The praise and accolades, the personal reminiscences, the various plans for ways to honor former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who passed away on Wednesday in Birmingham, continued through the day on Thursday.
The warm words were well-deserved. In a time when prominent, powerful public figures grow more distant, Slive was accessible and humble — not in a loud, boisterous way, not with bear hugs and belly laughs. But he would remember details, ask questions and, most importantly, pay attention to the answers.
He came along at a time when college athletics were set for a financial explosion. He guided the SEC through the bonanza, not with mere competence but with proficiency. Slive, though, has inspired far more emotion than the passing of some skilled chairman of the board who kept stock prices high and expanded into new and lucrative markets.
There was an intangible accomplishment, though, one that has run through my mind over the past 48 hours, one that is hard to quantify in dollar figures or even championship trophies.
A common observation about Slive was he was well-read and that he especially loved history. One conversation in particular we had involved a book about Abraham Lincoln, a subject that clearly piqued his interest. Slive studied Lincoln, not as the Great Emancipator but as the man he was early in his first term, trying to hold together an increasingly fractious union.
When Slive became commissioner of the SEC in 2002, the league may not have been on the verge of dissolution but there were squabbles and mistrust and NCAA troubles that were damaging to the league’s reputation and to its success. Given the atmosphere at the time, things needed to change and that is said without assigning any blame to anyone or any institution in particular. Alabama certainly had its faults, which is enough said about that.
Slive’s greatest strength may have been that he understood what needed to be done and saw that the league office needed to more than constantly deal with issues on the basis of balancing one institution against the other. More importantly, he understood it was not a zero-sum game, a short-range balancing act in which complaints and issues were dealt with on a piecemeal case-by-case basis.
Perhaps it had nothing to do with being a student of Lincoln, perhaps it did. But Slive knew, either from instinct or education, that a house divided itself could not stand. Certainly, it could not stand as strongly if it was perpetually squabbling.
He didn’t change things by waving a magic wand. But he earned respect. He could make a tough decision, but at the same time, he could make the involved parties see his reasoning. He would not act arbitrarily, without explanation. Athletics are a competitive world but he made the SEC institutions believe it was better to channel that competitiveness into the national scale rather than gnawing on one another. When you hear Big Ten or ACC fans respond quizzically to the chants of “SEC!” at a championship event, you realize that they have missed this point.
The greatest achievement of Mike Slive, then, was not the exponential growth in prestige experienced by the SEC. It was making the ground fertile, which made that growth possible.
Mike Slive will be laid to rest on Friday. I will remember him with the words of Proverbs 3:13.
“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225