The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Commissioner Slive a true visionary

1108 days ago
Sean Cartell | SEC
Photo: John Kelley

The following story will be available in the SEC Football Championship Game Program, on sale Saturday at the Georgia Dome, as well as online here.

Perspective.

The lens through which many see the world is focused on that which is imminent. There generally is an emphasis on finding success in those items that are next on the schedule with consideration given only to the immediate impact of those decisions.

It takes a unique individual - one who is thoughtful, intelligent, driven and insightful - to be able to make decisions in the present that take into account how those conclusions may play out more than a decade down the road.

Blending his myriad of career experiences from the legal, judicial and collegiate athletics realms, Mike Slive has spent his 13 years as the Southeastern Conference Commissioner transitioning the nation's elite conference into a national brand.

"The term visionary may be overused, but it so accurately describes Mike," said Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the College Football Playoff. "He understands that the decisions that we're making today are being made for the people who are going to follow in our footsteps."

The 23rd SEC Championship Game will be Slive's last as SEC Commissioner after announcing on October 14 that he would be retiring effective July 31, 2015. It won't be a moment of great nostalgia for Slive, during which he recollects his great accomplishments - though they are endless.

Instead, he is focused on the future. It is a future he has ensured and one that can be seen with the start of the SEC Network and the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff.

"The immediate future of the conference is established," said Greg McGarity, Athletics Director at the University of Georgia. "With the SEC Network in place, with all of the television contracts and the bowl agreements, the foundation is set for a very bright future for all of us. To see all of those dreams unfold probably has to be a crowning achievement for Mike personally, although he would never say that."

The SEC Championship Game is now into its third decade of existence. The vision of former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, a conference championship game in football was once approached with widespread trepidation. As the event has grown and flourished under Slive's watch, it has helped transform the game of college football.

"The SEC showed the rest of the nation what could be done with a championship game," Hancock said. "The other conferences learned how good it was for the conference family and, also, how good it could be nationally. It is one of those remarkable bucket-list events for lots of college football fans around the country. Under Mike, it has really kept the SEC family atmosphere about it. All the schools who aren't participating can enjoy it and be proud of it, in addition to the schools that are participating."

In 1992 - the inaugural year of the SEC Football Championship Game - league champion Alabama moved on to win the national championship. Ten times in the Bowl Championship Series era, the winner of the SEC Championship Game advanced to the BCS Championship Game. Eight times during that span, the SEC Champion won the national title. In 2011, LSU won the SEC Championship, but was bested by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.

"As the SEC has gotten better and better, the SEC Championship Game has become a de facto national semifinalist in the era of the BCS, certainly starting in 2006," said Tony Barnhart, SEC Network analyst and longtime journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Now, it is pretty fair to say that the SEC Championship Game is a de facto national quarterfinal because, more years than not, the winner will advance to the four-team playoff. The SEC did it first and people thought it was a dumb idea, but now it is one of the great venues and spectacles in sport."

For the first time in the history of the sport, the national champion in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision will be decided by a four-team College Football Playoff. The participants in the playoff will be decided by a 12-member selection committee. It is an idea that originated from a proposal that Slive made nearly six years earlier.

"In 2008, he put the four-team playoff on the table," Barnhart said. "It was referred to as a 'plus-one,' but essentially it was this change to the postseason mechanism. He knew that even if it didn't pass it would start the discussion about what the postseason should be like. That's one of the things that makes him a great visionary. He was setting the table for meetings that would happen four years later. Mike Slive got to the table early with the idea and planted the seed."

The increasing importance of the SEC Championship Game in the national picture and the implementation of the College Football Playoff have done nothing but increase the excitement surrounding the regular season. SEC teams, on average, played four or more top-25 teams as part of their schedules. The more than 60 top-25 opponents played by SEC teams led the nation in 2014.

"The College Football Playoff has taken it to another level in terms of making college football even more popular and creating even more discussion," McGarity said. "It broadens the discussion to not only the four teams in the playoff, but also the other bowl games that come into play. It has provided everyone with the answer to the question of how we can have a playoff and at the same time maintain the importance of the regular season."

As Hancock mentions, the College Football Playoff has continued to help the sport grow into even more of a national brand. Fan interest in specific teams and outcomes becomes less regionalized as games from all across the country affect the College Football Playoff.

"This four-team playoff has enhanced the best of what the BCS brought to the game, which is that every game counts," Hancock said. "The game is now much more a national game than it has ever been before because people in the SEC footprint have to pay attention to what's happening in the Midwest and the Northwest and on the West coast. The playoff has taken that to the next level."

Similarly, during Slive's tenure, the SEC has grown from regional fanaticism to the national stage. It's something that the conference's head football coaches don't take for granted.

