Slive's Saturday reveals SEC's unique gumbo of ingredients
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In the warm wee hours of an October Sunday, Mike Slive emerges from a small jet plane with his silk tie tugged down and his starched collar unbuttoned.It's the only evidence that this has been a marathon day for the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Slive doesn't rumple easily.
BIRMINGHAM, Oct. 6, 9 a.m. CDT: You know you're in the South when you pull into a restaurant parking lot for breakfast and are greeted by the powerful smell of barbecue. It's never too early to get the meat smoking, especially on a football Saturday. Mike Slive has commandeered a table at Demetri's BBQ, a bustling place that serves biscuits the size of softballs. This is the first fueling stop for a full day of traversing the South.
As I've told our people, there's really only one conference in the country that can prevent us from being the best conference in the country, and that's us. The SEC. There's objective evidence that we've made progress off the field where we wanted to: diversity, compliance, an emphasis on education and graduation.
--Commissioner Mike Slive on the SEC
A league with a notorious history of rule-breaking is less than a year away from fulfilling the commissioner's pipe dream: In May 2003, less than a year into the job, Slive declared his desire to have all 12 schools off NCAA probation within five years. For a league currently in a 25-year run of having at least one school on probation at all times, that sounded charmingly na´ve.Three programs are currently in the NCAA pokey: Georgia men's basketball, South Carolina football and Mississippi State football. The last one (Mississippi State) comes off probation on June 11, 2008, at which time Slive will have overseen a minor miracle. "There's many a slip between the cup and the lip," Slive cautions. "But as of today, we have a shot. "The presidents and athletic directors have been so supportive in this area. Whether we make it or not, we've raised consciousness of those issues. We've made some solid progress. I'm not na´ve enough to think there won't be problems, but we've made progress in terms of cultural change." When his time is done as commissioner of the SEC -- his contract runs through 2009 with an option year for 2010, at which time he'll be 70 and could entertain the idea of retirement -- this could be his legacy: How a buttoned-down intellectual from back East got a bunch of wild Southern boys to behave. (That is, after all, a big reason he got the job -- one of Slive's law firms specialized in representing schools charged with NCAA misdeeds. He literally made a living off of compliance and damage control.) Combine the SEC's diminished rap sheet with the hiring of its first African-American head football coach (Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State) and athletic directors (Damon Evans at Georgia and David Williams at Vanderbilt, technically the "Vice Chancellor for University Affairs"), and you have advancement under Slive in the areas where the league had embarrassed itself. "As I've told our people, there's really only one conference in the country that can prevent us from being the best conference in the country, and that's us. The SEC," Slive says. "There's objective evidence that we've made progress off the field where we wanted to: diversity, compliance, an emphasis on education and graduation." For now, Slive is making progress through a plate of scrambled eggs and biscuits. He glances at the TV overhead and happily notes the presence of ESPN's "GameDay" show in Baton Rouge -- good pub for the league. When it's time to pay, Slive waits a minute or two for the waitress before leaving the money on the table. This will be a running theme through the day: The man hates to wait. From Demetri's it's a short drive to a private airport, where a four-seat plane awaits for the 30-minute flight to Auburn. The SEC is sensitive to the appearance of grandiosity -- private planes and police escorts to and from stadiums -- but it's the only feasible way to make the multi-stop Saturdays pioneered by Kramer work. Traveling to a single massive SEC stadium in a small, rural town is difficult enough; trying to visit two or more on the same day would be impossible flying commercial and fighting traffic.
AUBURN, 11 a.m.: Kickoff is only about 40 minutes away, so traffic is fairly light to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The commissioner and his party arrive in an unmarked Auburn police car on the opposite side of the stadium from the press box, which necessitates a trek around the edifice.
BIRMINGHAM, 3 p.m.: Round 2. Soon as he can get a signal, Bloom dials up league scores via his handheld and reports the results. In his car and heading to the downtown office, Slive dials up the SEC stations on XM Radio. Tennessee is putting a whuppin' on Georgia, the league's marquee mid-day game. Ole Miss is shutting out Louisiana Tech. But UAB is surprising Mississippi State in Starkville, leading 10-3.
"Quick calls," he says. "Lots of double flags."Redding's crews are laden with veterans, which he says is imperative for a league like the SEC. The stakes are too high and the criticism too loud if they get key calls wrong. "We're not a developmental league," Redding says. "We can't be. When you're working a game with 25,000 people versus 105,000 at Tennessee, it's not the same game." On the flat screen, Tennessee is shockingly routing Georgia. Camera men capture a jubilant Volunteers fan in checkerboard overalls, then a group of downtrodden Bulldogs fans. "That's an SEC picture," Slive observes. "Intensity, agony and joy."
BATON ROUGE, 5:45 p.m.: The plane has joined a remarkable throng of private jets on the tarmac, touching down 15 minutes early. Which means Slive has to wait. Within a minute or two he's on the phone working to accelerate the process of getting to the stadium. Soon enough, a white SUV driven by a cop in an LSU shirt arrives to take the entourage into the heart of madness. He estimates that 140,000 to 150,000 people have clustered around a stadium that seats 92,000.
BIRIMINGHAM, just past midnight: Collar undone and undoubtedly tired, Slive is still buoyant -- not quite ready to sleep. He says goodbye to his travel partners and slips into his black Buick for the drive to his home in Vestavia Hills. He'll have a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers while watching the late-night football highlights. As usual, his league will be prominently featured for his viewing pleasure. An SEC team is No. 1, and the league just delivered a prime-time blockbuster game. The kingdom is strong as ever. The keeper of the keys is pleased.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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