BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Just back from the new frontier, Mike Slive came off the private jet laden with tribute from his adoring Southeastern Conference add-ons.
There were two commemorative game balls – one from the Florida-Texas A&M game in College Station, one from the Georgia-Missouri game in Columbia. There were Lucchese cowboy boots from the Aggies brass as well, complete with an SEC logo. And a box of sandwiches from the Tigers for the flight home.
It was nearly midnight Saturday, and the 72-year-old commissioner had tugged loose the knot in his tie. At the end of a 32-hour trip to the inaugural conference football games for the two newest members of America's premier athletic league, Slive was exhausted but elated. He had gotten a glimpse of the future, and it looked even more powerful, profitable and passionate than the present.
He had seen a total of 158,118 fans at Kyle Field and Faurot Field – and thousands of others tailgating outside who never even walked through the gates. He had seen 40,000 Aggies the night before at Midnight Yell Practice. He had seen the grassy hillside at Mizzou covered with gold-clad Tiger backers. He had seen the giddiness of two schools that had acrimoniously parted with their previous conference to join the most elite club in college sports.
You can debate whether conference realignment in general, and SEC expansion in particular, are good for college athletics. You cannot debate the elation it has brought to the newest members. At least for now.
"Leading up to the games, in talking to the athletic directors, you had a sense there was a lot of excitement building," Slive told Yahoo! Sports, which exclusively accompanied him and four other SEC staffers on the trip. "We knew they had great tradition and great fans. But then to come and experience, in a tangible way, the proof of their excitement is very gratifying. And the games were very competitive.
"The more we deal with the schools, the more we appreciate them. The horizon is not today or this season, but what does the addition mean for the league 10, 20, 30 years from now? I've always felt good about that, and I still do."
On the way to the airport in Columbia for the final flight of the day, Slive had texted his daughter, Anna: "That was a day I'll never forget."
But even now, at 11:50 p.m., it wasn't quite over. Slive was going home to have a cigar on the back porch and then watch the late-night highlights of everything he'd missed while jet-setting and glad-handing and back-slapping with both the academic elite and the common fan. Having 14 teams to keep up with requires that much more diligence and people skills – and that much more space at home and in the office for trinkets like boots and game balls.
Last month, Slive was named the most powerful man in college athletics by SportsBusiness Journal. He was the driving force behind the new playoff system that will be implemented in college football in 2014. He has partnered with Big 12 leadership to create a new Champions Bowl matching teams from their respective leagues in what should be the most lucrative bowl arrangement of them all, given the conferences' control of everything from site to TV. He is renegotiating the SEC's current media rights deals for what could be record-breaking revenue per school. He has led the way in power-conference expansion beyond what had been a 12-school ceiling. And his league is in prime position to go after an unprecedented seventh straight football national title.
To observe Mike Slive on this tour of the new northern and western boundaries of the Southeastern Conference was to see a man at the height of that power.
The first steps off the plane Friday afternoon in College Station, Texas, were like walking into a dryer. It was 102 degrees on the prairie, and a baking wind greeted Mike Slive and his entourage.
So did several Texas A&M fans who just happened to be at the small airport at that time. Before Slive could even escape the heat and get inside the terminal building, he was pressing flesh and posing for pictures.
"Matthew," one man urgently called to his adolescent son, "come here and shake this man's hand."
"Commissioner," bubbled another, "welcome to Aggieland."
This was a scene that would recur for the rest of the trip, in both Texas and Missouri. Slive posed for more pictures than a Kardashian. He accepted dozens of "thank you for letting us in your conference" greetings.
He was the hero of a spreading empire. The nebbish star quarterback the day after making the winning play in the big game. The buttoned-down Big Man On Campus.
On two campuses.
This latest lovefest was further proof that odd couples can live happily ever after. Slive is a Jewish lawyer from upstate New York with an Ivy League undergraduate degree, yet he's had a wildly popular 10-year run leading a league of state universities (plus Vanderbilt) in the Bible-thumping Deep South. He is the eternally circumspect boss of a conference that is best symbolized by the unrestrained fan lunacy of Paul Finebaum's famed radio show. He is assiduously neutral in a league of vicious partisanship. He is an image-conscious consensus builder with a disdain for public intraleague feuding in a conference where fan bases ceaselessly mine for dirt on their rivals.
It shouldn't work, but it has. Spectacularly.
"I had never even been to an SEC institution until after I was named commissioner," Slive said. "Right after I was appointed, [his wife] Liz and I went to each institution and made a point to stay overnight and see the place, and to meet whoever they wanted us to meet. We were comfortable from that day forward."
Slive smiled, his thick eyebrows bobbing above his glasses.
"And I love the food."
He also loves the football. Slive remembers being 16 years old at Archbold Stadium in Syracuse and watching Jim Brown trample rival Colgate for 43 points – six touchdowns and seven extra points. Slive was a high school quarterback until matriculating to Dartmouth, where he found that his size, skills and athleticism did not translate to college. So he transitioned to lacrosse for four years, but never lost his enjoyment of the gridiron.
