Tom Lindley

Tom Lindley

Several of us sat around a table during a break at a Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in Birmingham in the early to mid-1980s. One was a university president, the other was an athletic director, as I recall. The subject was college football – a sacred and solemn matter whenever it's discussed in the Deep South, even at a basketball event.

There was growing concern that the rising price of gasoline could keep people from attending games on Saturdays, especially in small college towns like Auburn, Ala., or Oxford, Miss., to name just a couple. Gas prices were a definitive threat. Furthermore, campuses closer to bigger communities were expected to gain a competitive advantage because they’d attract larger crowds to their games.

It seemed like heady stuff at the time because these were people charged with looking into the future, identifying possible obstacles and opportunities, and developing plans to address them.

As it turned out, gasoline prices leveled off and never threatened the survival of a sacred game – thanks, OPEC – but the conversation about them illustrated how powers-that-be in college athletics worry just as much about big-money considerations as they do about blocking assignments on power sweeps.

Growth certainly has been a hallmark of college sports in the past 20 or 30 years, as athletic conferences have evolved into their own version of professional leagues, except for the matter of compensating players who wear their schools' colors.

The SEC enjoyed good leadership over the years, but when Mike Slive took over in 2002, as the conference's seventh commissioner since its founding in the early 1930s, the league soared to heights heretofore unimagined.

Slive, who recently announced his plans to retire next summer, first had to clean up a mess, one that struck at the heart of the conference's commitment to playing by the rules. There were those who simply accepted the idea that SEC actually stood for “Sure, Everybody Cheats”.

Slive vowed to change the SEC's reputation as an outlaw conference, though there were doubters. At the time, as many as nine schools were believed to be on probation or under the NCAA’ s investigative eye. Slive made clear that he was the new sheriff, and he planned to run a law-and-order institution. He lived up to his word.

Once the burden of lawlessness was behind him, Slive built a powerhouse, ushering in a period of success unmatched in SEC, perhaps college football, history. On his watch the SEC rolled to seven consecutive Bowl Championship Series titles in football. If that success brought added pride to the South, it created envy elsewhere.

Slive was early to recognize that college sports and its business foundations were changing, especially with the growth of marketing opportunities. The path was obvious: Expand or get passed by.

Slive went to work, and soon the SEC was adding two new teams – Missouri and Texas A&M. That led to a partnership with ESPN and the launch of the SEC Network, which claims 60 million subscribers and availability in up to 90 million homes.

Athletic and business success have driven SEC revenues from $96 million when Slive arrived to more than $300 million as he plans his departure. He has helped turn the SEC into a model for college athletics.

It’s no wonder that John Skipper, president of ESPN, said Slive “will leave an indelible impact on the collegiate landscape."

It was fortunate for the SEC that it had a dynamic, visionary leader as college athletics underwent an economic and organizational upheaval. Some survived, others didn’t. Some prospered, others failed.

The SEC, which snatched Slive from Conference USA, has never known better days. A league that once worried about whether a hike in gas prices would deter fans from its games now has enough money to pave the roads to the front gates of its stadiums in gold.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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