The Coach Who Would Not Be Named: Mike Slive Talks Lane Kiffin, SEC
In his address to the league at media days, SEC commissioner Mike Slive included 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 mean welcome."
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.