"I still love the life-long anticipation of Friday night," he said. "Then waking up on game day and scouring the newspapers, and then watching the games themselves."
The irony is how little football the leader of America's king football conference gets to see when he's on campus for a game.
The shuttle bus driver in College Station was straight out of A&M central casting: cowboy hat, red plaid shirt, blue tie, huge belt buckle and boots. It was his job to deliver Slive and his assistant, Kathryn Poe-Switzer, to their hotel on campus. The rest of the entourage – scheduling consultant Larry Templeton, coordinator of officials Steve Shaw and media relations director Charles Bloom – is at another hotel. Rooms were that scarce for this historic occasion.
It was Friday afternoon. The shuttle bus rolled by the ESPN "Gameday" set, where fans had already set up camping tents. They slept there to occupy premium face-time positions the next morning. Nearby were dozens of white party tents with maroon chairs underneath, prime tailgating real estate for Saturday. The buzz was palpable.
"I thought campus was going to explode," said Texas A&M vice president for marketing and communications Jason Cook.
Explosion was still a few hours away. First, Slive attended a dinner with the A&M regents, many of whom waged major political battles in steering the school away from its century-old athletic relationship with hated rival Texas and into this new reality.
The process was acrimonious, controversial and complicated. But by Friday night, on the eve of the first SEC game, there was jubilation at the feeling of liberation from Texas' massive shadow.
"I haven't seen it like this around here since Bear [Bryant] was here," said regent Richard Box, a 1961 undergraduate.
Yet even free and clear from the perceived oppression of the Longhorns, post-dinner conversation among the regents inevitably turned to Texas. The ancient rivalry has been halted, but those in College Station envision a day when it is renewed – and the balance of power is different, thanks to SEC membership.
"When we do play again," Box said, "we'll be the controlling brand."
After dinner, Slive and the rest of the SEC entourage made the short walk to Kyle Field for Midnight Yell Practice, a unique cultural staple. No school has anywhere near the number of traditions Texas A&M does. Among the most cherished is yell practice.
Before every home game, A&M students and fans pile into the stadium at midnight to sharpen up on their elaborate cheers, which are orchestrated by the all-male yell leaders. On this night, A&M primed the pump with a country music concert, then opened the doors for the general public. The response was staggering.
An estimated 40,000 showed up, filling three decks on one side of Kyle Field. Cook said it was the largest crowd for yell practice other than after the bonfire tragedy in 1999, when 12 A&M students were killed when the massive bonfire constructed before the Texas game collapsed.
This was a much happier circumstance.
Slive was met at the stadium by A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, resplendent in maroon bow tie and suit coat in still-oppressive heat, and new athletic director Eric Hyman, wearing a black suit coach. They might have been too excited to notice how hot they were. Same with the thousands of ROTC cadets at field level wearing fatigues and squadron helmets.
As the commissioner congratulated himself for staying up several hours past his bedtime, the yelling began. At 12:03 a.m., during a live cut-in on ESPNU, the cameras were treated to 40,000 Aggies thundering out an "SEC! SEC! SEC!" chant. Slive beamed.
What followed was a dizzying array of cheers, chants and hand signals. There were corny jokes aimed at the visiting Florida Gators. And the cadets and yell leaders seemed to operate under the following guiding principle: When in doubt, do push-ups.
It was a boisterous, but orderly, 30 minutes, a resounding show of unity heading into the new era.
"It was extraordinary," Slive said. "To look up and see the three decks full, it is obviously a tradition like no other. It was gratifying to see the excitement, enthusiasm and pride the students had taken in coming into our league."
Shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday, Slive was eyeballing the TV in his hotel suite. In front of him was Auburn-Mississippi State, the first of 11 SEC games on the day stretching from before noon to nearly midnight.
This was the fun time, getting to watch some actual football. But even then, Slive's mind was privately churning. He was contemplating his remarks at an A&M pregame reception that afternoon in which he, Loftin and Florida president Bernie Machen would all speak.
Loftin began the speaking part of the reception with the traditional Aggie greeting.
"Howdy," he called, and heard the word returned.
"Welcome to SEC country!" he said, and the Aggies responded "Whoop!"
"It's been a long time coming," he said. "There has been some difficulty, but Texas A&M is now where it belongs. … Now the day has arrived."
Machen graciously noted that A&M had "the nicest fans we've ever come across in the SEC." But, he wryly and truthfully warned, "You may not see that reciprocated other places in the SEC."
Slive spoke last. While praising A&M for the enthusiasm it showed, he made a point of also lauding Machen and Florida. This might have been A&M's party, but it also was a conference game. No time to play favorites.
"As of today," Slive said, "you're just one of us."
