck? On the surface we were very quiet, careful, deliberate, and underneath we were working.”
He claps his hands together, a childlike glee. “That was expansion,” he says.
Despite the duck-like profile of the SEC, Oklahoma president David Boren said Slive and the SEC had extended offers to both Oklahoma and Texas A&M during the summer’s expansion courtship. Was this the metaphorical movement of the ducks feet beneath the water? When asked about this, Slive plays coy. “I read that,” says Slive. “I didn’t respond.” Asked to respond now, Slive smiles, “My only response would be, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an issue like this. I mean have you ever seen an issue where there’s been more written about than that? Oh, it was great. It got the nation’s attention in a way in which that probably even struck you guys (media). So my answer to your question is that a lot of it was accurate and a lot of it was inaccurate.”
Once more, the SEC’s own Aesop, grins, eyes disappearing into his face.
Slive’s reticence notwithstanding, for a few months it seemed like Texas would be the next state to join the SEC footprint. Asked whether he believes the SEC would at some point in the future expand into the state of Texas, Slive replies, “The honest answer is, I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate. I’ll tell you one thing though, you were with us in Destin (for the SEC spring meetings). I was really gratified and struck by the discussion of our presidents, AD’s and coaches, all separately, about how they feel about our league. They feel the way I feel about our league…They feel very good about it and they really were not interested in change of that nature.
Finally, asked if he believes the University of Texas was cowardly for not joining the SEC, Slive dodges the question. “One of the things I won’t do, and don’t do, is I never put myself in somebody else’s head and try to think about how they think,” he says. “But I was driving home listening to Paul’s (Finebaum’s radio) show. And you were on and somebody wanted to punch you out for saying that.”
And just like that, Mike Slive, the former meat cutter, had deftly diced up my expansion questions and turned them back onto me. The duck was still paddling furiously beneath the surface, but he was betraying no reaction above the water.
In his address to the league at media days, SEC commissioner Mike Sliveincluded this passage that was one of the most quoted lines of the event. “The other head coaching change took place at Tennessee when Derek Dooley’s predecessor left to return to his ‘western roots.'” At this point, Slive paused and looked out over the assembled media horde, reading glasses perched lightly upon his nose. Then he continued, “I want to welcome coach Dooley back to the SEC and when I say welcome, I meanwelcome.”
The line brought down the media house.
But the two-sentence commentary was the product of much revision.
“Well, I will tell you this,” Slive says, “That is not the first draft. The first draft, my staff would not let me use. And the second draft, my staff would not let me use.”
Slive laughs, the warm laugh of a teacher who has just had his most difficult student transferred to another class. “I don’t think I finished that section until Tuesday afternoon, the day before [the delivery]. You know, Kathryn [Slive’s assistant] wouldn’t type certain words. That’s exactly true.” After more laughter, Slive explains that his annual address to the media is a task he takes very seriously. Before he delivers this year’s version, he will have worked between 20 and 25 hours on the product and gone through nine drafts.
“Winston Churchill once said that he always looked like it was just extemporaneous,” Slive says, “but that [a speech is] a minute an hour. That for every minute you speak it’s about an hour’s worth of preparation. And that’s about right.”
Slive takes his delivery seriously because he sees himself as the trustee of the league, a repository for the passion of the conference’s players, coaches and fans both present and past. Indeed, it’s readily apparent that Slive deeply respects the SEC. Not just for what the league is now, but for the 77-year history of the conference, the men, coaches and players, who came before him and crafted a lasting testament to the pride of a people below the Mason-Dixon line. Given that he’d never visited a single SEC campus before joining the league in August of 2002, Slive’s immersion in southern sports arcana came to him late in life. In fact, at the time of his hire, Slive, with degrees from the Ivy League, the ACC and the Big East, was the quintessential outsider, a national figure brought in to run the most regional of the major sports conferences. Slive acknowledges that his lack of affiliation with any school probably helped him adopt the mantle of independent leader.
But he had a lot to learn about the pride of a region.
So it was that in that first year of bowl games, the SEC’s new commissioner took the field and heard, for the first time, the chant he has grown more to love than any other. “SEC, SEC, SEC!” Asked about hearing the chant on the final day of SEC media days in Birmingham, Ala., Slive positively jumps out of his seat. “I heard it this morning in the lobby,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I love that. I love that.” Slive laughs out loud, a man nearing 70 who is filled with glee at the sound of a cheer. “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 says.
Asked where he believes the chant comes from, Slive turns emotional. “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.”
At this point, Slive pauses, his voice catches. He stares at the ceiling, gathers himself. “I really love the league. We’re not talking about officiating so we can talk about how I really feel.” He sighs, the weary, world-worn sigh of a man who bears the blame for anything in the league that is not perfect. “Because sometimes it’s tough on Monday mornings in the fall, I don’t feel quite this way.”
Gathering himself, he continues, “I talk about the image, this struck me, I was at a stadium and I was just anonymously walking down the concourse 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.”
