The late Mike Slive
often stood up for lesser-known programs such as UCF, Mike Bianchi writes.
It’s not just Alabama and Auburn and Florida and Georgia and the rest of the rich, powerful Southeastern Conference that owes Mike Slive an enormous debt of gratitude upon his passing; it’s also not-so-rich, not-sopowerful programs such as UCF and USF.
You see, Slive, the influential and innovative former commissioner of the SEC who passed away earlier this week at the age of 77, didn’t just make a boatload of money for the big boys of college football; he also stood up for the little guys.
He was one of the founders and the first commissioner of Conference USA — a league that was formed, in essence, to give college football independents/ indigents unity in numbers, visibility and, yes, a national TV contract. Eleven members of the American Athletic Conference,
including UCF and USF, were once in Conference USA.
In Slive’s early years as the Conference USA commissioner, the BCS formed during the same 1998 season that C-USA member Tulane finished 12-0 and was denied access to a major bowl game. The Green Wave defeated a five-loss BYU team in a lackluster Liberty Bowl that season — a season in which University of Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin, then an assistant AD at Tulane, remembers how it felt to be on the outside looking in.
“Back then, there were BCS conferences and nonBCS conferences,” Stricklin recalls. “Not being in a BCS conference, you felt a little naked and left alone. It’s ironic that Mike Slive, for all the credit he deserves for being one of the founders of the modern-day College Football Playoff, was the commissioner of a non-BCS league with an undefeated league champion in the first year of the BCS.”
Slive never forgot that naked feeling and was instrumental in putting at least some clothes on the backs of those shivering, quivering non-BCS leagues. When he became commissioner of the SEC, he led the way in brokering a deal that gave nonBCS members access to major bowl games and — at least on paper — an avenue into the College Football Playoff. Without Slive’s influence, UCF’s two biggest bowl victories — against Auburn in the Peach Bowl and against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl — might not have ever happened.
You would not know it by looking at him and talking to him, but Slive was one of the most relentless and ruthless negotiators in the history of college athletics.
He often ate breakfast with sports writers at the Salem Diner in Birmingham, where he would sometimes walk into the kitchen, grab the coffee pot and go from table to table re-filling the coffee cups of smiling patrons. He was gray-haired, bespectacled and grandfatherly and often walked around SEC media events holding hands with his grandkids.
But behind closed doors, this former lawyer and judge was a powerful and persuasive deal-maker. He presided over the SEC as the league became the strongest and richest conference in the history of college athletics. The league won seven consecutive college football national championships during his tenure and revenue distribution to member schools went from $90 million the year before he arrived to nearly $500 million when he left 13 years later. He was the overseer of league expansion, the formation of the wildly successful SEC Network and one of the driving influences in creating the College Football Playoff.
“He was a puppet master in getting things done that needed to get done,” says Dave Almstead, a former TV executive at Fox Sports who was also one of the catalysts in the formation of Conference USA.
“He could be very formidable when it came to negotiations,” Stricklin remembers. “He would almost take on a different presence and personality behind closed doors. He was tough when he had to be. When the time came and a decision had to be made, you did not want to be on the other side of fence from him. He could certainly have an edge.
“If there was a contentious issue within the conference, he was masterful at coming up with solutions that weren’t necessarily obvious,” Stricklin added. “His legal background would kick in, his experience as a judge would kick in and he became this unbelievable arbiter who could make a decision without making one side feel like they had lost. But deep down — because we all knew he would put his foot down and be really stern and harsh if he had to be — we were more willing to work toward a solution because we didn’t want to make him mad.” Mike Slive. Friendly but ferocious. Unassuming but unrelenting.
Ironfisted but warmhearted.
He will forever be remembered for what he did for the big boys of college football, but don’t ever forget that he once took a stand for the little guy.
Rest in peace, Commish.
Though he’s best known for his tenure with the SEC, Mike Slive was also a founder of C-USA.
Mike Slive, seen here with Tim Tebow in 2011, oversaw a massive increase in revenue as SEC commissioner.