Photo: Dave Martin

The college sports world lost a pioneer on Wednesday with the passing of Mike Slive. The former commissioner of Conference USA and the SEC was truly one of the most influential people in the college sports landscape during his time in the business. Silve stepped away as commissioner of the SEC to focus on his battle with prostate cancer in 2015.

Many called Slive a visionary, and that is perhaps the best way to describe him. Slive found himself in important roles in a changing landscape for college athletics well before he joined the SEC. A New York native, Slive first dabbled in college sports at his alma mater, Dartmouth, as an assistant director of athletics. That job prepared Slive for a job in the Pac-10 as an assistant executive director and gave Slive his first taste of what it takes to hold a position managing a conference.

Slive returned to the Ivy League after that as the director of athletics at Cornell from 1981 to 1983. From there, Slive started up his own legal practice focusing on representing colleges and universities in athletics, and it would only be a matter of time before Slive became the model commissioner.

Slive’s run at Conference USA is not to be forgotten

In 1990, the Great Midwest Conference was formed with a combination of schools from the Metro Conference, Sun Belt Conference, and Midwestern Collegiate Conference. Slive was hired to serve as the conference’s first commissioner. The conference was designed with basketball as its primary focus with members like Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis, and DePaul. The conference may have only lasted a short five years before schools started finding more sustainable opportunities, but Slive was the commissioner from start to finish.

Slive found himself in a unique position during a realignment phase in the mid-1990s. With the Southwest Conference crumbling at the expense of the Big 12, Conference USA was formed with a handful of schools from the Great Midwest Conference, the Metro Conference, and Houston from the Southwest Conference. Having gained a reputation for being a forward-thinking commissioner with a firm grasp on the economics of college athletics, Slive was tabbed to be the first commissioner of Conference USA.

Conference USA established itself fairly quickly for a new conference, even if the thought of Conference USA challenging any of the traditional power conferences was still a dream at the time. Slive helped bring Conference USA into the national conversation though by helping establish new television deals to increase the exposure of the conference. Slive also worked to ensure Conference USA would receive automatic qualifiers for various NCAA tournaments. For football, Slive ensured the conference had multiple bowl tie-ins at a time when the bowl scene was beginning to expand to what it has become today.

At the dawn of the BCS era, Slive’s efforts helped Conference USA be in a position to earn access to a BCS bowl game should there be a team worthy of such access. While Conference USA has yet to send a team to a big money access bowl in the BCS and now College Football Playoff era, it would be a mistake to suggest Slive’s efforts in this area did not have an impact on the sport as programs like Utah, TCU, and Boise State have been able to capitalize on the access to a BCS bowl game over the years.

With so much success with Conference USA, Slive was easily on the radar for the SEC when it came time to find a new commissioner for their conference.

Following in the footsteps of Roy Kramer was a bit of a tall order considering the impact Kramer had on the SEC. Kramer brought on two new members in Arkansas and South Carolina to help pave the way for the SEC to introduce the conference championship game. To this day, the SEC Championship Game is the best in the game. Kramer was also influential in the development of the BCS. Nobody can diminish the impact Kramer had on the SEC, just as nobody can diminish the impact Slive had on the conference during his run as commissioner.

Slive took the SEC to the next level

Slive was hired by the SEC in 2002 with some major shifts in college athletics coming down the road, but his first order of business was to help clean up a conference riddled with NCAA infraction concerns. Having Slive leading the SEC was a wise decision because the SEC hired a man with a forward-thinking vision that would help the SEC lead the way in many respects through some seismic changes in college sports.

Much of the success of Slive will focus on the football field, where the SEC became a dominant force. But before Slive took the job, the SEC had just one BCS national championship to claim with Tennessee winning the first BCS national championship game in the 1998 season. The SEC hadn’t sent a team to the title game since then, but that was about to change with the arrival of Slive. LSU went on to win the BCS title in the 2003 season, and three years later a dominant run of seven consecutive national championships by SEC teams would follow (thanks in large part to Urban Meyer and Nick Saban). How much credit you give to a commissioner for such achievements is probably to be limited, but one should also remember just why schools like Florida and Alabama were able to pay top dollar for coaches that would bring national titles to their programs as well.

The SEC started to really boom under Slive’s watch with increasing revenue from TV deals and more exposure on the conference. Like in Conference USA, Slive helped lock down more bowl tie-ins for the SEC as the bowl scene continued to expand. and, of course, Slive played a key role in securing Texas A&M and Missouri during a dramatic realignment scene around college sports to help solidify the SEC as one of the most sturdy conferences in the land.

Everybody was rolling in money in the SEC, and things were only about to get better. Slive helped make the SEC Network a reality, and partnering with ESPN has paid off dividends for the entire SEC as a result. SEC revenue shares continue to lead the nation, with only the Big Ten able to sniff the SEC numbers on a regular basis.

Football tends to get the spotlight, but the SEC was widely successful in all sports during Slive’s tenure, as noted by Peter Burns of SEC Network.

Slive had also been a long-time advocate for a college football playoff, and he is given the lion’s share of the credit for the formation of The College Football Playoff, which replaced the BCS system. The College Football Playoff continues to be a cash windfall for conferences like the SEC years after Slive saw his vision come to be a reality.

Without Slive, it is difficult to imagine the SEC being in quite this lucrative a situation. Even years after his retirement, the SEC continues to thrive because of the work previously conducted under Slive’s leadership.

The truth is Slive’s most important work may have been done away from the college athletics scene.

Slive’s ongoing fight against prostate cancer

If any legacy of Slive is worth continuing on, it won’t be the supremacy of the SEC. It will be the fight against prostate cancer. Slive was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, but it was not until 2014 that cancer started to become a serious a threat as it was capable of becoming. That realization led to surgery for Slive, and Slive’s battle with prostate cancer would soon become Slive’s most important calling.

Determined to bring prostate cancer awareness to the kind of playing field breast cancer currently is, Slive launched the Mike Slive Foundation for Prostate Cancer Research. True to himself, Slive was reluctant at first to accept having his name attached to the official name, but friends and family convinced him it would ultimately make the foundation more credible and approachable in an effort to encourage more men to take prostate cancer seriously.

“When Ed came to me, it felt like the right thing to do,” Slive said in an story from September 2017. “The idea that I had a tough go with cancer, that I survived, it’s what I would want for anyone in my position. So this gave me an opportunity to devote my retired life to something that was beyond me. I just expanded the fight for the benefit of others.”

That is a fight that will be fought years from now after the passing of Slive. Many will benefit from Slive’s own battle and efforts.

And as those battles continue to be fought and won, Slive’s legacy will take on a meaning far greater than any riches he helped bring to the SEC on and off the field. Slive lived a life full of promising visions and forward-thinking plans. If the battle against prostate cancer initiated by Slive sees half the success Conference USA and the SEC experienced under his watch, the lives of many men and their families will be richer and fuller.

Somewhere, Slive can take pride in having that kind of impact even if he has to be convinced by friends and family to accept the credit.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.