The back booth at Salem’s Diner will be empty tomorrow. Perhaps it will stay empty for a while as a tribute to the man who loved it so much. From that booth, Mike Slive could survey all the Birmingham movers and shakers who came in for a cup of coffee and some of Wayne Salem’s fluffy biscuits. Back when Slive ran the SEC, he even did the occasional bit of business there. And any deal would go down easier with a few spoonfuls of the fig jam made by Wayne’s mother.
But Wayne’s mother passed a few years back. And now the man who occupied that back booth on so many mornings is gone as well. Slive, the former SEC and Conference USA commissioner, died Wednesday. He was 77.
Slive often told the story that when he arrived at Dartmouth as a quarterback, he knew his career wouldn’t last long. At practice, the QBs outnumbered the centers by one—and he was the one. Though his time as a college football player was short, he wound up having an enduring impact on that game and on all of college sports.
Slive was the driving force behind what we now know as the College Football Playoff. He stumped for it behind the scenes. He planted the seeds for it in 2008 with an ultimately unsuccessful bid to make his nearsighted colleagues understand the future. He also helped shape the format to ensure it included the four best teams and not the four best conference champions—which paved the way for an Alabama-Georgia national title game this past season. He also grew the SEC by two schools and crafted the most successful network launch in cable television history, creating financial security for the league that should last decades.
Slive often referred to himself as a “recovering attorney,” but he retained the lawyer’s aversion to answering hypothetical questions. He only offered strong opinions when he felt he had something important to say, and that habit made his one of the most impactful voices in college sports. He liked a glass of bourbon, and he enjoyed a robust debate. Of course, he usually won those. Yet even with all his professional accomplishments, Slive always looked happiest when he got to hold his granddaughter, Abigail. Slive leaves behind Liz, his wife of 49 years, daughter Anna and Abigail.
Even before he was a conference commissioner, Slive had already made an indelible mark on college sports. After already working as an attorney, a New Hampshire judge, a Pac-10 assistant director and as Cornell’s athletic director, Slive decided in the early 1980s that his law practice would include helping guide schools through NCAA investigations. In 1986, Slive partnered with attorney Michael Glazier and they opened the Slive/Glazier Sports Group. That firm created a cottage industry that thrives to this day. But while Glazier became the go-to defense attorney for schools in the NCAA’s crosshairs, Slive decided to move into management.
He was hired in 1991 to run the Great Midwest Conference, which formed as a wave of realignment swept college sports. (This would be an overarching theme of Slive’s commissioner jobs.) In 1995, that six-school league merged with refugees from several other leagues to form Conference USA. Slive would expand C-USA’s membership by adding East Carolina, Army, UAB and TCU. In 2002, the Utica, N.Y., native was tapped to replace retiring SEC commissioner Roy Kramer.
“The man is as Southern as snow tires. He comes to Gridiron Central from a league that sits at the college football kids’ table,” columnist Pat Forde—tongue planted firmly in cheek—wrote on July 1, 2002 in The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal. “He’s spent a lot of time working with midwestern Catholic schools that don’t even have helmets in the athletic budget. He’s coming from a league known mostly for unfulfilled potential.”
Slive’s first initiative was to cleanse the reputation of the SEC, which had multiple programs on NCAA probation. He did that by instructing league members to address their complaints to the SEC office in Birmingham rather than to NCAA headquarters. Beefs got squashed during closed-door meetings rather than playing out in the newspapers, and the number of SEC teams facing NCAA penalties dropped. (Whether this actually changed any behavior remains a topic of robust debate.) Throughout Slive’s tenure, coaches who received an unexpected invitation to come to Birmingham suddenly altered their public behavior. One potential exception might be one-time Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin, who found himself a guest in Slive’s office fairly early in his tenure.
About two-and-a-half years after he was hired, Slive found his most meaningful project.
Auburn went 13-0 during the 2004 season, but the Tigers were denied a chance to play for the national title. Slive considered this unacceptable, and he began formulating a plan to replace the Bowl Championship Series—which had been masterminded by his predecessor Kramer. Slive wasn’t the type to go public with his plans. He preferred to work behind the scenes building a consensus so that when he did open his mouth, he would be advocating for something that was a fait accompli. He thought he had done just that in 2008 when he presented a plan for a “Plus-One” system that probably would have wound up as a four-team playoff to his fellow commissioners at a BCS meeting. Slive thought he had the votes for the plan going into the meeting. He knew the Big Ten and Pac-10 would oppose the plan. He knew the ACC would support it. He hoped the Big East and Big 12—the other two leagues with automatic BCS bids—would support him. Neither did. The plan died.
But Slive didn’t stop trying to expand the postseason. As fate would have it, his own league’s success pushed more votes his way. When Slive took over, the SEC wasn’t THE SEC. No one chanted the league’s initials. The phrase “SEC speed” had yet to be coined. That period began on Jan. 8, 2007 when Florida crushed favored Ohio State 41-14 to win the national title. LSU would win the next year, followed by Florida in 2008, Alabama in 2009 and Auburn in 2010. In 2011, LSU put together the best regular-season resume of the BCS era. A debate raged about who would play the Tigers. Would it be 11-1 Alabama, which lost in overtime to LSU that November, or would it be 12-1 Oklahoma State, which had lost at Iowa State in double overtime 13 days later?
The pollsters and computer rankings that combined to create the BCS rankings chose Alabama, sending howls of protest through the Big 12. One day after Alabama was chosen to play LSU in the BCS title game, Big 12 athletic directors voted to throw their support behind a four-team playoff. Slive’s league had won another national title and won the postseason format its members craved. The Big East, the other league that had gone against Slive with a 2008 swing vote, would eventually get gutted by another round of realignment and re-emerge as the American Athletic Conference.
During that round of realignment, Slive targeted Texas A&M with the hope that adding the Lone Star State’s 10 million cable and satellite subscribers would make an SEC cable channel a viable option. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Slive’s occasional collaborator and frequent rival, had proven such a network was possible. The SEC had signed a set of media rights deals in 2009, just after the economy had tanked. The only way to bulk up those deals was to create a network. But Slive needed to add population to the SEC’s footprint. In 2010, while the Pac-10 tried to swipe Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Colorado from the Big 12, Slive sent an emissary to gauge the Aggies’ interest. The power brokers in College Station were split on what to do, but they ultimately decided to remain with the other Texas and Oklahoma schools in the Big 12 when the plan to create the Pac-16 fell apart. But a year later, as Texas planned to launch its own cable network, the Aggies finally had enough and began negotiations with the SEC.
Needing to keep the numbers even and add more cable homes to the footprint, Slive began negotiating with Missouri as well. The additions allowed Slive and Chuck Gerber, the former ESPN executive and television consultant who would become one of Slive’s best friends, to craft the network and use the built-in demand of millions of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, LSU and Tennessee fans to ensure the network commanded a high subscriber fee and a near-perfect carriage rate when it launched.
Gerber lost a battle with cancer in 2015. Slive fought prostate cancer shortly before he retired as SEC commissioner in 2015. The cancer had metastasized and attacked his spine, but after surgery and treatment he returned to health. In retirement, he helped launch a prostate cancer foundation. He read books. He smoked cigars on his back porch. He enjoyed the occasional glass of Blanton’s. He went to Salem’s, took up residence in the back booth and discussed the news of the day with Wayne and anyone else who happened by. He played with Abigail.
It was a full life for a renaissance man raised in New York and New England who wound up becoming one of the most powerful advocates Southern football ever had.