Q&A with the SEC commissioner

12/18/2009 - College Football

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive hunkers down most days in his second-floor office here, dealing with the brush fires that come with the job: the loud fallout from questionable calls by officials and the all-too-routine snipping among high-priced football coaches. Of course, in addition to providing a calming influence, Slive is responsible for a financial juggernaut of a conference.

He spoke with ESPN.com's Mike Fish about the role of the SEC in big-time college sports, as well as the challenges facing collegiate administrators.

ESPN.com: The SEC is certainly one of the premier football conferences, and its coaches [on average] are the highest-paid. What separates SEC football from the pro game, and how do you explain its enormous popularity?

Slive: Oh, I think there is a long positive tradition of football in the Southeast. When I go to a game and I walk down a concourse, I [see so many] families. I'll see Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and the children. And I know that [as the years pass,] Mama and Dad will become Grandma and Grandpa. The kids will become Mom and Dad. And there will be the kids. So it is a generational kind of tradition here. We don't have a lot of professional sports down here. And it is something that our people take enormous pride in and have for so many years. It is now woven into the fabric. It represents athletic success, but it also represents success period in the South.

ESPN.com: Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College professor and noted sports economist, recently made the distinction that he believes Big 10 and Pac-10 schools, as examples, are academic and research institutions that play football, whereas SEC schools are defined as football schools. Is it fair to say the culture and history of SEC schools is more dependent on football?

Slive: Yeah, I think it is a slap. It is somewhat pejorative. I think it is a stereotype. I think it is one that I hear often from my friends in the North, where I came from. And one of the goals that we have is to use athletics to help elevate the value of our institutions and their reputation. For example, a couple years ago we formed the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium. Although the genesis of it came from here, there is now a separate corporation with its own offices, own executive directors [composed of university provosts]. They report to our presidents. And the academic consortium is evolving, but it will provide a vehicle for our institutions to come together and share academic resources and also provide a forum for us to promote the academic resources of our institutions.

ESPN.com: The Knight Commission recently voiced concern about the huge amounts of money paid to coaches and has advocated that something be done to corral the growth. How does that play in the SEC, where coaches are paid very well?

Slive: My first thought is the last time the NCAA tried to determine how much people should get paid, it was about a $54 million price tag [resulting from a successful lawsuit brought after colleges tried to restrict the earnings of assistant coaches in all sports but football in the early 1990s]. So the law doesn't allow us as a league to do anything that would in any way impact the ability of individuals to earn their livelihood under all the antitrust laws. From my perspective, it is important that an institution understand its own financial situation.

ESPN.com: Does it concern you, though, that coaches and athletic directors are making more than college presidents and chancellors?

Slive: Well, I don't quite know how to answer that except to say that in this league, in dealing with presidents, it is clear that they are in charge. They are in charge at their institutions.

ESPN.com: In a lot of ways college sports at its highest level appears to be professional with amateur athletes, and that is what separates it from the NFL. Is that a fair appraisal?

Slive: Well, I'm not going to take your premise. I'm not going to answer your question and give that as part of my answer. I don't know when somebody decided to charge for a game of some sort, whether five cents or 25 cents. But somewhere back long before you and me, people began to charge, so intercollegiate athletics began to have a revenue-producing side. That is separate from business. That is separate from professionalism.

They had a revenue side. And that revenue side continued to grow. Based on how institutions decided to fund those programs, it was decided it shouldn't come from the academic side. So it began to become the way we support our programs. It is important to make this distinction. What we are doing is taking revenue that is produced by the games we play and, in our league, using it to support our base programs.

We have 4,800 student-athletes in our league. And one major distinction you want to make is the revenue produced is used for the benefit of students. And in the professional leagues the revenue is used to pay the owner for his team.

ESPN.com: Depending on who you listen to, a significant number of athletic programs across the country are losing money. Is that happening anywhere in the SEC?

Slive: It may be more appropriate to ask each institution, but I have not been aware of that kind of conversation [within the SEC].

ESPN.com: What do you envision a decade or so down the road? Are there going to be 48 or 50 top programs playing at this extreme high level?

Slive: I have heard just about every doomsday story for years and years. The question isn't new. I don't anticipate that. What is interesting is just look at the polls. There are more institutions involved and competing at the highest levels than ever before. And they have obviously made decisions of some sort to allow them to compete. And I assume that they are successful at it.

ESPN.com: How do you explain the apparent contradiction between the two economic perceptions?

Slive: One of the things that concerns me -- I hope that institutions don't try to label themselves based upon where they fit in the athletic spectrum and chase something. I hope that trustees and presidents of institutions, who may not be playing at our level at this point, don't try to use athletics as the foundation for themselves in terms of how they view themselves. … I keep seeing more and more efforts [by schools] to migrate into Division I. Those decisions are hopefully made for purely athletic purposes, and for no other purposes.