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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Humble Slive has SEC walking tallest in college football


ATLANTA -- This is what it feels like to be king of college football:

You get a table in the corner, order the vegetable plate and nosh.

It's a couple of afternoons before his 10th SEC Championship Game and Mike Slive is somehow containing himself. For those who don't know the humble 71–year-old head of the nation's most powerful conference, that might be hard to believe.

For those of us who do it's about as surprising as another Tyrann Mathieu forced fumble. The SEC and Slive are at the height of their power. The league is on an unprecedented run of five consecutive national championships. A chance at a sixth is almost assured no matter who wins Saturday's Georgia-LSU game at the Georgia Dome.

"Certainly not because of me," Slive said over lunch at the Atlanta Hyatt, the championship game's headquarters for the next few days.

There might be a more polite way to put it but ... B.S. The SEC was always been home to the most football-mad culture in the country. Former commissioner Roy Kramer got it to the 21st century. Slive has refined it, monetized and grown it over the past decade. He gave it a purpose and cleaned it up. The old SEC "culture" -- wink, wink -- while not eliminated, has been diminished.

Slive has done it with class and mostly without scandal. Yes, that even includes Auburn/Cam Newton. Finally. The NCAA saw fit to basically rubber stamp the Tigers' national championship a few weeks ago.

As Slive likes to continually add, there also have also been three straight baseball national championships and a couple of men's basketball titles during his watch. But a celebration is gathering here this weekend because the SEC has never been better, stronger or more marketable.

Want proof? Slive has invited a bunch of high school football buddies here from his old Utica (N.Y.) Free Academy team. More than a half century ago, the demur commissioner was their quarterback running the Single Wing and T-formation.

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"Don't write that," he says out of modesty.

Behold what Slive has accomplished since then. A Dartmouth grad, Slive formed a boutique law firm in Chicago in the 1980s with former investigator NCAA Mike Glazier. Slive then decided to climb the commissioner ladder beginning with the old Great Midwest. When Kramer retired in 2001, SEC officials came after Slive who was then at Conference USA.

Everyone quickly learned about his style. He will agree to be interviewed but doesn't seek the spotlight. The job comes first. Slive has brought the league to a new age of legitimacy. TV networks want its games. The $3 billion deal with CBS and ESPN is barely two years old. The best players flock to its schools. It has broadened its borders with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M.

Its football excellence is consolidated to the point that if LSU and Alabama finish 1-2 in Sunday's final BCS standings, the league will be assured of that sixth consecutive title. The only drama for Slive more than a month out would be which conference coach he would be handing the crystal football on Jan. 9.

"I'm a bit of a history buff," Slive admitted. "If it's 2030 and you're looking back on this era it has to be one of the golden ages."

A golden age complete with rock-star coaches, two of the best players of all time (Tim Tebow, Newton), jammed stadiums and boffo TV ratings. Great for SEC, but is this football monopoly great for college football?

"This is about the two best teams in the country and maybe brings focus to what the BCS initially set out to do," Slive said, "which is put the two best teams in the game. In essence, that's what the national championship is."

That's another way of saying things have worked out for the SEC. No one rigged the system. In fact, the system came to them. Football took it from there. The BCS provided the stage on which the SEC could tap dance to the championship game each year. In the old bowl system, it would have to rely on pollsters and other bowl results. In this system, the SEC champion has played in seven of the 13 BCS title games, winning six and is 5-0 under Slive.

"I always think back on LSU with two losses in 2007, then getting to the game and winning the game as a bit of a watershed," he said. "The acceptance by the voters. We were pretty good."

That was the year LSU was judged the best of a bunch of two-loss teams after losing at home to Arkansas 50-48. It won the SEC title game the next week, finished No. 2 in the BCS, then trounced Ohio State in the BCS title game. The Tigers remain the only two-loss team to win a national championship in the BCS era.

The man still didn't know what he had. Four months later, Slive was at the BCS meetings lobbying for a plus-one playoff. (Undefeated Auburn had been left out in 2004). Now, the league is just fine with chasing the top two spots each year.

"We've won five national championships without it so ... be careful what you wish for." Slive said.

Another thing about Slive. He delegates, relying on a tight group of lieutenants in the conference office. Associate commissioner Greg Sankey helped draft a set of SEC reform proposals this year that were basically adopted the NCAA. TV consultant Chuck Gerber speaks glowingly of the inventory Missouri and Texas A&M will bring. It's not that hard to figure out why. Merely labeling those previous outsiders "SEC" makes the TV package more valuable.

During a sometimes contentious transitioning by A&M and Mizzou, Slive, typically, laid low. The only embarrassing moment came when a press release announcing Missouri's entry was accidentally posted early to the conference's website.

The conference that gets everything it wants, jumped early. Go ahead, flag it. If that's as bad as it gets, well, the pressure isn't getting to the king. The final BCS standings are looming. Over post-lunch coffee, Slive doesn't look the least bit flustered.

"There's a little less anxiety," he said, "than there has been in other years."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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