Unassuming SEC commissioner Mike Slive at top of his game
The 71-year-old gentleman was shown to his table in a trendy Italian restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., the other day and seemed to slip by everyone completely unnoticed. Other than the waiter who took his order, nobody else seemed aware that, perhaps, the most powerful man in collegiate sports was sitting nearby having a quiet lunch and enjoying 90 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane.
When his lunch partner nonchalantly mentioned the obvious -- that the Southeastern Conference was likely all but guaranteed a sixth consecutive BCS title -- Michael Lawrence Slive smiled, and nodded indistinctly, as if someone had just mentioned it was a lovely day outside.
No gotcha quote. No trash talk. No hey-look-at-me or throat slash to his colleagues in the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac 12. Instead, the SEC Commissioner talked about the news casually, almost as if it had become routine. Well, perhaps, there is a reason for that after the past five years.
Quickly, the conversation with Slive turned to more pedestrian issues, such as family, recent travel, books he was reading, anything but the constant whirl of big-time college athletics. That's the Mike Slive way.
A retired judge, and in his own words, "a recovering lawyer," Slive is never going to be the keynote speaker at a motivational seminar. He is thoughtful to a fault. Some of that comes from his humble upbringing, and his tireless work in attaining an undergratuate degree from Dartmouth and a law degree from Virginia. Some of it comes from his common sense and from watching his colleagues at times, tripping over themselves and their own tongues.
Slive seems never to be in a hurry, but always on the go. His recent travel schedule reads like a log from a Delta Air Lines pilot. Since the first weekend of November, Slive has been to every one of the 12 SEC campuses, plus the new one in Missouri (He was at Texas A&M earlier). He also made a one-day trip to San Francisco from Birmingham which is 4,652 miles round trip. He was in Baton Rouge last Friday for the Arkansas-LSU game and will spend this weekend in Atlanta for the SEC championship game before hitting New York for most of next week. He'll likely get to attend nearly all of the eight SEC bowl games, including the BCS title game.
At 71, Slive appears to be in excellent health at the pinnacle of a distinguished career. He just spent five years on the prestigious NCAA Men's basketball committee (the final year as its chair). It's difficult to imagine him walking away anytime soon. Deep down, you know there is an enormous sense of pride in the prospect of having two SEC schools play for the BCS title -- the sport's equivalent of Halley's comet. Slive isn't celebrating yet. But when the final BCS rankings come out on Sunday night, the Utica, N.Y., native will likely light up a cigar, sip leisurely on a stiff a drink, and quietly toast yet another title for his league -- five weeks before the championship game is even played.
What's interesting is that the likely coronation comes after one of the most vexing years in Slive's career, including a stretch that saw him unfairly taking the brunt of the criticism for the NCAA's decision allowing Cam Newton to remain eligible at Auburn a year ago. He was also in the middle of the interminable game of conference realignment.
The biggest critics of the Newton decision were Jim Delany, the Big Ten Commissioner, and Larry Scott, the head of the Pac 12. Both took shots, which seemed personal toward Slive. Of course, since then, Delany's Big Ten has been roiled by the Ohio State investigation and more recently, the scandal at Penn State. Scott once again took his league to the precipice of conference chaos before the presidents prevailed.
In the midst of the BCS battles, something happened on Nov. 12, which barely amounted to a blip on the radar screen. When Kentucky played Vanderbilt, for the first time in an SEC football game, two African-American head football coaches were involved. Upon taking over as SEC Commissioner nearly 10 years ago, Slive had gently encouraged presidents to hire minority head coaches. When Sylvester Croom broke the color barrier in 2003, at Mississippi State, it was widely noted and praised across the nation. A few weeks ago, when James Franklin and Joker Phillips met at midfield, it barely caused a ripple, and you can bet that accomplishment pleased Slive greatly.
So this weekend, Slive is off to Atlanta to host what may be the strangest SEC title game in memory, where an LSU win results in an Alabama rematch, and an LSU loss could result in two schools playing for the BCS title who didn't win their own league.
The next five weeks should be a victory lap for Slive. If that is the case, it only adds to the power and influence of Slive's vast empire. However, if he wants to get away from the attention and clamor, all he needs to do is go to lunch in Birmingham. Outside of the attention of the servers, he'll mostly be ignored, which is like a Beethoven Piano Sonata to his ears.