I’ve always believed that God puts people in your life to teach you, encourage you, and to tell you the truth when you need to hear the truth.
For this little country boy from Union Point, Ga., Mike Slive was such a person.
That’s why it was so hard to accept the news that Slive, who was the SEC Commissioner from 2002 to 2015, had died on Wednesday at the age of 77.
Here was a man who had beat prostate cancer not once but twice and created a foundation so other men could beat it as well. Here was a man with a gentle, soft-spoken exterior who could be as tough as nails when he had to be.
Here was a man who took over the rough-and-tumble SEC with its strong egos and demanded—in no uncertain terms—that every member conduct themselves with integrity. And if they didn’t, they would damn sure hear from the commissioner.
Example: In 2009 Florida Coach Urban Meyer and Tennessee Coach Lane Kiffin were having an all-too-public feud. Slive addressed the coaches as a group at the annual SEC Meetings in Destin.
His message: “Shut the #$%@& up.”
“I think the commissioner got his point across,” said a coach who was in the room. “He basically peeled the paint off the walls.”
Another example: When the SEC and ESPN announced the creation of the SEC Network, every single head football coach and head basketball coach came to Atlanta for the press conference. Missing this huge event in the history of the conference, the commissioner’s office informed the coaches, was not an option.
He was the ultimate consensus builder in an ultra-competitive conference where building a consensus was like herding cats. With his legal background (Virginia Law School, Georgetown Law School, District court judge) he would listen to every point of view.
“The first amendment is alive and well in the SEC,” he would always say after a long debate on a tough issue.
“But when it came time to make the decision, the commissioner would lead,” said Larry Templeton, a former Mississippi State athletics director and long-time consultant to Slive and the SEC. “And people would follow him.”
In the coming days you will hear about Mike Slive the visionary, who led the SEC through the expansion from 12 to 14 teams, who waited until the perfect moment in time to launch the SEC Network in 2014, who was the driving force behind the College Football Playoffs and who presided over seven straight national championships in football.
The sheer numbers are staggering. When Slive took over in 2002 the SEC shared revenue of $96 million. When he retired 13 years later that figure was $455 million, or $40 million per school. The SEC won 81 national championships in 17 different sports.
All of that is true. But Mike Slive’s legacy as SEC Commissioner is not the championships won or the money made.
His legacy is the pure decency with which he treated the people around him.
His legacy was a strong belief in diversity and inclusion. The first African-American head football coach in the history of the SEC, Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State, was hired under Mike Slive’s watch. There have now been five minority head football coaches and 15 minority head men’s basketball coaches since that breakthrough. He was as proud of that as anything he had ever done.
“The story now that it’s not a story,” he said to me several years ago.
His legacy is his beloved wife Liz, his daughter Anna, his son-in-law, Judd, and his granddaughter Abigail. He lovingly called his family “The Slive Five.”
Liz and Mike would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this summer.
His legacy is also Greg Sankey, who was his right-hand man for over a decade before taking the reins from Commissioner Slive in 2015. Sankey had the difficult job of informing the SEC staff on Wednesday.
“I tried to write the memo but I broke down,” Sankey told me when we talked Wednesday afternoon.
"Mike Slive literally changed the world through his life," Sankey said later in a statement. "He was a friend before we worked together. He was a friend when we were colleagues. He remained a friend in his retirement as I succeeded him as commissioner. Today we all lost a friend. We will miss him for his work and especially for his compassion. Our prayers are with Liz, Anna, Judd and Abigail.”
I was fortunate to have both a professional and personal relationship with Mike Slive. Mike’s granddaughter, Abigail, and my granddaughter, Sloane, were born about two months apart in 2012. Every conversation from that point forward began by sharing photos of the girls.
Each year before the beginning of the SEC Meetings in Destin, I would go in a day early so Commissioner Slive and I could sit down and take stock of where the conference had been and where it was going. We both looked forward to the meetings.
Before SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Commissioner Slive would invite media members to his booth at Salem’s Diner for breakfast and we would solve all the problems in the world.
When I left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008, easily the toughest decision of my professional life, Commissioner Slive was one of the first people I called for advice. His advice: Bet on yourself.
All of those meetings with Mike Slive not only made me a better reporter, they made me a better man.
Thanks Commish. Thanks for everything.