Mike Slive could have been forgiven if he had stepped onto the deck of the Sandestin Hilton after wrapping up this year’s Southeastern Conference Spring Meeting, pulled out a cigar and a $100 bill and struck a match while looking out over the Gulf of Mexico.
He’s run the race. He’s fought the fight. And he’s going out on top.
Slive took himself out of the game Friday, announcing he will hand over the commissioner’s job Monday to Greg Sankey instead of at the end of July as originally planned.
The 74-year-old Slive’s decision to retire back in October was partially brought on by a recurrence of prostate cancer he first beat back in the 1990s. I asked him after his last official news conference Friday in Destin, Florida, if his health was a part of this decision, and he gave a warm but firm no. He insisted that the timing of his decision was what was best for the SEC.
Slive has always been candid with the media or said nothing if he didn’t want to be quoted on certain subjects, so hopefully his health truly isn’t a factor in his walking away now.
The “what’s best for the SEC” part would be in keeping with Slive’s decision-making for the 13 years he’s had the job, the 13 years, as he put it, that he has served as “trustee” of the conference that means so much to its millions of fans.
Slive said he stood on the shoulders of former Commissioner Roy Kramer when he succeeded him in 2002, and that’s quite true. Kramer was in his own right a huge figure in SEC history, expanding the conference from 10 to 12 schools with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, creating the SEC Championship Game and being the driving force behind the creation of the Bowl Championship Series.
Kramer was a hard act to top, but Slive may have done it. He brought the SEC’s rota to 14 schools with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri, brought millions of dollars to conference coffers with the creation of the SEC Network and helped spearhead sweeping changes in college athletics from the College Football Playoff to the autonomy the Big Five conferences now enjoy while remaining under the Division I umbrella.
Slive rarely pounded his bully pulpit but was the steady, grandfatherly, irresistible force pushing forward the things he thought were good and right for the SEC in particular and college athletics at large. He stood at his post-SEC Spring Meeting presser last May and plainly said if the Big Five didn’t get the right to have more say in how they were governed, they should break away from Division I. Within months, the governing process Slive sought was in the works.
He was in a sense a little like Lee Strasberg’s Hyman Roth character in “The Godfather, Part II,” a smallish-looking, elderly man possessing considerable, often unseen power.
By all accounts, Slive was a superb CEO. He was great at remembering names, engendered loyalty among his lieutenants (Sankey was Slive’s right hand for all 13 years he served as commissioner) and made sure the big decisions were ones that earned everyone’s input.
“I don’t know what I think until I hear myself talk,” Slive said. “Almost every important decision we make (at the SEC) is a collaborative one.”
Slive leaves some huge shoes for Sankey to fill. Sankey, the former commissioner of the Southland Conference, was clearly the man Slive wanted to be his replacement, rather than some other current commissioner from some other big-name conference. To that end, Sankey’s selection should be seen from the start as a quality hire. If he had Slive’s approval, chances are he will be a good choice.
Now Slive has the chance to pick how he spends his remaining says. SEC schools decided in Destin to initiate a prostate cancer awareness campaign this football season in Slive’s honor, with teams wearing a blue sticker on their helmets at a home game of their choosing. Slive said he’ll probably attend some of those games when asked — and he should be asked.
Would he accept a position on the CFP selection committee, helping pick the teams for the playoff he helped create? No was Slive’s quick response.
“I’m too partial to the SEC for that,” he replied, a customary glint in his eye.
As for where he would be the first weekend of this college football season, Slive thought for a moment and said, “I might play with my granddaughter and have a cigar and a shot of bourbon and think, ‘This isn’t at all bad.’ ”
Anyone who cares about the SEC or its teams should lift a glass in Slive’s honor.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.