One day, I want to sneak into SEC commissioner Mike Slive’s office and look at his to-do list.
1. Buy new cigars.
2. Expand conference by two schools.
3. Get Liz (his wife) flowers for Mother’s Day (well, did he Liz?).
4. Create a new bowl game for SEC and Big 12 conference football champions.
How do I know The Commish even has a to-do list?
Because 20 years ago when he was just five months on the job in mid-July 1991 as commissioner of the fledgling Great Midwest Conference, I visited Mike’s cozy temporary conference offices in Chicago that he was sharing with former law partner Mike Glazer.
You may remember the two Mikes as being the legal Ghostbusters universities being investigated by the NCAA called for representation.
That job was one of Mike’s many past lives – a district court judge and a clerk of a county superior court in Hanover, N.H., assistant athletic director at Dartmouth University (his alma mater where he lettered three years in lacrosse), Cornell’s athletic director and assistant commissioner for the then-Pac 10 – that prepared him for the last two decades as a conference commissioner.
Anyway, Mike’s first Great Midwest Conference office had a to-do list hanging on the back of his door.
''There's invisible ink at the very bottom of the list - that's where I've written I'm supposed to take a vacation,'' Mike said that day with a laugh.
In Mike’s first five months as the GMC commissioner after being named to the job on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1991, at Chicago’s historic Knickerbocker Hotel, he negotiated a three-year, $2 million league basketball television package with Host Creative of Lexington, Ky., convened the first conference meeting in early June and was about to begin a conference marketing plan.
I knew right then that this was a guy who couldn’t wait for the sun to rise every day and probably didn’t notice when it set.
The other thing I remembered from that mid-July ’91 visit to Mike’s office is that he asked me almost as many questions about me as I did.
Where I was from? What was my background? What were my thoughts on certain issues?
I’m thinking, “I’m a 34-year old sportswriter who has been in the business 13 years and I have a 50-year-old conference commissioner with a brilliant, diverse career asking me questions and he’s really valuing what I say. Is this guy for real?”
Two decades later, I don’t need to even have to answer that question.
The reason the Southeastern Conference has become the preeminent college athletic conference in America is Mike Slive.
Of course, Mike will defer all credit to his staff, the presidents, athletic directors, coaches and student-athletes that comprise the soon-to-be 14-school conference.
"I had a sense of what we needed to do and how we needed to do it," Mike once said, who starts his 10th year in July as the SEC’s grand poobah. "But the credit really goes to our institutions, the presidents, the chancellors and the athletic directors who helped us say as a conference what we wanted, and knew there are other people who wanted it as well."
All those people who represent the moving parts and the heartbeat of a league that seems to get stronger every year flip the credit back to Mike for the very reasons I first learned a long time ago.
He never quits working, so he’s always pro-active. An example is last week’s announcement that he successfully negotiated a five-year deal for the SEC and Big 12 football champions to meet in a bowl game starting on Jan. 1, 2015.
Do you think the rest of the college sports world saw that one coming?
The day after Memorial Day, the SEC will begin its annual four-day business meetings at the Sandestin (Fla.) Beach Hilton. The meetings start Tuesday and end Friday about 2 p.m.
Aside from Tuesday night’s poolside social, Mike will not breath Gulf of Mexico air until late Friday afternoon until he will retreat to poolside with wife Liz and a good book.
Though Mike and the league conduct business all year at various times, the SEC’s annual business meeting is where he truly shines, getting parties to agree to legislation that keeps the league a step ahead.
Consider his past Destin track record since he was named SEC commissioner on July 2, 2002:
2003: Developed a Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior Summit, a national forum that took place in Dallas designed to promote sportsmanship and curb inappropriate fan behavior. Also told league presidents, athletic directors and coaches that his goal in five years was to not have a league school on NCAA probation. "I think they got the message," Mike said. "I wasn't smiling when I said it. You have to set standards. There should be no room for violations. And when things come up (we) need to thoroughly investigate them and find out what happened.”
2004: Formed an eight-man league task force on compliance and enforcement that created a uniform reporting process of possible NCAA violations.
2005: Hired a consultant to begin a Mentors in Violence program designed to educate athletes about off-field behavior. He also created the SEC Academic Consortium, designed to link the resources of the league's schools.
2006: Was given power by the SEC presidents to rule prospective student-athletes ineligible if there are academic irregularities in their transcripts.
2007: Began pressing his 12 school presidents in the SEC on their suggestions about a future playoff. “I don't think our conference needs to wait to think about it,” Mike said. “I want our presidents to be prepared."
