- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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There’s an old saying that you never want to be the person who follows the man, but rather the person who follows the person who follows the man.
Mike Slive, in stature anyway, is a small man, but whoever replaces him as SEC commissioner in 2015, when he retires in part because of a recurrence of prostate cancer, has gargantuan shoes to fill. We’re talking size 23s.
As one of the most powerful men in all of college sports, Slive has the uncanny ability to relate to just about everybody, from high-ranking television executives to testosterone-filled head coaches to aspiring journalists angling for a story.
Slive loves to refer to himself as a recovering attorney and is masterful at carrying on long conversations but never saying anything he doesn’t want out there for public consumption.
He knows names, and the names of your kids -- and will frequently recall the first time he ever saw them as they splashed in the surf in Destin, Florida, at the SEC spring meetings.
Most of all, Slive knows how to run a business. And make no mistake, college sports is a business.
He has a grandfatherly air about him (and is a doting grandfather to 2-year-old Abigail), but there is also a more pointed side to him that not just everybody saw.
If Slive wanted something, he usually got it.
Case in point: The SEC has become the envy of college sports on his watch, and when Slive retires as league commissioner next July, he’ll do so knowing his 13 years on the job have helped reshape the landscape of college athletics as we know it in more ways than we can possibly count.
Much like his predecessor, Roy Kramer, Slive was a visionary. Kramer oversaw the 1992 SEC expansion that brought Arkansas and South Carolina into the league and found a little-known caveat in the NCAA rulebook that allowed conferences with 12 or more teams to split into divisions and stage a conference championship game.
Whereas Kramer was known as the architect of the BCS, Slive was one of the ones early on pushing for a playoff in college football when many of his peers were not. It’s fitting that Slive’s final football season as SEC commissioner will coincide with the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Slive, too, oversaw expansion in the SEC. Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league in 2012.
And on the playing field, he leaves the SEC in excellent shape, particularly in the sport that drives the train.
The SEC had won seven straight national championships in football until that streak was snapped last season by Florida State. Slive, an avid baseball fan, compares that streak to the 56-game hitting streak Joe DiMaggio put together during the magical 1941 baseball season.
In other words, it’s one that will likely never be broken.
Off the field, Slive has been a leader in pushing for NCAA reform, specifically in getting athletes a bigger piece of the pie in the form of full cost of tuition. He was on the front end of calling for autonomy for the Power 5 conferences, allowing them to make their own bylaws.
In so many ways, Slive was way ahead of the game in the rapidly changing world of college athletics.
One of his proudest moments was seeing the SEC hire its first black head football coach when Sylvester Croom was introduced at Mississippi State prior to the 2004 season. When Slive was hired a couple of years earlier, he had vowed then that there would be a black head football coach in the SEC on his watch. There have since been four black head football coaches hired in the SEC.
During Slive’s time as the SEC’s head honcho, the league has won 67 national championships in 15 of its 21 sponsored sports. And just this past August, the SEC Network was launched, which will send the league’s already profitable revenue stream into orbit when the figures are tallied at the next spring meetings.
Slive’s job was anything but easy. The fans at Auburn swear he bent over backward to grease the skids (and the schedule) for Alabama en route to the Crimson Tide winning three of four national championships from 2009 to 2012. The fans at Alabama insist he played a part in keeping Cam Newton eligible in 2010 when the NCAA said Newton’s father solicited money while Newton was being recruited out of junior college.
Every other school, at some point during Slive’s tenure, has accused him of playing favorites. Even administrators in rival conferences have lamented that Slive wields too much power.
But as they say, the wind always blows the hardest at the top of the flag pole, and Slive’s neatly combed white hair never seemed to be too disheveled.
He knew it all came with the territory and never lost sight of doing what he felt was in the best interests of the SEC, regardless of who might be cursing him behind closed doors.
Above everything else, Slive is a fighter. Don’t let his outwardly calm demeanor fool you. He is tough, smart and cunning.
It’s the reason I have no doubt he’ll win his latest bout, the recurrence of his prostate cancer.
I repeat: He usually gets what he wants.