"His leadership and direction for this conference has been monumental," LSU's Les Miles said. "In his 13 years, much has been accomplished. The positioning of this conference and its national strength in the football landscape has really been through his direction. How much we've enjoyed, as a simple head coach, his direction and leadership."

With SEC teams routinely facing some of the nation's toughest schedules, the conference claimed seven consecutive BCS National Championships beginning in 2006. Success, however, in the Slive era has extended far beyond the football field. The SEC has captured 75 national titles in 17 of the conference's 21 sports since he became its seventh commissioner in 2002.

"I've been a head coach 24 years in three leagues and been around commissioners and there are very good ones out there," Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel said. "But his ability to deal with head coaches, his vision and his management style are remarkably impressive in the two years I've been around him. He's just a model for management and leadership, in my opinion. He set such a great standard here."

Slive's broad-based initiatives have included the SEC Task Force on Compliance and Enforcement, the creation of SECU - the conference's academic initiative, a Minority Coaches Database, and an SEC Sportsmanship initiative.

The culmination of those efforts has contributed to this extraordinary golden age of the Southeastern Conference. Six years after signing landmark broadcast agreements with CBS and ESPN in 2008, the conference and ESPN teamed up to launch the SEC Network in August 2014. The 24/7 multiplatform network is in the midst of its inaugural year, providing coverage of more than 1,000 live SEC events across linear and digital platforms.

The SEC Network - one of Slive's biggest accomplishments - was, at launch, the most widely distributed cable network in television history.

"I knew the response would be big," Barnhart said. "Football games that we show on the SEC Network were going to be on television anyway but what people are really enjoying aside from the games is all the programming that we do - studio programming, the SEC Film Room, and all of the talented people that we have. That's what's making the network incredible. The response has been tremendous."

The effect of the SEC Network, in its fourth month of operation, has already been felt across each of the SEC institutions. The exposure that it provides each of the programs and the student-athletes competing within the SEC has been monumental.

"Commissioner Slive has positively transformed the Southeastern Conference during his 13-year tenure as Commissioner," ESPN President John Skipper said. "The sports community will benefit from his contributions for years to come."

At the core of the many accomplishments directed by Slive has been his innate ability to create consensus among any group with which he worked. He consistently brought together individuals with a vast array of perspectives and challenges to reach agreement.

"Every school is going to represent itself first, but a very close second is what's in the best interest of the SEC," Texas A&M Athletics Director Eric Hyman said. "In that sense, Mike Slive has been a magician in dealing with some very powerful schools and strong personalities. When an SEC school competes outside the league, the rest of the league supports that school. I've never seen that in another conference."

Barnhart credits Slive's experience as a lawyer and circuit court judge for helping shape his ability to reach consensus.

"He's one of the best I've ever seen," Barnhart said. "When he goes into a meeting, he doesn't wait on a vote, he has taken everybody's temperature and has gotten a consensus. This is especially true with the university presidents. The presidents listen to Mike Slive and are going to take his recommendation because of his track record. The Directors of Athletics listen because they know he has the best interest of the conference at heart."

It hasn't just been within the conference where Slive's ability to bring people together has been on display. During the creation of the College Football Playoff, Hancock said that Slive's consensus-building and keen ability to understand a multitude of perspectives shined.

"He has a rare ability to see things from a national perspective while representing the interest of the schools," Hancock said. "Of course, Mike was at the table every step of the way for the creation of the playoff. There were some pretty hard negotiations and Mike was able to understand the other persons' position while, at the same time, advocating for his own position. It was a remarkable eight months of negotiations. I'm grateful that all this happened while we had Mike Slive on the team."

As Slive enters the final seven months of his tenure as the SEC Commissioner, he does so with an optimistic look towards the future. It is a future that he has ensured will be bright.

"Our student-athletes are our first priority," McGarity said. "From a financial and an exposure standpoint, Commissioner Slive has done all of the heavy lifting. This allows us to shift our focus from a financial model to focus even more on our student-athletes and enhancing their experience. He has ensured that the SEC is always going to play a predominant role, not just in football, but in every sport."

For all of the constituencies Slive has represented over the years, the team he is most proud of is his family. Husband to Liz, his wife of 46 years; father to Anna; father-in-law to Judd Harwood; and grandfather to two-year-old Abigail, Slive has always put his family first.

As he transitions to a role as a four-year consultant to the SEC following his tenure as Commissioner, Slive will have more time to spend with his beloved family. He will do so knowing that through his rare combination of strengths and abilities, he has set in motion a model for the SEC that will continue to create a positive student-athlete experience for decades to come.

"Mike Slive has an internal drive to be successful and in combination with that is his profound sense of right and wrong," Barnhart said. "You don't run across many people in life that have both his consensus-building abilities and his vision. He has been an extraordinary commissioner."