It’s the circle of SEC football life, a tradition that Slive has come to cherish deeply. And woe unto those Slive feels do not cherish the league as he does, for those selfish individuals who would believe they owe nothing to their conference forebears, that nothing else matters but their own success.
Which brings us back to Lane Kiffin, a man the commissioner holds in such low esteem that he won’t even utter his name aloud, preferring instead to call him “the former Tennessee coach.” I ask whether it was this personality conflict, Kiffin’s utter lack of respect for the league Slive loved, that led to the duo’s frequent clashes. Slive responds carefully, avoiding, once more, the use of Kiffin’s proper name. “Coach Dooley, the SEC is in his DNA. He appreciates it, values it, in a way in which I don’t think his predecessor ever did or cared to.”
Those last three words, “or cared to,” represent Slive, the trained son of a meat cutter, deftly cutting to the quick of Kiffin’s soul. It’s doubtful the USC coach would notice or even care about the criticism. That’s because, despite Slive’s best attempts to make Kiffin see that if he stood tall it was because he stood upon the shoulders of SEC giants, the former Tennessee coach was completely uninterested in anything that had come before him. That disinterest, in the end, rendered Kiffin entirely incompatible with the diminutive commissioner of the SEC, a man who is perpetually concerned with his trusteeship of the league, always aware upon whose shoulders he now stands.
Asked where he was when he heard Kiffin was leaving for USC, Slive lights up. His face, moments earlier wrinkled and dour as he talked about Kiffin, is suddenly radiant, dimpled. On that day, Slive had just returned from a coaches meeting in Orlando, where he’d addressed all 12 SEC coaches in person. Then he’d flown back home to Birmingham and pulled into his garage. During the entire time of the coaches meeting, Slive hadn’t heard a single word of Kiffin’s potential departure for USC. “Now it’s maybe two or at most three hours on my clock since we left and I don’t think I had even turned on my phone,” Slive says. “I got in the car and I probably turned on the radio and I was just trying to relax a little bit while thinking about the day.
“And I get to my garage and I turn on my phone. And I’ve got tons of e-mails and I’ve got tons of texts and I said, ‘What in the heck is going on?’
“The most recent text that I got said, ‘Turn on your television.’
“So I run in the house, I say, ‘Lizzie, I’ve got to turn on the television.’ I run into the kitchen — I’ve got a little TV there — and I look and I find out.
“But I’d just left him!
“That’s how I found out.”
Ecstatic over the former Tennessee coach’s departure, Slive celebrated. “I uncorked a bottle of very fine wine and enjoyed it,” he says, laughing fondly at the memory.
The SEC’s own Voldemort, the man whose name Slive will still not say aloud, was gone.
As the 2010 football season nears, commissioner Mike Slive and the SEC are in the midst of Pax SECana. Never in the history of college sports has one conference been so ascendant. Every morning when his alarm goes off at 4:45, Slive says he jumps out of bed and is eager to go to work making the conference an even better place.
But what obstacles lie ahead? And, in particular, what is the greatest challenge facing the league? Slive believes he knows. “The only conference that the SEC has to worry about in terms of competition is the SEC. If we tarnish the shield, the brand, ourselves,” he says.
Indeed, Slive believes it’s the SEC brand that provides the ultimate value behind the league’s lucrative partnerships. “I’m not sure that CBS and ESPN would have paid us the kind of money if we were in a situation with X number of teams on probation,” Slive says. “I’m not sure if they would have had the willingness to take us national. Now, listen, life is cyclical, we may not win 10 national championships in a row and when you don’t do that, you better have a solid foundation.”
As part of that solid foundation, Slive cites the SEC’s growing diversity, the decline in teams on probation and the number of alleged violations, as well as the increased graduation rate of the players. And while Slive believes that the vast majority of the 5,000 SEC athletes behave well, the misbehavior of a comparatively small number does offer concerns about the tarnishing of the SEC brand.
Fear that the brand may be tarnished has led the most famous league in America, the NFL, to be the most proactive about protecting itself from off-field issues. Asked whether he had paid attention to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s aggressive suspensions under the personal conduct policy, Slive said he had. Asked further whether he believes that the SEC needs to establish similar penalty powers for the league’s own commissioner, particularly given the fact that, unlike Goodell, Slive has actually been a judge and has experience meting out justice, the commissioner thought quietly for several moments before answering.
“We’ve talked about it and tried to analyze the differences for Roger (Goodell) and for us,” Slive says. “In essence, the relationship between a student is with his or her institution. And the question then becomes, in the collegiate world, is there a place for a conference to discipline a student, or have a different body discipline a student, rather than the judicial body of an institution? We haven’t been able to figure out a way in which it would be appropriate for me to supercede the judicial groups on our campuses.Thus far my thinking has been that that is probably one step too far.”
