The Future of the SEC and College Football Per Mike Slive
As the 2010 football season nears, commissioner Mike Slive and the SEC are in the midst of Pax SECana. Never in the history of college sports has one conference been so ascendant. Every morning when his alarm goes off at 4:45, Slive says he jumps out of bed and is eager to go to work making the conference an even better place.
But what obstacles lie ahead? And, in particular, what is the greatest challenge facing the league? Slive believes he knows. "The only conference that the SEC has to worry about in terms of competition is the SEC. If we tarnish the shield, the brand, ourselves," he says.
Indeed, Slive believes it's the SEC brand that provides the ultimate value behind the league's lucrative partnerships. "I'm not sure that CBS and ESPN would have paid us the kind of money if we were in a situation with X number of teams on probation," Slive says. "I'm not sure if they would have had the willingness to take us national. Now, listen, life is cyclical, we may not win 10 national championships in a row and when you don't do that, you better have a solid foundation."
As part of that solid foundation, Slive cites the SEC's growing diversity, the decline in teams on probation and the number of alleged violations, as well as the increased graduation rate of the players. And while Slive believes that the vast majority of the 5,000 SEC athletes behave well, the misbehavior of a comparatively small number does offer concerns about the tarnishing of the SEC brand.
Fear that the brand may be tarnished has led the most famous league in America, the NFL, to be the most proactive about protecting itself from off-field issues. Asked whether he had paid attention to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's aggressive suspensions under the personal conduct policy, Slive said he had. Asked further whether he believes that the SEC needs to establish similar penalty powers for the league's own commissioner, particularly given the fact that, unlike Goodell, Slive has actually been a judge and has experience meting out justice, the commissioner thought quietly for several moments before answering.
"We've talked about it and tried to analyze the differences for Roger (Goodell) and for us," Slive says. "In essence, the relationship between a student is with his or her institution. And the question then becomes, in the collegiate world, is there a place for a conference to discipline a student, or have a different body discipline a student, rather than the judicial body of an institution? We haven't been able to figure out a way in which it would be appropriate for me to supercede the judicial groups on our campuses.Thus far my thinking has been that that is probably one step too far."
One step that Slive was willing to take came two years ago, in April 2008, when Slive and ACC commissioner John Swofford presented an idea to the BCS governing board. The idea called for a four-team playoff for a champion, the so-called "plus one" model. At the time, Slive's motivation was the exclusion of an undefeated 2004 Auburn team from the BCS title game. According to Slive, that plan "didn't get close to happening." Indeed, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 fought hardest to keep a plus one from happening because those conferences believed it was the first step in the direction of a playoff.
Ironically, due to the Big Ten and Pac-10's opposition, the SEC won the next two national championships anyway -- and had an easier path to those titles than either team would have had if there had been a four-team playoff at the end of the season. Says Slive with a laugh, "Last year, if I'd put in a plus one and we'd had an undefeated, undisputed number one team like Alabama and they'd had to play the No. 4 seed to get to the national championship game, somebody would have run me over."
To further illustrate how difficult it is to craft a perfect system, Slive leans forward and clasps his hands together. "I've got an idea," he says, eyes twinkling with amusement. "We're going to have a new system, it's called the Flexible Final, and we won't determine how it's going to work until the end of the year. Then we'll pick the best and fairest way to format a championship based on the season. In some ways that would be the ideal. Because if you've got two undefeated teams -- good teams that have played good schedules -- they play. If you've got four teams with one loss, you figure out what's the fairest way to do this."
Of course, that flexible final is never going to happen. Indeed, Slive does not believe that college football is very close to a playoff at all. Asked whether he foresees one coming in the future, Slive quips, "Not with this generation of administrators. I don't know for sure, but I think you've got to hope that we die off."
Now in his eighth year as SEC commissioner, Slive's contract with the league runs through the 2012 season. By then Slive, who will be 72, says whether he has the opportunity to continue working as commissioner won't be entirely within his control. "I feel good," he says, "I'd like to continue." But no matter what happens, he's sure that after a career spent changing jobs, this is his final destination, the job he loves more than any other.
Slive loves being a commissioner because, "It includes every single role you can think of. You're a negotiator, you're a mediator, you're a judge, you're a friend, you're a consigliere, you're everything. And in many ways, if you look back on my career, it looks like I was always preparing to be here, but I wasn't. It was just the way it worked out."
Forty-three years ago, when he was 27 years old, Mike Slive packed up his white Ford station wagon with all of his life possessions, bed strapped down in the back of a station wagon that had once served as a yellow bus, and drove north from Washington, D.C. He was disillusioned with the practice of law and he'd just accepted a job in the Dartmouth admissions office. A year later, in 1968, Slive entered the world of athletics for the first time as an assistant athletic director at Dartmouth. At the time, one of his duties was distributing the tickets for the athletic events. "Real tickets in real envelopes," he says.
So on Sundays a then-28-year-old Slive and his newlywed wife, Lizzie, with whom he recently celebrated his 42nd wedding anniversary, would arrive in the athletics office. Alongside one another, the couple would put the tickets in the envelopes. It was a job for a man occupying the lowest rung of the athletics administration ladder. Asked if he ever put the wrong tickets in the wrong envelopes, Slive smiles, lifts his eyes skyward and travels on the long road back to the leafy Ivy League, back to where his journey in college athletics began, back to a hot office on a sleepy campus in the middle of a New Hampshire summer. "Not that I recall. I'm sure I did, but if I did, I repressed it," he says.
He laughs, so softly that barely a sound escapes his lips, "I enjoyed it, extremely," he says.
Two generations and three years later, the man who once stuffed tickets in envelopes on sleepy summer weekends is now the most powerful man in college athletics. It's the afternoon now, late July, over 100 degrees outside in Birmingham, and just a few more minutes remain of SEC Media Days. Slive stands, stretches out his arms in front of him, reaches behind the chair and reclaims his navy suit coat.
Asked what he believes college sports will look like in 2040, a full hundred years after he was born and grew up listening to games on the radio in a time before television, Slive is silent for over a minute. Then he speaks, "What jumps in my mind is the word hope rather than what it will. Is the collegiate model sustainable? I would hope in 2040 that it would be sustainable. Because if it isn't, then we're going to have something different and maybe something redundant to what exists at the professional level. So I hope that there are still at least 5,000 men and women competing in 20 sports or more in the SEC and getting educational value from that experience as part of our mission of higher education.
"Whether that concept gets overwhelmed by the potential forces at work, I don't know, but I hope not. I hope that as people try to reach their own destiny, that they do it in a way that allows us to keep the educational values and mission in play and not make the country so cynical -- because the motives are so non-educational -- that we really don't have what we have, that we've lost the magic.
"It's a hope. Will it be? I really don't know."
More than a week after our conversation, my phone rings. It's Mike Slive. The old meat-cutter, a man who owes his 10 fingers to his precision, has a correction to make about the job he held during college. He's every bit, it turns out, as precise with his words as he was with his knives.
"I said I worked at PNC grocery store," Slive says, "It was actually P&C, with an ampersand." He pauses. "I just thought," he says, "you'd want to get it right."