Silver Fox Slive always smartest guy in the room

Published 8:31 am Friday, October 17, 2014

I always wanted to ask Mike Slive one question, and maybe I’ll work up the nerve by next summer since the SEC commissioner won’t be officially retiring until July 31.

For that matter, you have to figure that he’ll still be a staple of sorts around Southeastern Conference press boxes since he has some kind of consulting deal that will extend his semi-influence for another four years.

I know I can get smarty-pants at times, but the question, in all sincerity and in a good sort of way, would be this: What is like to always be the smartest person in the room?

Really.

And it wouldn’t matter who was in the room, particularly if it’s nothing more than other movers and shakers of college athletics (i.e., football).

Oh, maybe a meeting room full of Nobel Prize winners would be a challenge. For that matter, it’s a grave injustice that Slive was never invited to Stockholm to pick up some Nobel hardware, if not for finally pushing through the four-team College Football Playoff, then maybe the big daddy itself — the Nobel Peace Prize — for keeping 14 millionaire football coaches who’d love nothing more than to slit each others’ throats from, well, from slitting each others’ throats.

The man is amazing the way he can handle people.

I don’t remember the exact year that I was first introduced to Slive, but I do remember that the second meeting was almost exactly a year later.

I didn’t expect him to remember the details from the year previous, so I felt the need to re-introduce myself.

“Oh, yeah,” he said with that big, ever-gracious smile. “Lake Charles, right?”

Pretty impressive memory. That’s certainly not what habitually makes him the smartest man in the room, but it does show his attention to detail and smooth people skills.

Now that he’s become unquestionably the most powerful man in college sports, it’s hard to remember that when the unassuming Slive was hired in 2002 there were serious doubts that he’d be able to fill the very large shoes of his predecessor, the visionary Roy Kramer.

He was hardly a household name.

And certainly nobody could accuse of SEC of dipping into the Good Ol’ Boys network.

They’d done it, to a degree — and made it work — with Kramer, who’d been a coach and athletic director, before forever changing the face of college football when he expanded and split the SEC into divisions — hello, conference championship game — and later pushed through the BCS.

But Slive was a certified Yankee, an Ivy Leaguer by education, a lawyer and, as he put it “recovering judge” by choice.

He came to the free-for-all that was and is the SEC from the football hotbed of, well, Conference USA.

And one of his first decrees was the stated goal that the (then) 12 schools of his flock would be probation-free in five years.

The good ol’ boys must have looked around dumbfounded at the new carpetbagger. He’d done quit preaching and gone to full-blown meddling.

But he came within a hair of making good on it.

Surely no one would proclaim the SEC squeaky clean even today. But if he didn’t clean up the place spotless, he did tidy up the room considerably, certainly good enough for company to drop in unannounced at most any time.

When he took over the SEC, it was already bubbling and ready to explode on the field.

But nobody saw seven consecutive football national championships on the near horizon.

Yet when the phrase “SEC Fatigue” was introduced to a jealous nation, his was the perfect persona to preside over it.

There might be 12 varying degrees of annoying lunatics fueling the SEC’s breast-beating football factories, but Slive at least was ever the thoughtful grandfather watching over the mayhem with a bemused smile and dispensing quiet wisdom.

He would annually dip down into his “brag bag” for his annual State of the SEC message at the conference’s Media Days (which now needs four days and attracts thousands).

But there was always a perfect touch to it, even when he was subtly trading barbs with, say, (often frustrated) Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney. He’d usually get the better of it, but in a confident but benign manner that let you know that, underneath it all, he and whoever he was one-upping were, at heart, good friends with the same interests.

Or at least they would eventually have the same interests — Slive’s interests.

He was the first commissioner to actively call for the football playoff. He didn’t pound a shoe on the lectern about it — not his style — and at first his only ally was a lukewarm endorsement from the ACC.

Within a few years it was basically unanimous among what became known as the Power Five conferences.

You could basically rinse and repeat the process to figure out how the Power Five now will have the autonomy they need to realistically rule themselves.

Slive’s fingerprints were all over it, but it took a while for the consensus to emerge.

It’s just his way.

Eventually, they all figure out who the smartest guy in the room is.

l

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU

athletics. Email him at

shobbs@americanpress.com(MGNonline)