This Wednesday (Nov. 20) at 10:30 a.m., a historic marker will be unveiled at the Standard Life Building on Roach Street in downtown Jackson, signifying the grand, 90-year-old, art deco building as the site of the original office of the Southeastern Conference. That’s right, the SEC’s first non-campus, centrally located office was on the building’s 13th floor in what had been the law offices of ex-Mississippi governor Martin Sennet (Mike) Conner, the league’s first full-time commissioner beginning in 1940. What follows is the story of how this historic marker came about.
Ten years ago, I was graced with Gov. William Winter as a lunch companion at The Mayflower in downtown Jackson. We share a love of Mississippi history and sports, not necessarily in that order. Naturally, as we finished our red snapper, I continued picking his elegantly furnished brain. Over coffee, the conversation turned to the governors he had most admired.
Gov. Winter quickly made it clear No. 1 on his list was Gov. Martin Sennet “Mike” Conner (governor from 1932-36), whom Winter first met as a nine-year-old visitor to the State Capitol. Conner invited young Winter to sit behind his desk, and then pronounced, “It seems a perfect fit.” It was. Forty-eight years later, Winter would sit behind the same desk again.
Winter told me Conner was one of his inspirations to pursue a life of public service. “In so many ways, Mike Conner was one of greatest governors,” Winter said. “He was an absolutely brilliant man, but not a natural politician. He saved the state financially during the Depression with the passage of a sales tax.”
Conner succeeded Theodore G. Bilbo as governor and inherited a veritable mess. The treasury was exhausted. The state was millions of dollars in debt. Unemployment was at a record high and the state’s colleges and universities had lost their accreditation. By the time Conner’s term expired all those problems had been solved.
“He saved the state,” Winter said of Conner.
All that, which I had not known, was interesting, and then Gov. Winter shocked me with this: “Did you know Mike Conner was the first commissioner of the Southeastern Conference?”
“He was,” Winter said. “The first SEC office was just down the street at the Standard Life Building. Thirteenth floor, I believe…”
Understand, I prided myself on knowing the state’s sports history. I had not known that. Turns out, hardly anyone did. When I asked Gov. Winter whom I could talk to about that original SEC office, he told me Jackson attorney Bob Biggs, Conner’s grandson, worked right down Capitol Street.
And that’s how all this got started.
Biggs was great. He told me all sorts of stories about his grandfather, including when Huey P. Long (then a U.S. senator from Louisiana) led the LSU band right down Capitol Street before an LSU-Ole Miss game.
“Long, all dressed up in a white suit with white shoes, stopped in front of the mansion, led a big LSU cheer and then walked to the front door and banged on the door with his cane. The story goes that my grandfather knew he was out there but would not answer the door.”
Biggs also told about when protesters marched on the mansion to protest the new sales tax. One protester had a loaded pistol knocked from his hands, but Conner stood firm. And he won a bitter fight.
So, I wrote a column that read much like a breaking news story, because nobody seemed to know about the original SEC office. I called officials at State and Ole Miss. They didn’t know. I called Mike Slive, then the commissioner of the SEC. He didn’t know.
Slive, who has since died, was eager to learn more about Conner and seemed pleased to learn Conner, like him, was a lawyer by trade. Slive chuckled when told Conner still practiced law while he was SEC commissioner. “Not me,” Slive said, “I’ve been clean for years.”
Everyone seemed to agree that something should be done to commemorate the fact that the nation’s most wildly successful collegiate athletic conference had its beginnings with a two-person (Conner and his secretary) office in downtown Jackson.
And now, 10 years later, something will happen – the historic marker, which will be unveiled in a brief ceremony in front of the Standard Life Building on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
Following that, at noon, The Mississippi Department of Archives and History will present a panel discussion of SEC history (and especially its beginnings) at the Craig H. Neilsen Auditorium in the Two Mississippi Museums, located at 222 North Street. There is no charge to attend the event that is part of the department’s “History is Lunch” series.
Sankey will be joined by Biggs, former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton and current MSU athletic director John Cohen. I will moderate the discussion. It should be interesting.