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

Q&A: Commissioner Slive

877 days ago
Tony Barnhart
Photo: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

DESTIN, Fla. --Mike Slive became the seventh commissioner of the Southeastern Conference on July 2, 2002.

On July 31, 2015, just five days after his 75th birthday, Slive will retire and pass the baton to Greg Sankey, who was named commissioner-select in March.

In that 13-year span Slive, who took over for Roy Kramer, has presided over unprecedented growth and change in one of the most financially and competitively powerful conferences in intercollegiate athletics.

These are just a few of the items that will be included in Slive's legacy:

  • He completely changed the culture of rules compliance in the SEC.
  • He didn't just talk about diversity in the SEC's coaching ranks, he did something about it. The SEC's first African-American football coach (Sylvester Croom) was hired under his watch.
  • In his 13 years as commissioner, shared revenue for conference members has grown from $95 million to over $300 million per year.
  • The conference expanded from 12 to 14 members by adding two schools, Texas A&M and Missouri.
  • In conjunction with ESPN, the conference launched the SEC Network last August.
  • Slive was a driving force in the establishment of the College Football Playoff, which began last season.
  • Slive was a mover and shaker in the push for autonomy for the Power Five conferences.

There is a lot more, but you get the picture. He's been busy.

Last October Slive announced his retirement and at the same time he announced that he was receiving treatments for a recurrence of prostate cancer.

On the eve of the SEC's annual Spring Meetings, his last as commissioner, Mike Slive sat down with me to look back on the past 13 years and to look at the conference's future under Greg Sankey.

Q. Let's talk about the important stuff first. How are you feeling?

Slive: This is as good as I've felt in a while. Really it's the best I've felt since last summer. The good news is that the chemo did what it was supposed to do so I'm making progress. The best part is I've gotten a little summer vacation from treatments so I've been able to enjoy these last couple of months. We'll go back to M.D. Anderson (cancer center in Houston) in June and we'll see what the next step is.

Q. I understand you basically told your doctor that he now owned your cancer. Is that true?

Slive: Exactly. I had a great conversation with him. I said "Doc, here's the deal. I'm going to give you my cancer. I'll do what you tell me to do but I'm going to go back and live my life and enjoy my work and enjoy my family. What they tell me is that good spirts and living your life is very important. If you just focus on the cancer and that is all you're thinking about then you're headed down the wrong path.

Q. Three years ago you left these meetings to return to Birmingham for the birth of Abigail, your granddaughter. What are your memories of that?

Slive: I remember I left on Thursday night and then came back on Friday. I can't believe it's been three years. She's here this week. She always looks forward to getting back to the big hotel (Sandestin Hilton) to have her birthday in Florida. She thinks this whole week (SEC Meetings) is for her. It's hard to describe to other people how it feels to be a grandfather. But one of the things I'm looking forward to most is the chance to spend more time with her.

Q. What is this week going to be like for you and your family?

Slive: For our conference it is going to be a productive week, like it always is. For (wife) Liz and me and (daughter) Anna and (son-in-law) Judd it is going to be an emotional week.

It has been an emotional few weeks leading up to this. I had a meeting with the ADs (athletics directors) earlier this month and they paid a wonderful tribute to me.

At the baseball game (SEC championship on Sunday in Hoover, Ala.) they asked me to throw out the first pitch but I couldn't do it. So I just walked the ball out to the field and the fans were very generous. In a lot of places the commissioner gets booed.

Liz has written her annual poem that she reads when she hosts the ladies at this event. She tried to read it to me the other day and couldn't quite get through it. People have asked me if I have any remarks for Thursday night (the SEC awards banquet). I told them yes I do but I'm not sure I can give them. It will be that kind of week.

Q. The SEC Network was launched on August 14. What are your thoughts about the first 10 months?

Slive: It's just been amazing. It was the most successful launch of any network in the history of cable television. Not just sports. All cable television. We are in 65 million homes and available to 90 million homes. We hoped to do 1,000 events in the first year when we combined the SEC Network with our digital network. We will do over 1,400. The student-athletes just love it and so do their parents because if the event is on line they can watch from anywhere in the world.

Q. How did you like the first College Football Playoff?

Slive: We were in it and we had a shot so I liked it. It was very gratifying to see it come about. It was so successful. The games were sold out. The television ratings set records. By any measurement it was a non-qualified success.

Q. When you became commissioner the SEC's reputation on compliance issues was not good. You made some significant changes. Now, about a month after you retire, there will be no SEC schools on any kind of NCAA probation. How gratifying is that?

Slive: We didn't do in alone. In 2004 we brought everybody into a big room here (in Destin) and said "this is the way we're going to go." If somebody, like a booster, breaks a rule then our schools are now very quick to move away from that individual. When things happen-and they will--the way our schools handle it has changed. We knew we couldn't be the best league that we could possibly be if we didn't change. And everybody bought in.

Q. Diversity and minority hiring was a priority for you. The SEC has hired 25 minority coaches in your 13 years as commissioner. The conference publishes a manual of minority coaching candidates and distributes it to other conferences. Why is this so important to you?

Slive: When Sylvester Croom was hired by (AD) Larry Templeton at Mississippi State it was a huge event. It wasn't just an athletic event. It was a historic event. It was a huge story. Now, given the numbers you just mentioned, it's not a story. It's who we are. We pride ourselves on being a league of opportunity. And there is no justification for not providing that opportunity.

Q. Greg Sankey has been with you for 13 years and has been your right hand man, particularly on NCAA issues. At the end of the day, why was Greg the right choice to succeed you?

Slive: Greg has been a big part of every major decision that we've made over the past 13 years. He had the support of everyone I know of in this conference and will do a great job.

When the (power) five commissioners got together and started planning for autonomy there were six people in the room and Greg was that sixth person. He was very instrumental in what we eventually did.

Those kinds of things-a lot of issues on the outside-are going to be the issues on the table as Greg takes over.

Greg had several major opportunities to (leave the SEC) but each and every time he turned them down to stay with us. And I'm glad he did."

Q. What are going to be the biggest challenges that Greg Sankey is going to face as the new commissioner?

Slive: In the past the foundation on which NCAA legislation has been developed has been to attempt to level the playing field so that things are exactly the same for everybody. That was our focus so therefore the foundation wasn't the student-athlete and what is best for them.

So our goal now is to change that foundation from a level playing field to one that focuses on the needs of the student-athlete of the 21st century.

Change is upon us. The outside world has found us. For a long time we could internally do what we felt like we needed to do and the world didn't pay much attention. Now they do.

Q. But doesn't that kind of change make people uncomfortable?

Slive: Yes, it makes people uncomfortable and is very complex. It creates issues in all kinds of areas. But you have to start with that premise. Change is hard but if you don't change someone is going to change it for you.

Q. So what are you looking forward to in retirement?

Slive: I'm going to enjoy a good cigar in my back yard which was something I couldn't do when I was having chemo. I love to read and there are some thick books that I didn't start. When you don't feel well you tend to look at thin books.

I've always been interested in World War II. I was born in 1940 so I don't have any direct memories but members of my family served. New Orleans has a World War II museum and I'd like to get involved in that.

I've read a lot about the Civil War. One of the things Liz and I want to do is get in the car and visit Civil war cemeteries.

Q. It was a fast 13 years, wasn't it?

Slive: Yes it was. It just doesn't seem that 13 years have passed. It's been busy. It's been rewarding. We did what we set out to do. And as I sit here today I really feel good and I really feel blessed. It's been 13 great years for me and my family. We had a pretty good run.