Former Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, who led the league to unprecedented success both on and off the field and managed its growth from a regional conference to national giant during his 13-year tenure, died Wednesday after a lengthy illness.
Slive, 77, announced he was beginning treatment for a recurrence of prostate cancer shortly before he retired as SEC commissioner in July 2015. He said he had been first diagnosed with the disease in the late 1990s. He had been working as a consultant to the SEC since his retirement.
“So many people cared for Mike, worked with Mike, knew Mike that I think it’s shocking to everyone,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who replaced Slive, told The Associated Press. “And that’s because of the impact he made on individuals and on conferences and on people across this country. He left a legacy certainly in this league of success and stability and growth that will always be remembered.”
Under Slive’s watch, SEC football teams won an unprecedented seven consecutive Bowl Championship Series national titles from 2006 to 2012; the league’s footprint was expanded by adding new members Missouri and Texas A&M through expansion in 2012; and it became the richest conference in college sports by launching the SEC Network two years later.
“Commissioner Slive was truly one of the great leaders college athletics has ever seen and an even better person,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He was a wonderful friend to me and someone who I respected tremendously. Mike changed the landscape of the Southeastern Conference and helped build our league into what you see today.”
In 2002, the thought of somebody from the Northeast running the SEC seemed akin to the Vatican naming a Protestant pope. But Slive’s broad experience made him the ideal replacement for the retiring Roy Kramer, and his vision transformed the SEC into a national powerhouse.
“Mike was a giant in our industry, and as remarkable as he was professionally, he was an even better person,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a statement.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby called Slive “a true visionary.”
Slive will be remembered for overseeing what is considered the golden age in SEC athletics. Starting with the Florida Gators in 2006, SEC teams won seven consecutive national titles, until the Florida State Seminoles ended the streak in 2013.
“That won’t be broken in your lifetime, my lifetime or anybody’s lifetime,” Slive told ESPN in 2015. “I tell people that I never say never, but that’s a never.”
Overall, SEC teams won 75 national championships in 17 sports during his 13-year tenure.
“He was a very good communicator, built relationships inside his conference and outside his conference,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the AP. “He was also a friend. We were competitors too, but we were always able to talk through it. Disagree and come back to the table. I respected his flexibility and human qualities. But he was a force because of how smart he was.”
Slive’s influence in the SEC was felt as much off the playing field as on it. When Slive was named the SEC’s seventh commissioner in July 2002, nine of its schools were either on NCAA probation or under investigation. Slive vowed to have every one of the league’s schools off probation within five years.
Slive began repairing the SEC’s reputation as a rogue league by persuading school presidents and athletic directors to hold their coaches more accountable for rules violations, implementing educational reforms and setting up compliance workshops.
When Slive was picked to replace Kramer, none of the 12 SEC schools had ever had an African-American football coach. Mississippi State hired the first, Sylvester Croom, in 2003, and four more would be hired during Slive’s tenure: James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Derek Mason (Vanderbilt), Joker Phillips (Kentucky) and Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M).
In August 2008, the SEC signed a 15-year deal with ESPN worth more than $2 billion to televise its sporting events, which was the longest contract ESPN had ever signed. Six years later, ESPN launched the SEC Network in 65 million homes, which ESPN called the most successful cable launch in history. After only one year, the SEC Network had a market value of $4.77 billion, according to the research firm SNL Kagan.
“ESPN lost a respected partner and a great friend today with the passing of former Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive,” ESPN said in a statement. “Commissioner Slive left an indelible mark on college sports. He was an innovator, a tremendous leader and one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the College Football Playoff and the creation of the SEC Network.”
The year before Slive was hired, the SEC distributed $95.7 million in revenue to its 12 member schools. The league’s 14 schools shared $455.8 million after his final year in 2014-15.
Slive, the son of a butcher from Utica, New York, was instilled with a work ethic that led him to Dartmouth and later earned him a law degree at Virginia and a Master of Laws at Georgetown. He was an assistant AD at Dartmouth for two years, but he felt he was wasting his law degrees and began practicing in New Hampshire.
Ultimately, the pull of college athletics was too strong. During the early 1980s, he was an assistant commissioner in the Pac-10, then the AD at Cornell. By the mid-1980s, he was back in law, this time representing schools facing NCAA sanctions. In 1991, Slive became commissioner of the newly created Great Midwest Conference, then four years later he ran its successor, Conference USA.
“Mike Slive is one of the best people I have ever met,” said Charles Bloom, a former associate commissioner at the SEC who is now an administrator at South Carolina. “His impact on me was tremendous. He was a father-type figure, someone I could talk to about life issues, and then we would work together on SEC office matters. He was a great leader, mentor and friend.”
Slive is survived by his wife, Liz; daughter, Anna; son-in-law, Judd Harwood; and granddaughter, Abigail.
A memorial will be held at 11:30 a.m. ET Friday at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama, the SEC said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.