Slive’s legacy defined, grew college athletics
Mike Slive, dressed casually in a plaid button-down and khakis, was the picture of contentment as he stood in the College Football Playoff’s fan fest last year watching his granddaughter, Abigail, play with Legos. When a reporter stopped to say hello to the retired SEC commissioner, they talked for a few minutes before the conversation turned to a recent controversy in college athletics.
Slive, once the most influential figure in college sports, just shrugged and said, “You know, I’m so far removed from that, I don’t even know,” at which point he leaned over and handed Abigail another Lego.
Slive, who was the conference’s commissioner from 2002 to 2015, died May 16 in Birmingham, Ala., at the age of 77. In the three years since he retired, he stayed close to his protégé, current SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, but mostly Slive kept his opinions to himself after his retirement.
He never wanted to be the old guy playing armchair quarterback. He much preferred to chase Abigail around the fan fest. It kept him young, he’d say with a big grin.
“Mike doesn’t live in the past,” Liz, his wife of nearly 50 years, said in 2015. “He doesn’t live with regrets. He likes to keep it simple.”
When Slive stepped away, he truly stepped away. Part of it was giving Sankey the space to be commissioner without someone looking over his shoulder. He also founded the Slive Foundation for prostate cancer research, which kept him busy with events and fundraising.
“I think there’s also a luxury in being able to sit back and watch others do it for a while,” Sankey said.
But for those 13 years when he was the SEC’s commissioner, Slive left his prints all over college athletics.
His legacy was built on accomplishments that range from the SEC Network, which achieved the most successful launch in cable television with 65 million homes, to league expansion and exponential growth in conference revenue. For 10 years, starting in 2004, he lobbied his peer commissioners to start a football playoff, which has become a colossal success and revenue-driver, and at the same time he firmly insisted that schools in his league clean up their act and get off NCAA probation for cheating.
Slive also set the tone for minority hiring, especially among college football coaches. The SEC had never had an African-American head football coach before Slive arrived, and the conference had five during the commissioner’s time there.
“He took the SEC into the national conversation,” said ESPN’s Burke Magnus, executive vice president, programming and scheduling. “As college sports went from being a series of regional players and, through media, became national brands, nobody did a better job than Mike did for the SEC. He changed perceptions of them in the process.”
Ultimately, Slive’s legacy wasn’t built on one-offs that provided a temporary impact. He changed the culture of a conference and, with the playoff, helped change college football.
Those were crowning accomplishments for Slive, who went to Dartmouth thinking he’d major in pre-med and be a doctor before embarking on a 40-year career in college athletics. There also were less-obvious legacies that are harder to quantify, Sankey said, like how Slive used relationships to drive business and make decisions.
“A big part of his leadership is being able to see the destination and guide people there in a collaborative, incremental way,” Sankey said. “There’s a real skill in that.”
What so many of Slive’s friends remembered about him wasn’t just his achievements, but the way he went about his business.
“Mike was as interested in his partners doing well as he was the SEC doing well,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said. “It’s that partnership that really defines what Mike Slive is all about.”
He took the SEC into the national conversation. As college sports went from being a series of regional players and, through media, became national brands, nobody did a better job than Mike did for the SEC.
Greg Brown, Learfield’s CEO and president, said much of Slive’s reputation was built on his approach, not just the outcomes.
“In all of our dealings, what stood out to me was the gentlemanly way he handled his business,” Brown said. “In that way, he was unparalleled. He never used his position in a bullying way, which is pretty unique among executives at that level.”
Because of his position, Slive was often asked about his philosophy on leadership or his negotiating style, which amused him. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have a style.
“I really don’t know what I think until I hear myself talk,” Slive once said. “I don’t have a style. I don’t think about a style. You sit, you listen, you think, you deliberate, you say things that are constructive. It’s not a strategy.”
Well, there was one strategy that Slive effectively employed at the negotiating table. David Williams, Vanderbilt’s athletic director, said Slive wasn’t afraid to leave a negotiation if things weren’t going like he thought they should. That’s what happened during talks with ESPN in the mid 2000s.
“Mike would say that a good negotiator is always willing to get up and walk away,” Williams said. “You hear that a lot, but you don’t see it a lot. Well, right in the middle of a meeting, Mike said, ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to the airport.’ He was ready to go.”
ESPN called the SEC back to the table and the landmark 2008 media rights deal was struck.
Slive’s staunch defense of the conference came into play during separate talks with Magnus. The commissioner wanted to start a basketball series against the Big 12, but when ESPN came back with a tepid response, the games didn’t get scheduled right away. Slive, who was trying to elevate the SEC’s struggling basketball, blamed ESPN’s lack of commitment.
“He felt like we short-armed it,” Magnus said. “He held a grudge for a couple of years with me.”
Slive finally addressed the issue with Magnus as they sat on the patio of a Key Biscayne, Fla., hotel during the BCS.
“That’s the last we ever spoke of it,” Magnus said. “From that moment forward, it cemented one of the best friendships I had when I worked in college sports. It was all based on him defending the honor of the SEC.”
Justin Connolly, executive vice president of affiliate sales for Disney and ESPN Media Networks, who took the lead on launching the SEC Network, felt similarly challenged at first. Connolly got to know Slive in 2013 and remembers the relationship getting off to a slow start.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t a love fest,” Connolly said. “He spent his time trying to test and trial how we were going to work together. But once he and I built a trust, he would have done anything. And he did.”
Connolly reminisced about road trips he would make with Slive to various Quarterback Clubs or Chambers of Commerce gatherings in small towns throughout the SEC footprint to gain early support for the channel.
“He became a huge mentor and friend in a very short time,” Connolly said.
Sometimes, though, Slive’s advice failed to convince him. Once, before a long road trip, Slive suggested that Connolly buy a pair of orthopedic shoes that Slive was wearing. “We’re going to do a lot of walking,” Slive said.
“Commissioner, I love your advice. But I’m definitely not going to buy those shoes,” Connolly responded. “My wife’s never going to let me buy shoes that a 70-year-old guy is wearing.”
Slive roared with laughter. Connolly did too as he reminisced, like so many of Slive’s friends did last week, thinking about deep exchanges or lighter moments.
“He had this amazing warmth and capacity for friendship,” said Mike Aresco, the former CBS executive who’s now commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. “That’s what he was about.”