ATHENS — I swear my role at DawgNation is not to be the guy who just writes remembrances of sports figures we’ve lost. Unfortunately I’ve done that too often this year. But I feel strongly that I need to weigh in on the passing this week of retired SEC commissioner Mike Slive. And, honestly, it’s mostly to young folks that I want to direct my message about the way he conducted business and treated people.
Slive will go down as one of my favorites of all time in terms of sports personalities I’ve covered as a professional journalist. There are three pictures displayed in my home office that one might categorize as sports-biz photos. One is me being interviewed by Larry Munson at Sanford Stadium in the early 1990s; one is me and colleagues at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sitting at our workstations next to Furman Bisher while covering The Masters in the 2000s; and the other is of me and Slive posing for a photographer on the sidelines before the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome several years back.
Not that being on my office wall is some kind of great honor. There’s also a picture of me stuffing a biscuit in my mouth while laughing with a buddy as we ride to the first tee in a member-guest golf tournament. But Slive was great, both as a leader of one of the most powerful organizations in sport and as a human being.
These are the things about Slive that set him apart in the modern age of big-time college athletics: He was kind, thoughtful, accessible and smart. On that last count, Mike Slive was very, very smart.
On first blush, one might think, “What’s so distinguishable about that?”
Well, let me tell you.
Increasingly these days, people seem to think great leaders need to possess two traits over all else. They think they need to be secretive/manipulative, and they believe being a demeaning jerk is somehow a redeeming quality.
Maybe it’s because we live in an age in which Bill Belichick and Nick Saban are the dominant forces in football and mud-slinging, partisan politics are not only accepted, but revered. But Slive lived in this age, too, and he incorporated none of those characteristics in his leadership style.
Slive was thoughtful. I remember how he helped me out one year as I was covering at SEC Football Media Days in Birmingham, Ala. I think it was when Slive decided he needed to address the perception/reality that SEC football was dirty. He delivered an eloquent and perfectly balanced speech during his opening remarks, as usual. But at least one reporter in the room who was assigned to write about said speech had gotten caught with a pen that ran out of ink and a tape recorder in which the battery died midway through.
I went up to Slive after his traditional aside with reporters following the speech to get some clarification on a particularly poignant passage he’d referenced and made a self-deprecating comment about my skills as a professional. Not only did Slive patiently explain his remark and give me some unsolicited background on it, but he also handed the printed copy of his speech, which included some enlightening, hand-written remarks.
That was the thing about Slive. He was interested in getting it right, not getting his way.
Obviously, I’d gotten to know Slive a little before that. I moved into a role covering the SEC not long after Slive took over as commissioner in 2002. But it wasn’t as if we had this close, personal relationship like he had with some other writers and certainly with his SEC constituency. Based on my experience, he treated pretty much anybody he’d gotten to know on some level with that kind of respect.
I don’t know how he knew, but I talked to Slive at the 2007 SEC meetings and he knew that my wife and I had recently had a son. It was late in life for me, and he knew that, so we talked about it.
And, get this: Slive trusted journalists.
Well before the College Football Playoff was a reality, Slive intimated to several of us that there needed to be one after what happened to Auburn in 2004 — and he was going to see that it happened. And when the SEC didn’t rush out to start the first conference-focused television network, Slive carefully explained why he thought it best to sit on the sidelines and see what happened with the Big Ten’s new venture first. Last I checked, Slive’s patience on this seemed to be paying off richly for the league.
But for me, it was neither the sharp business acumen nor the consensus-building leadership style that made Slive endearing. Yes, he was incredibly powerful. But he also was genuinely nice. Imagine that…
About that picture that now sits in my office. Slive and I were just engrossed in conversation on the sidelines during pregame warmups when a photographer — I don’t even know from where — strolled up and asked if he could take our picture. “Sure,” Slive said, and he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me in close for the shot.
I forgot about it almost immediately. But weeks later, I went to my mailbox at work and found an envelope from the SEC therein. Thinking it just another public relations correspondence, I ripped it open with one finger and out tumbled that photo and a handwritten note.
It didn’t say a whole lot other than “enjoyed talking to you before the game,” “always appreciated your work” and that he thought we’d made a pretty decent picture. But the biggest deal for me was the way Slive signed his letter.
“Your friend, Mike.”
That said it all about Slive. At first, I thought it was special. Then I came to realize that Slive had such a relationship with most every reporter who covered the league regularly. There probably is a bunch of old scribes with a letter in their bottom drawer and photo near their desk from Slive.
I’m just honored I got to be one of them.