Intercollegiate Athletics Has Lost a Giant and the SEC a Legend
USA TODAY Sports
Mike Slive, the man who almost single-handedly changed the face of intercollegiate athletics, has passed away. He was commissioner of the Southeastern Conference from 2002 to 2015, but his influence reached further than just the footprint of the 14-member league.
He set the standard for other leagues when he negotiated huge television contracts for the conference and closed the deal with ESPN on the launching of a new SEC Network. In conjunction with that move, he led the league in expanding to 14 members with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, a move emulated by the rest of the nation. And during his tenure the conference won 81 national championships in 17 of its 21 sports, including seven straight Crystal Balls.
It was the slight of SEC member Auburn from the BCS National Championship in 2004 that motivated him to take action to change how the NCAA recognized Division 1 National Champions.
Auburn’s football team went 13–0, finished No. 2 in the nation, and had four 1st round NFL Draft picks in 2004. Yet, the Tigers were denied the chance to play for the national championship. Instead Oklahoma was pitted against USC, and the Sooners were blown out 55–19 by the Trojans.
Many thought Auburn would have been a better opponent for Southern Cal. After all, the Tigers had won the toughest football conference in the nation and had beaten four Top 10 teams that year.
Mike Slive took the slight personally. “It was incomprehensible,” Slive said. “Knowing what this league is like, that somehow Auburn could not play for the national championship. That was a great football team.”
From that day forward, Mike Slive worked tirelessly to see the formation of a four-team playoff to prevent the same thing from happening to any other team. It was an uphill battle. Only ACC Commissioner John Swofford agreed with Slive. The Big 10 and the Pac-12 commissioners were vehemently against the playoff idea.
That didn’t deter Slive, who finally got the other three conferences to come around. Because of his efforts, no top-four team would be left out in the cold again. And all of college football was better off for it. That achievement is just one of the monumental accomplishments in his 13 years as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.
He indisputably was the most powerful and influential man in college athletics. He stood up to Mark Emmert and the NCAA in 2013 and demanded more autonomy for what has since been called the “five power conferences.” The result of that showdown?—The NCAA bowed to his will.
Bill Hancock, the old Director of the BCS and the new Director of the College Football Playoff, said Slive was not a tyrant but rather an artful negotiator. “With Mike, it’s not about the problem, it’s about the solution,” Hancock said at the time. “He’s remarkable. I’m not sure we’ll ever see another Mike Slive in our industry.”
After all of his accomplishments, he was asked at the end of 2013 if he had any plans for retirement. He said he didn’t have any thoughts of leaving his post. “I told you a long time ago” said Slive, “that I can’t conceive of having any other job.” However, life has a way of changing our plans, and he announced his retirement in July 2015.
A cancer survivor back in the1990’s, the dreaded disease had returned. Doctors said his prognosis looked good when he retired. But, today at the age of 77 he passed away in his home in Birmingham.
Intercollegiate athletics has lost a giant and the SEC a legend. But his family has lost a husband, a father, and a grandfather. A memorial service will be held Friday at Temple Emanu-El at 11:30 a.m. in Birmingham. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and family.