2008: Began new TV contract discussions that led to the SEC signing 15-year deals starting in 2009 with ESPN for $2.25 billion and CBS for $800 million.
2009: Read the riot act to league football coaches to stop sniping at each other in public (“I had all 5-9, 170 pounds of me into every word,” Mike said), told men’s basketball coaches to improve strength of schedules with stronger non-conference opponents.
2010: In the face of the news that the Pac-10 was going to invite six Big 12 schools to join the league, he calmly emphasized a level-headed approach saying that the SEC will be "strategic and thoughtful" toward possible expansion.
2011: Oversaw legislation in which league presidents approved a series of proposals concerning roster management in football, eliminating oversigning past the NCAA limit of 25 scholarships per year and erasing the transfer exception for graduate students.
Even as Mike edges toward his 71st birthday on July 26, how does he maintain his standing as one of the most respected and most powerful people in college athletics?
First, there’s his tireless work ethic, which he credits to his late father, who didn’t go to college yet did whatever it took to put food on the table.
“Whatever he did wasn’t easy, whether it was running a meat market, selling shoes or rustproofing cars,” Mike says.
Liz Slive, Mike’s wife for almost 45 years, says the two things that have remained consistent with her husband “are his kindness and honesty." Anna, Mike’s daughter, has always admired her Dad’s integrity – “He’s just always knows what to do, and he does it right, it’s innate, it's who he is, it's part of his soul,” she says.
But perhaps the trait that has kept Mike at the top of his profession all these years is his ability to listen. Slive, whose favorite historical figure is Sir Winston Churchill, the late British prime minister, loves the Churchill quote that “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
So many people that Mike has touched through the years have marveled at his people skills.
Former University of Memphis athletic directors Charles Cavagnaro and R.C. Johnson, who worked with Mike in the Great Midwest that morphed into Conference USA, echo their opinions of him.
Cavagnaro says that Mike “knows how to get everyone in a room pulling the rope in the same direction." Johnson adds that Mike “has a habit of making everybody feel good about what they get even though they don’t get everything they want.”
But it wasn’t until Charles Bloom, the SEC's associate commissioner for media relations, gave me his take on Mike that I fully understood why 20 years ago that the new commissioner of the Great Midwest Conference made an effort to connect with a nobody-sportswriter that he barely knew.
"The commissioner really tries to get an idea of how people feel about a certain issue or subject, he really puts himself in their shoes and does a great job of making everyone feel important," Charles says. “But he also has global thinking ability to take an issue, look at it from 30,000 feet and dissect it in a way that benefits everyone."
There’s no doubt that Mike had the toughest of acts to follow in replacing previous SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, a former college football coach and Vanderbilt athletic director.
In his 12-year tenure that started in 1990, Kramer realized the SEC was a viable brand that should generate more revenue for the schools. He prodded the league to expand by two teams to 12 (adding Arkansas and South Carolina) and created a lucrative conference championship game.
He obtained a national TV deal with CBS that put SEC football in living rooms every Saturday from coast to coast. He also created the Bowl Championship Series to set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship football matchup.
But the cost of victory was high. By 2007, every SEC school had been on probation and/or had been hit with postseason or scholarship sanctions, including half the league at least twice.
That’s why Mike, in replacing Kramer, originally had an agenda to get league compliance in order, which has been mostly accomplished.
“Roy Kramer built this league,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley says, “but Mike took it to another level.”
When Kramer announced in March 2002 at the end of the SEC men’s basketball tournament that he would retire in a few months, I honestly didn’t think the league would find someone as good as him.
Then when I heard the leading candidate to replace him was Mike, I never gave it a second thought again. I knew the league would be just as good or better.
I guess I thought that because I remember something Mike told me that July 1991 day in his cramped Chicago office.
His desk was full of papers, his phone line was blinking and he didn’t have enough hours in the day.
And he absolutely loved it.
“I enjoy creating things,'' Mike said with a smile that day. ''How many people get a chance in life to say they had the opportunity to be first at anything? At this time of my life, this is what I want to be doing. If I won the lottery tonight, I'd be here tomorrow morning.''
Fast forward to the present.
Two new schools, Texas A&M and Missouri, join the SEC officially July 1. The new Jan. 1 2015 bowl game is positioning the league for any future national playoff format. The league should be soon announcing its league schedule for 2013 and beyond.
With all this, Mike is just as motivated as ever. Which is why I ask him how long he wants to keep doing what he’s doing.
“I'll stay at least two more years,” he says. “I also remind people that there's another group of people who will determine if I stay longer, and my wife Liz is in that mix. I'll
If Ms. Liz gives him the thumbs up, the rest of college athletics might be playing for second place for a while longer.