SEC Commissioner Mike Slive: The Most Powerful Man in College Athletics
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.
Part 2 Wednesday: Slive discusses expansion and the SEC's TV deal.