From there it was off to the stadium, and a pregame news conference. Slive was hit with questions about the status of media-rights negotiations ("hopefully we'll have something before the end of the season"), the Champions Bowl, the entire Aggie experience and the arrival of the 14-team era. (It has created major scheduling headaches, which is why Templeton traveled with a thick, three-ring binder labeled "2013 schedule.")
Then it was time to go to the field, where it was Slive's job to toss the commemorative coin. Shaw, the coordinator of officials, had been giving away the coins like candy – the A&M logo on one side and the 14-team SEC logo on the other. Shaw had Slive practice a couple of tosses, and he completed the real thing without incident.
"That was maybe the best coin toss I've ever seen," Shaw said with a smile.
"Is there a Hall of Fame for coin tosses?" Slive responded. "I think I can be in it."
After returning to the press box, Slive got to sit down for a quarter of football watching and fajita eating. By the second quarter he was out of his chair talking with ESPN college sports programming exec Burke Magnus, and with five minutes to go in the half and A&M leading 17-7, he was heading out of the stadium.
There was a plane to catch to Columbia.
On the ground about an hour before kickoff at another small airport, the weather was 25 degrees cooler but the mood was the same: unabashed glee and something approaching idolatry from the locals. Slive was tickled at the sight of an SEC logo on the window of the terminal building.
The SEC entourage loaded into a van for the 20-minute drive to the stadium, everyone checking their phones for updates from College Station on Florida's come-from-behind, 20-17 victory, and elsewhere around the SEC. Ahead of the van was a police cruiser to clear the way.
Except the officer in the cruiser refused to turn on the lights, and a police cruiser without flashing lights isn't very successful at clearing game-day traffic. With Slive scheduled to flip the coin before the Georgia-Missouri game as well (a different coin, with the Missouri logo on one side and the SEC logo on the other), anxiety subtly spiked in the van. Poe-Switzer, the highly organized keeper of the schedule, began letting out audible sighs as the minutes passed and the van inched toward the stadium.
But the van arrived in time, pulling down to the bottom of the stadium and letting everyone out at field level. Slive was immediately met by Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton, who had endured his own trials in orchestrating a departure from the Big 12. They were joined on the sidelines by athletic director Mike Alden, who had called Slive that morning to share his excitement.
On a beautiful night for football, Slive went to midfield to flip the coin. The stadium was awash in gold and every seat was full, at a stadium where that hasn't always been the case in many lean years past. Flags from all 14 SEC teams snapped in the breeze. The "SEC! SEC! SEC!" chant arose from the Mizzou student section, and the public-address announcer drew roars when he said, "Welcome to Memorial Stadium and the University of Missouri for SEC football!"
After another successfully executed coin flip, Slive stayed on the field for kickoff. It was caught by a Missouri return man almost right in front of Slive, and after the player was tackled, the commissioner high-fived Poe-Switzer and yelled, "Here we go!"
While the two teams wobbled through a first quarter of excitable errors, Slive made his way to the press box. At halftime he was mobbed by about 25 reporters. After that broke up, he talked for a few minutes with ESPN executive editor John Walsh – the godfather of "SportsCenter" and creative muse of the network. Walsh, wearing a gold coat and black shirt, is a graduate of Missouri's famed School of Journalism.
"He was effusive," Slive said.
That was followed by a long chat with Georgia president Michael Adams – part of keeping it neutral, as always. During the third quarter, Slive was whisked back to field level. Before even getting out from under the stands he was warmly intercepted by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and the two had an animated, 10-minute discussion while the action on the field continued. The topics, according to Slive: "Sports, politics and business."
Until the 8:00 mark of the fourth quarter, Slive watched from field level. Then it was time to leave for the airport. He listened to Georgia pull away for a 41-20 victory on the radio in the van. The SEC plane beat the rush of private aircraft out of Columbia Regional Airport, lifting off at 10:40 CT.
While eating a boxed lunch from Missouri and M&Ms packed by Poe-Switzer, Slive reflected on what turned out to be a perfectly executed scheduling stratagem.
On a dead week in the calendar, the SEC had created an event. It had given the two new members centerpiece games against established opponents, at home, on national TV. The national media had largely flocked to the two games, since competition was scarce across the rest of the country.
Twenty years earlier, when the SEC expanded from 10 to 12, it had pitted the two new schools against each other in the second week of the season. Arkansas pounded South Carolina 45-7 amid little fanfare or national buzz.
This time around, the SEC owned the day.
"The philosophy was to give them very attractive home games for the inaugural," Slive said. "Everyone in the league gave up something to make this happen."
With the old guard beating the newbies in both games, the end result reinforced prevailing wisdom: It will take a while for the Big 12 immigrants to get up to SEC speed – literally and figuratively. That process could be painful at times – but even in defeat, it was a triumphant Saturday in College Station and Columbia.
And when it was finally over and Mike Slive was back home after midnight, Mr. Impartial could light up a victory cigar. His league was the day's big winner. As usual.
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