Twenty years ago, Mike Slive introduced himself to me as “a recovering lawyer.”
I laughed, and Slive said, “No, really, I am.”
Slive, who has guided the SEC to unprecedented heights as the league’s commissioner, has recovered quite well. He will retire July 31.
Two decades ago, Slive had just been named the first commissioner of brand new Conference USA. Through the next seven years, Slive directed CUSA, a group of disparate, widespread universities through some amazing success that now seems lost in history. People forget how good the league was during Slive’s tenure.
In 2002, Slive was named commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. The college sports world, as we knew it, would never be the same.
To call Slive a visionary doesn’t really do him justice. He has guided the SEC to unprecedented heights. He has done so the way all great leaders do: by communicating, by inspiring, by building a consensus, by not being afraid to take bold chances, by surrounding himself with good people and by being passionate about his job.
With college athletics going through so much volatility, Slive guided the SEC through expansion, record-setting television deals, the advent of the SEC Network and through stunning on-the-field success. He always has been on step ahead of the curve, including the fact he was a primary player in the long-overdue move to a four-team college football playoff.
Listen: During Slive’s tenure, the SEC’s revenue has more than tripled, from less than $100 million to more than $300 million. As athletic directors Scott Stricklin of Mississippi State and Ross Bjork of Ole Miss can tell you, the large majority of those dollars are returned to the member schools.
And that number will rise exponentially as the infant SEC Network grows, matures and becomes more and more lucrative.
The growth over the past four years has been startling. The Ole Miss athletic budget in 2011-12 was $57 million. For 2015-16, it will be $90.5 million.
Says Bjork, “Mike Slive is a one of a kind leader that we were all fortunate to be around during the most transformational period in the history of the SEC. He led a cultural shift in rules compliance, provided leadership on national matters and created a mindset for high level success on the field. The SEC is in the driver’s seat for college athletics because of Mike Slive.”
Former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton — one of Slive’s “good people” — has worked closely with Slive as a consultant these past six years. Templeton has been involved in the intricate TV deals and the monstrous job of scheduling in a 14-team league with numerous long-standing rivalries.
Templeton was chairman of the SEC’s athletic directors when Slive took over in 2002. When Templeton retired from State in 2009, Slive hired him as a special consultant to the SEC.
“Mike has a knack for getting a lot of people who compete against one another to reach a consensus,” Templeton said. “Let me tell you, it’s not easy managing all the personalities of the presidents, athletic directors and coaches in this 14-team league.”
Says Slive of Templeton, “Larry has made an invaluable contribution to the success we’ve enjoyed. He’s a pro. He has helped us find constructive solutions to some difficult problems. For me personally, he has been a remarkable friend.”
Templeton said Slive, currently battling prostrate cancer, underwent a chemo session last Tuesday in Birmingham, flew to Nashville on Wednesday, meet with SEC presidents athletic directors on Thursday and then presidents on Friday. He watched nearly every game of the tournament. He was back at work in Birmingham early Monday morning.
Says Templeton of Slive, “He is dedicated beyond belief.”
Greg Sankey, Slive’s top lieutenant has been named as Slive’s successor, and Templeton says Sankey brings a combination of Slive’s intelligence and level-headedness to the job. He will need both. Slive has set a high bar.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.