SEC's 'Golden Age' primarily due to Commissioner Slive
It was my first day on the job and I had made the trek to SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., thinking that there probably wouldn’t be too much to do while getting acclimated to Saturday Down South. Most of what I needed to do during the now four-day annual media bonanza held in the middle of summer wouldn’t happen until later in the week, and meeting my new co-workers and promoting the site appeared to be the top priority.
That lasted about 30 seconds after walking through the door to our temporary setup in the Riverchase Galleria Mall. We had rented the first store outside of the Wynfrey Hotel, which was surprisingly empty, and turned half of it into a television studio to record sit-down interviews.
“Can you run the on-camera interviews?” I was asked, and probably uttered something like, “Um, sure.” “That’s great because Mike Slive will be here in a few minutes.”
Looking back, I can’t imagine a better first day, especially considering at my last gig it ended with University of Alabama defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick getting shot in an apparent carjacking. The interview only lasted a few minutes, but when dealing one-on-one with the Southeastern Conference’s commissioner it can be easy to forget that he’s the most powerful person in collegiate athletics.
Granted I’ve never received one of those famous phones calls from his office when he’s not happy about something, but Slive was just as personable and forthcoming as the first time we sat down together in 2005 when I was working on the book, Where Football is King: A History of the Southeastern Conference.
The word that burrowed into my head that day, and never left, was: Respect.
Slive’s earned it and probably has more surrounding him than anyone in organized sports. That’s why his retirement next year will not only be a huge loss for the SEC, but all of collegiate athletics.
“I am keenly aware that to be the Commissioner of the SEC is both a privilege and a challenge,” Slive said upon his appointment in 2002. “It’s a privilege because the SEC is the premier conference in the country, with outstanding academic institutions, unsurpassed winning athletic traditions as well loyal, dedicated and passionate fans, outstanding athletic directors and coaches, and, of course, national championship-caliber student-athletes.”
Actually, at the time one could have had a pretty heated argument about which conference was the best, yet during his tenure there’s simply been no doubt. When Slive took the job nine of the league’s 12 schools were in serious trouble, either on probation or likely headed that way, and its reputation nationally was more than lacking.
Slive set the goal that within five years no school would be on probation, causing most people to scoff. When that date arrived in 2008, only one was, and the league was enjoying unprecedented success.
The SEC’s annual revenue sharing has increased from $95.7 million since 2002 to $309.6 million in 2013-14 – and that figure is about to dramatically rise again with the recent addition of the SEC Network.
The league expanded, adding Missouri and Texas A&M, numerous stadiums have been renovated, and recruiting in most sports has never been better. Football continues to set the standard nearly every way imaginable, from awards and draft picks to attendance and salaries, and recently won an unprecedented seven straight national championships.
We’ve also gone from the SEC having its first black football coach to race essentially becoming a non-issue in hirings. Women’s sports have arguably become the nation’s best across the board, and academic standards are up.
Slive’s accomplished this while dealing with some of the biggest egos and stubborn personalities that one can imagine. Try looking at the names of the SEC’s coaches (Steve Spurrier alone would be too much for most) and athletic directors over the past decade and imagine what it would be like overseeing them on a daily basis.
Then step back and do the same on the national level, where Slive has become more influential than the president of the NCAA. He’s been able to strong-arm some of the powerful entities and people that you’ll ever come across, and do it with such a gentle yet firm manner that even when he had them in the equivalent of a headlock one wouldn’t be surprised if they essentially apologized while yielding.
“It’s critical for the NCAA to change,” Slive declared this summer, and like always chose his words very carefully. “We are not deaf to the din of discontent.”
Sure enough, the NCAA bowed and voted to give the power conferences more autonomy, with major changes now on the horizon. It simply had no choice, and no one else could have led that charge so successfully.
Showing his usual class Slive never gloated or talked down to his critics, while fully understanding and appreciating both the weight of his position and the big picture. More than a father figure for the conference he’s been the perfect example of how everything trickles down from the top and should be followed.
In other words, he’s been the perfect leader.
“It’s an historic time,” Slive frequently says, like during this year’s SEC Media Days when he referenced Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Mandela and Hank Aaron in his opening remarks.
“As Muhammad Ali said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” the history buff added at the Wynfrey podium just before our interview, when I couldn’t help but ask why he hadn’t used one of his favorite sayings, that this is the Golden Age of the conference.
Slive laughed and said that he probably should have.
Only it’s not the Golden Age of the SEC. Thanks to the man who has brilliantly served and masterfully steered the conference, it’s been better than that.
Call it the Slive Age of the SEC.