The late Mike Slive

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Bianchi Sen­tinel Colum­nist

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.

AARON M. SPRECHER/GETTY IMAGES

Though he’s best known for his ten­ure with the SEC, Mike Slive was also a founder of C-USA.

KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES

Mike Slive, seen here with Tim Te­bow in 2011, over­saw a mas­sive in­crease in rev­enue as SEC com­mis­sioner.

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