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Slive acknowledges college football must keep integrity, moral center in tough stretch

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Slive's words over last week's issues come with plenty of thought. (US Presswire)  
Slive's words over last week's issues come with plenty of thought. (US Presswire)  

Hoover, Ala. -- For the 10th consecutive year, commissioner Mike Slive kicked off SEC Football media days by listing the accomplishments of his conference over the past academic year. Those accomplishments have been considerable. It's good to be the king of a league that has won six straight BCS football championships.

He talked about the national reform movement in college athletics, which he essentially kicked into gear a year ago at these meetings when he said: "College athletics has lost the benefit of doubt." At that time Slive called for multi-year scholarships for athletes and increased initial eligibility standards across the board. The former has been passed and is now in place. The latter will become a reality in 2016. But halfway through his prepared remarks, Slive paused and said this: "The national agenda for reform is at its heart about integrity. Last week's headlines remind us that we must be ever vigilant on all issues of integrity and that our primary mission is to educate and protect young people.

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"We must maintain an honest and open dialogue across all levels of university administration. There must be an effective system of checks and balances within the administrative structure to protect all who come in contact with it, especially those who cannot protect themselves.

Then he finished the thought with this:

"No one program, no one person no matter how popular, no matter how successful can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution."

Trust me when I tell you that Slive, who just celebrated the birth of his first grandchild six weeks ago, put a lot of thought into those words and whether or not he should say them. Notice that he never mentioned Penn State or Joe Paterno by name. Frankly, he didn't have to. His intent was not to criticize another institution or another conference. That's not his style.

But as a leader in college athletics, Slive felt he could not stand in front of almost 1,000 media representatives on Tuesday and fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Yes, college football is more popular than it has ever been. And with the four-team playoff getting ready to start after the 2014 regular season, college football is going to generate an incredible amount of money in the future. Our Dennis Dodd reports that the four-team playoff and the bowl structure that surrounds it could generate as much as $600 million per year. It's staggering.

But what good is it, Slive rightly wondered, if college athletics is unbelievably successful but loses its soul? What good is it to be wildly successful but totally lose the sport's moral compass?

Because of his position as the head of the most successful athletics conference in the country, Slive had to stand up and say that last week's news out of State College, Pa., was not good for the enterprise he loves.

"I wanted to celebrate the Southeastern Conference and our great student athletes and the nine national championships we've won in the past season," said Slive. "But I also realized this was an issue that pervaded intercollegiate athletics and I just thought it would be inappropriate not to at least acknowledge the issue and move on. And that's what I did."

Slive expounded no further but the point had been made. What happened at Penn State could happen anywhere if the people who are paid to teach and protect young people fail to do their jobs. When blind ambition or the desire to protect the institutional brand become more important than education, things can go horribly wrong.

Think about these words again:

"No one program, no one person no matter how popular, no matter how successful can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution."

Now think about what has happened in college football since last year when Slive said that college athletics had lost the benefit the doubt:

  Right before the summer media days, Jim Tressel was forced to resign at Ohio State.

  North Carolina's Butch Davis was fired 48 hours after ACC media days.

  The Jerry Sandusky story broke and Paterno was fired after 61 years at Penn State. An independent investigation said that Paterno and others were involved in a cover-up.

  In April Bobby Petrino was fired at Arkansas for a host of issues, including an affair with one of his employees.

Let's be candid here. And understand that the words about to follow are mine and not Slive's. But what we're really talking about here is an extreme case of what can go wrong when too much unchecked power is invested in a rock star head football coach.

People make jokes all the time about the head football coach being more powerful than the university president. It was no one less than E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State who commented that he had no intention of firing Jim Tressel and hoped "that the coach doesn't dismiss me."

Doesn't seem so funny now, does it?

Graham Spanier, the Penn State president who was fired in the Sandusky scandal, is a very smart man. But at the end of the day he didn't do his job. He forgot that Paterno, the icon of icons, worked for him. When this issue got to Spanier's desk in 2001 it should have ended then. Would it have been tough? You're damned right it would have been tough. We're talking about Joe Paterno. But that's why they call it leadership. It's not supposed to be easy.

When Bobby Petrino self destructed there were many (including me) that thought Arkansas would find a way to muddle through and keep a successful coach who was set to have a monster season. But to his credit Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director, stepped up and did his job. Long informed Arkansas Chancellor E. David Gearhart that he was going to fire Petrino. And it was done.

That was the point Slive made on Tuesday. Now does he have some rock star coaches in his league? You bet he does. Are they very powerful? No doubt about it.

But any coach who thinks his power will go completely unchecked in the future has not been paying attention. The Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky story represents a tipping point. Coaches can ignore it at their own peril.

The Tony Barnhart Show air Tuesday, Aug. 28 on the CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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