Hopefully, Mike Slive’s health allows him to smoke his beloved cigars on his Birmingham porch for many years to come. He’s earned that much.
The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference announced his retirement Tuesday, effective July 31, 2015. He will begin treatment for a recurrence of prostate cancer soon.
The 74-year-old deserves many years of sitting back and watching the changes he championed come to fruition. Nobody is more instrumental in the arrival of the College Football Playoff than Slive, who led the overthrow of the reviled Bowl Championship Series. He was among the first leaders to lobby publicly for NCAA structural and rules reform, setting in motion the machinery that led to the power-five conference autonomy vote that was passed recently. He has been a strong voice for enhanced player safety in football. He didn’t fire the first shot in realignment and he wasn’t the first commissioner to launch a conference television network, but the SEC is even stronger and more profitable today due to Slive’s savvy navigating of those turbulent waters.
Oh, and he watched his league morph into the greatest winner in college football history. Seven straight national titles by a single conference isn’t likely to be duplicated ever again – unless the SEC does it.
It has been a remarkable run after an improbable marriage of man and conference. When the league replaced Roy Kramer in 2002, the natural fit certainly didn’t seem to be a Jewish lawyer from the Northeast with an Ivy League undergraduate degree. A thoughtful, bookish former judge from upstate New York was going to run the brawling, misbehaving, insular SEC?
Twelve years later, Slive and the SEC go together like chicken and waffles. It’s truly amazing.
Early in his tenure, Slive ambitiously (and perhaps naively) announced a goal of having all 12 schools off NCAA probation within five years. The goal was never achieved, but a league infamous for trampling the rulebook in pursuit of victory has become more law-abiding since the scofflaw start of the century. (There has been some backsliding in that area in recent years, with significant rules violations and allegations at many schools and at least one ongoing investigation. The cleanup was only going to go so far in the SEC.)
Rules compliance was the one obvious fit for Slive from the beginning – he formed a law partnership with Mike Glazier in 1990 that specialized in representing and advising schools that got sideways with the NCAA. No conference needed that sort of insider knowledge more.
The rest of the relationship blossomed even more. Slive proved to be a skilled consensus builder in a fractious league, bringing the warring constituencies from 12 (and now 14) diverse universities together to form a united front on most of the pressing issues facing modern college athletics. He championed decorum, and as a result the amount of public disagreement and feuding within the SEC has diminished. Certainly there is some that still occurs behind closed doors, but it’s mostly kept there. (Which is one reason why Slive was not a fan of Lane Kiffin during his one year as head coach at Tennessee. Kiffin was an uninformed pop-off, and the circumspect commissioner is no fan of uninformed pop-offs.)
As a forward thinker who can drive a hard bargain, Slive lined league coffers with more money year after year. SEC revenue has grown from roughly $96 million when he started to $310 in 2014. And the SEC Network will send that figure soaring some more in the coming years.
But Slive hasn’t just been good for the South. He’s been good for college football fans everywhere by spearheading the advent of the playoff.
He challenged the odious BCS and the ossified bowl structure, fighting for a better postseason. For a long time, he lost the fight to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and the rest of the bowl supporters.
The Slive-Delany rivalry became Ali-Frazier, with repercussions that helped reshape the current conference landscape. (Not one of the better developments in Slive’s era, in my opinion.) And like Ali-Frazier, the winner of the first fight wasn’t the winner overall – Slive got his playoff, and this year college football will find a better way to crown a national champion after more than a century of dissatisfying conclusions.
Combine the changes he has championed with the championships his league has won, and Slive has had a glorious run. The SEC has won a lot of titles with the help of Yankees in the past 20 years – Nick Saban from West Virginia, Urban Meyer and Les Miles from Ohio, Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan from New York, John Calipari from Pennsylvania – but none of them have done more for league prosperity and health than Mike Slive.
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