HOOVER, Ala. -- Mike Slive turns 71 on Tuesday, and he admits there are days when he wants to retreat to his comfortable chair in the back yard of his Birmingham home. There are days when friends and family tell him he has done enough; that it's time to sit back and enjoy what he has accomplished with a good cigar and the beauty of Liz Slive's rose garden.
This, however, is not one of those days. As the SEC's media days drew to a close on Friday, the No. 1 story was still Slive's decision to use his bully pulpit as SEC commissioner to call for some serious fundamental reform in college athletics. After I finally got some private time with the former attorney and district court judge, I would describe him as energized and engaged with a little twinkle in his eye for the argument to come.
|Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner since 2002, goes out on a limb with his reform proposals. (US Presswire)|
"It was gratifying to get that kind of response," said Slive, who has held the SEC job since 2002. "But I can assure you that none of them were surprised by what I said."
College athletics in general and college football in particular are in a strange place right now. The game as it is played on the field is more popular than it has ever been. Attendance, television ratings and the money that comes with them have exploded. The game has become a money-making machine for everybody involved -- except the players, of course.
So the current model is working great if the only thing you're concerned about is turning a profit. But if you care even a little bit about quaint notions such as academic integrity, personal ethics and the ability to follow some basic rules of human decency and fairness, then you have to admit there is a problem.
All you have to do is read the headlines, from Jim Tressel and Ohio State's Tat Five to Willie Lyles and his $25,000 payment from Oregon for, at the very least, questionable recruiting services. Slive read all of the headlines, some of them involving members of his own conference. Fair or not, Auburn's celebration of its 2010 national championship continues to be challenged in the court of public opinion because the investigation into the recruitment of former quarterback Cam Newton is ongoing. To put it bluntly: Off the field, the game is a real mess.
"We would have coffee in the morning to talk about some of these things and the conversations would last for two hours," said Greg Sankey, the SEC's associate commissioner for NCAA rules compliance. "There just came a time when it was clear that he wanted to take this step and show some leadership on these subjects."
For Slive, that time came as he began to prepare his annual remarks to open SEC media days on Wednesday. Normally Slive is all smiles while he delivers his "brag list" of SEC accomplishments. And when you've won five straight BCS championships, there is a lot of brag about.
"I tried to put some things down on paper like I would normally do but it just didn't work," said Slive. "I've heard writers say 'It just wouldn't write' when they are blocked. That's the way I felt. It just wouldn't write."
So Slive, with the help of his staff, started over and delivered what could eventually be a landmark speech in the history of college athletics. And it won't be because everything on Slive's list will get done. It won't. It was an important speech because one of the most powerful figures in the sport -- not some academic in an ivory tower -- was not afraid to stand up and admit that fundamental changes need to be made.
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I won't list all of the proposed changes here because our Brett McMurphy has done that. But here is a summary of what Slive proposes: Raise incoming academic standards; find a way within the framework of scholarships to get the kids more money (not pay for play); finally, and this is the most important one: Simplify the rule book and then help the NCAA enforce the hell out of the rules that are left.
"We spend a lot of time in college athletics counting phone calls and banning text messages," said Slive. "I would like to focus on the intentional violation of rules and help the NCAA enforce those rules."
Like an old coach told me once: "There is a difference between breaking the rules and cheating and we all know what it is." Slive didn't say this but I will. The Georgia Tech case has convinced me that the NCAA needs to be less concerned with process and more concerned about going after the cheaters.
Slive stepped out there on Wednesday fully knowing that blowback would come from the critics who find it laughable that the head of the SEC would be calling for reform. They'll point out the reporting of our Dennis Dodd and Brett McMurphy showing that since 1987 the SEC has had more major violations (14) than any other conference.
All that is true. But Slive never said his conference was perfect, only that he and the people who work there would try to make it better. Slive could have played it safe on Wednesday and filled his allotted time by talking about the SEC's five straight championships. He didn't.
This much you should know. Don't underestimate this guy. Don't let his mild-mannered approach fool you. He can be a bulldog when something needs to get done.
And when he's not happy, folks know it. When Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin was having a public urinating contest with some other coaches, I saw Slive walk into a coaches meeting in Destin, Fla. When he came out the paint had peeled off the walls and we never heard another peep out of Kiffin.
When he told SEC coaches to knock off the public criticism of officials, Urban Meyer tested his patience. Meyer's wallet was soon $30,000 lighter.
The point is this guy gets things done and as the coming days unfold you're going to find out that his fellow commissioners have his back. Don't be surprised if you hear something very similar come from Jim Delany at next week's Big Ten media days.
Also understand that what Slive has done sets the table for Emmert, who will bring more than 50 university presidents to Indianapolis on Aug. 9-10 for a summit meeting on the future of college athletics. Emmert is frustrated by the current landscape and has made it clear he wants to talk about "significant change," not incremental change.
I would say that commissioner Slive has given Dr. Emmert his first set of talking points.
The Tony Barnhart Show resumes on Aug. 30 on The CBS Sports Network.