Mike Slive and I first met in 1995 when he had just been named the new commissioner of a brand new college sports league, Conference USA.
I introduced myself as a sports columnist from Mississippi, and, smiling, he responded, “I am Mike Slive and I am a recovering lawyer.”
A New York native and a Dartmouth graduate, Slive was a lawyer and a district judge in New Hampshire before entering the sports world. Eventually, he became the biggest power broker in the history of college sports. He died Wednesday at 77.
Slive left Conference USA for the Southeastern Conference in 2002 and it is no exaggeration to say the two leagues have never been the same. CUSA, at best, has tread water. Under Slive’s shrewd, always meticulously planned leadership, the SEC has become the most successful college sports league – ever.
“You hear it all the time about somebody being the right person at the right time,” said Larry Templeton, former Mississippi State athletic director and one of Slive’s top lieutenants at the SEC. “Mike Slive definitely was the right person at the right time for the SEC. His leadership – how successful he was and how he achieved all that success – has been amazing to watch.”
Templeton watched from the inside. In 2002, when Slive took control in the SEC, Templeton was chairman of the SEC athletic directors, a position he would hold until resigning at State in 2008.When Templeton stepped down at State, the SEC was in the middle of re-negotiating TV contracts with ESPN and CBS. Slive immediately hired Templeton as a consultant to handle those negotiations. Templeton continues to this day as a special consultant to Greg Sankey, Slive’s successor.
Over time, Templeton’s relationship with Slive transcended the SEC, sports, TV negotiations and all that.
“He became part of my family and I became part of his,” Templeton said Thursday morning. “Hardly a day has passed over the last 15 years that we haven’t talked, usually first thing in the morning. And, usually, it was about family more than it was sports.”
Templeton and Slive fought – and beat – cancer together. They learned to be grandfathers together. And they did a lot more than that.
“Mike always said he was born a yankee, but was determined to become a southerner for the rest of his life,” Templeton said. “I took it upon myself to teach him how to be a redneck southerner.”
Along the way, SEC revenue grew exponentially. When Slive became SEC commissioner in 2002, the TV/bowls payout per school was approximately $8.4 million per school. The 2017-18 payout was approximately $40.5 million per school. That’s a nearly 500 percent increase over 16 years and much of it is due to the SEC Network, which was Slive’s idea.
Templeton has another way of looking at it.
“My entire athletic budget my last year as athletic director at State was $38.7 million,” he said. “This year, State got more than that in one check from the SEC.”
The key to Slive’s success?
“Mike was the most impressive person I’ve ever been around in understanding the person he’s dealing with,” Templeton said. “He could be gentle when the situation called for it. He could be tough when the situation called for it. He was always smart, but he could play dumb when that would help. He knew how to deal with people and at the end of the day they were always playing right into his hand. It really was amazing to watch.”
An important part of Slive’s considerable people skills was his wit. The last time I talked to him was two weeks ago. It was a pocket (or butt) dial on my part. What’s more, it was a face time call. I explained I hadn’t meant to call him, but we had a nice conversation, during which he told me, “At this point in our lives, we should do both ourselves a favor and just do voice calls. Forget the face time.”
It was a point well taken.
The last time Templeton talked to Slive was Tuesday morning. Templeton’s phone rang at 5 a.m. He knew Slive was in intensive care in Birmingham due to congestive heart failure.
“How the hell are you calling me. I know you are in ICU, ” Templeton asked.
Slive answered: “The nurses won’t let me have coffee, so I made a deal and settled for one phone call. You’re it, pal.”