The first time I talked to Mike Slive was in a ballroom of the Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Atlanta. The year was 2002 and the event was a reception to honor Roy Kramer, who in March had announced that he was stepping down as commissioner of the SEC after an ultra-successful 12-year reign.
Among the invited guests was the diminutive, silver-haired former circuit court judge who was then serving as commissioner of Conference USA. I saw Slive and his wife, Liz, from across the room and made a mental note to say hello before the night was over.
"You probably need to do that," said a friend of mine who worked at an SEC school. "I'm pretty sure he's going to be your new commissioner."
My first reaction to this news? I knew Slive was from the North (Utica, N.Y.) with an Ivy League background (Darmouth College). I knew he had hung out a shingle after U.Va. Law School and had worked in administration with the Pac-10 before becoming a commissioner. But that's all I knew. And as someone who grew up in the SEC and had been covering the conference as a reporter for almost two decades, I didn't see any way this guy could replace Roy Kramer.
Kramer was a former coach (he won a Division II national championship at Central Michigan), a former director of athletics (Vanderbilt), and one of the most brilliant men I've ever met. And he was tough. The football coaches listened to Kramer even when they didn't agree with him because he had been one of them. The presidents and the athletics directors listened to Kramer because from Day 1 he was looking 10 years down the road and could see it very clearly.
I just didn't know if someone with Slive's background would have the gravitas to wrangle the collection of powerful people with egos to match that was the SEC at the beginning of the 21st century.
We had a short, cordial visit. I didn't bring up what I had heard. It wasn't the time because we were there to honor Commissioner Kramer. But his smile and his handshake let me know that we'd be seeing each other soon enough.
On July 2, 2002 Mike Slive was introduced as the seventh commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. After the formal press conference at the SEC offices in Birmingham he met with a smaller group of reporters in a conference room. From the minute he sat down Mike Slive was comfortably in charge of the room. His words were thoughtful and measured. Like a good lawyer he had anticipated the questions and had his answers ready.
He knew that there would be a learning curve to the job but was confident he could handle it. He knew that he had just been handed the keys to one of most powerful vehicles in the world of college athletics.
But he also knew that his job not to be a caretaker. Mike Slive realized that his challenge was to take the world-class franchise that Roy Kramer had helped to build and to make it into something even better. I left Birmingham that day with no doubt that he would be a great commissioner.
That was the first memory that raced back to me on Tuesday when Commissioner Slive announced that he would retire on July 31, 2015. He will remain on as a consultant for four years. In a brilliant 13-year run he has:
**--Turned the SEC from a strong regional brand into powerful national brand with long-term television contracts and the creation of the SEC Network, which launched on Aug. 14.
**--Presided over what was nothing less than the Golden Age of SEC football, with seven consecutive BCS championships from 2006-2012. Auburn was 13 seconds short of making it eight straight back in January.
**--Added two strong institutions-Texas A&M and Missouri-to an already strong conference.
**--Maintained an across-the-board commitment to all 21 sponsored sports, which have recorded a staggering 75 national championships during his tenure.
**--Introduced the proposal that would eventually become the four-team College Football Playoff, which begins his season.
**--Spearheaded the movement to give the Power Five conferences greater autonomy in the NCAA governance structure.
**--Through the force of his leadership, increased the SEC's commitment to diversity. He created the SEC Minority Coaches Database. He made sure everybody in the conference understood that the SEC was not going to pay lip service to diversity. The SEC was going to live it. In 2011 Kentucky played Vanderbilt in the league's first-ever meeting of African-American head football coaches. It wasn't a big story. To Slive, that was a good thing.
**--Launched the SEC Academic Initiative, which used the power of the athletics brand to highlight and advance the great accomplishments of the members on the academic front.
The list of Slive's accomplishments as commissioner goes on and on. But what I really want to share with you today is not what Mike Slive did but the way in which he did it.
He has been the ultimate consensus builder. Like the good lawyer who never asks a question to which he doesn't already know the answer, Commissioner Slive would make sure he had the votes lined up before the meeting ever took place. And no matter what the vote actually was, it would be unanimous when Slive walked out of the room.
He has always understood the importance of strong coaches, but those coaches always understood who was in charge. In 2009 a number of the SEC football coaches had been sniping at each other in public. At the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin Slive walked into the room and read his coaches the riot act. Problem solved.
"I'd say the commissioner made his point," Steve Spurrier told me after the meeting.
When Slive took over as commissioner he made it clear that he would have zero tolerance for schools that knowingly broke NCAA rules. The rules were also changed so that if one member had a problem with another member in the area of rules compliance, that complaint would first go through the SEC office.
When Auburn was left out of the BCS championship game with a 13-0 record in 2004, the commissioner started putting together the idea for the four-team college football playoff. Slive's original version was called a "Plus-One" and he presented the idea to his fellow BCS commissioners during a meeting in South Florida in April of 2008. Only one other commissioner, the ACC's John Swofford, supported it.
Slive's idea was shot down and he was clearly disappointed when we talked in a hallway outside the meeting room. I asked the commissioner if he actually floated the idea just to set the table for 2012, when the current BCS deal was scheduled to end.
He just smiled.
In 2008 Slive knew his fellow commissioners weren't ready to make the change. He was betting that four years later they would be ready. And he was right. When two SEC teams-LSU and Alabama-played for the 2011 BCS championship the commissioners came around to Slive's way of thinking.
His work ethic is legendary. If you're on Mike Slive's staff, be prepared for 6:30 a.m. meetings at Starbucks. George Schroeder of USA Today wrote a wonderful piece on the commissioner last summer.
In that piece Schroeder quotes Slive's daughter, Anna, on his ability, at age 74, to still outwork men half his age.
"He only has two speeds," she told Schroeder. "High and off."
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to point out here that I've been fortunate to have a close personal and professional relationship with Commissioner Slive. I have used him as a sounding board when I have had to make some tough career decisions.
Each year, on the day before the Spring Meetings begin in Destin, we sit down for about an hour and reflect on where the conference has been and where it is going. Those conversations invariably turn personal and every year I ask how much longer he wants to go at this pace. Last May he just said: "You'll see me until you don't see me."
In June of 2012 he became a grandfather for the first time. In August of 2012 I became a grandfather. And every meeting we've had since begins with the sharing of photos-his of Abigail and mine of Sloane.
That's what I was thinking about when Commissioner Slive announced that he would retire next July. Because at the end of the day it's really not about the money you make or the power you accumulate or the championships you win. It's about the lives you have touched.
Mike and Liz Slive have touched a lot of lives in their time at the SEC. Lucky for us, they will do so for many years to come.