One step that Slive was willing to take came two years ago, in April 2008, when Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford presented an idea to the BCS governing board. The idea called for a four-team playoff for a champion, the so-called “plus one” model. At the time, Slive’s motivation was the exclusion of an undefeated 2004 Auburn team from the BCS title game. According to Slive, that plan “didn’t get close to happening.” Indeed, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 fought hardest to keep a plus one from happening because those conferences believed it was the first step in the direction of a playoff.
Ironically, due to the Big Ten and Pac-10’s opposition, the SEC won the next two national championships anyway — and had an easier path to those titles than either team would have had if there had been a four-team playoff at the end of the season. Says Slive with a laugh, “Last year, if I’d put in a plus one and we’d had an undefeated, undisputed number one team like Alabama and they’d had to play the No. 4 seed to get to the national championship game, somebody would have run me over.”
To further illustrate how difficult it is to craft a perfect system, Slive leans forward and clasps his hands together. “I’ve got an idea,” he says, eyes twinkling with amusement. “We’re going to have a new system, it’s called the Flexible Final, and we won’t determine how it’s going to work until the end of the year. Then we’ll pick the best and fairest way to format a championship based on the season. In some ways that would be the ideal. Because if you’ve got two undefeated teams — good teams that have played good schedules — they play. If you’ve got four teams with one loss, you figure out what’s the fairest way to do this.”
Of course, that flexible final is never going to happen. Indeed, Slive does not believe that college football is very close to a playoff at all. Asked whether he foresees one coming in the future, Slive quips, “Not with this generation of administrators. I don’t know for sure, but I think you’ve got to hope that we die off.”
Now in his eighth year as SEC commissioner, Slive’s contract with the league runs through the 2012 season. By then Slive, who will be 72, says whether he has the opportunity to continue working as commissioner won’t be entirely within his control. “I feel good,” he says, “I’d like to continue.” But no matter what happens, he’s sure that after a career spent changing jobs, this is his final destination, the job he loves more than any other.
Slive loves being a commissioner because, “It includes every single role you can think of. You’re a negotiator, you’re a mediator, you’re a judge, you’re a friend, you’re a consigliere, you’re everything. And in many ways, if you look back on my career, it looks like I was always preparing to be here, but I wasn’t. It was just the way it worked out.”
Forty-three years ago, when he was 27 years old, Mike Slive packed up his white Ford station wagon with all of his life possessions, bed strapped down in the back of a station wagon that had once served as a yellow bus, and drove north from Washington, D.C. He was disillusioned with the practice of law and he’d just accepted a job in the Dartmouth admissions office. A year later, in 1968, Slive entered the world of athletics for the first time as an assistant athletic director at Dartmouth. At the time, one of his duties was distributing the tickets for the athletic events. “Real tickets in real envelopes,” he says.
So on Sundays a then-28-year-old Slive and his newlywed wife, Lizzie, with whom he recently celebrated his 42nd wedding anniversary, would arrive in the athletics office. Alongside one another, the couple would put the tickets in the envelopes. It was a job for a man occupying the lowest rung of the athletics administration ladder. Asked if he ever put the wrong tickets in the wrong envelopes, Slive smiles, lifts his eyes skyward and travels on the long road back to the leafy Ivy League, back to where his journey in college athletics began, back to a hot office on a sleepy campus in the middle of a New Hampshire summer. “Not that I recall. I’m sure I did, but if I did, I repressed it,” he says.
He laughs, so softly that barely a sound escapes his lips, “I enjoyed it, extremely,” he says.
Two generations and three years later, the man who once stuffed tickets in envelopes on sleepy summer weekends is now the most powerful man in college athletics. It’s the afternoon now, late July, over 100 degrees outside in Birmingham, and just a few more minutes remain of SEC Media Days. Slive stands, stretches out his arms in front of him, reaches behind the chair and reclaims his navy suit coat.
Asked what he believes college sports will look like in 2040, a full hundred years after he was born and grew up listening to games on the radio in a time before television, Slive is silent for over a minute. Then he speaks, “What jumps in my mind is the word hope rather than what it will. Is the collegiate model sustainable? I would hope in 2040 that it would be sustainable. Because if it isn’t, then we’re going to have something different and maybe something redundant to what exists at the professional level. So I hope that there are still at least 5,000 men and women competing in 20 sports or more in the SEC and getting educational value from that experience as part of our mission of higher education.
“Whether that concept gets overwhelmed by the potential forces at work, I don’t know, but I hope not. I hope that as people try to reach their own destiny, that they do it in a way that allows us to keep the educational values and mission in play and not make the country so cynical — because the motives are so non-educational — that we really don’t have what we have, that we’ve lost the magic.
“It’s a hope. Will it be? I really don’t know.”
More than a week after our conversation, my phone rings. It’s Mike Slive. The old meat-cutter, a man who owes his 10 fingers to his precision, has a correction to make about the job he held during college. He’s every bit, it turns out, as precise with his words as he was with his knives.
“I said I worked at PNC grocery store,” Slive says, “It was actually P&C, with an ampersand.” He pauses. “I just thought,” he says, “you’d want to get it right.”