There has never been a football dynasty like the SEC. While many fans tuned out the Alabama-LSU BCS Championship Game, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive got to an enjoy an all-SEC affair. The SEC sits at six straight national titles (and perhaps still counting). But times are changing in college sports. Schools continue to shift conferences. BCS commissioners are talking about a playoff. The NCAA is trying to provide athletes with more benefits. In this exclusive interview, Slive discusses those topics and more, as he considers how to keep the SEC on top.
Note: This interview was conducted in April and appears in Athlon's 2012 SEC Regional magazine.
Athlon Sports: Could you have ever envisioned this run by the SEC after not getting undefeated Auburn into the BCS Championship Game in ’04 and barely getting Florida into the 2006 game to start this period of dominance?
Slive: I don’t think anybody could have imagined it. In 2004, it was watershed. The discussion started about the SEC and having an undefeated team (Auburn) that was left out. Then LSU makes it to the game (in 2007 season), wins the game with two losses. I think the fact they could get there with two losses indicates the voters began to respect the fact it’s a very tough league to play your way through. It’s hard to imagine now, based on past history, that an undefeated SEC team would not make it to the championship game, unless there’s something unusual.
So what’s changed since 2004? Has the SEC pushed its message more? Is the league simply better in football?
Slive: It’s hard to pinpoint. I think it’s a combination of outstanding coaches, great athletes, and we’ve exposed them.
Back in 2005-06, the SEC’s average payout to its members was $10.2 million. By 2010-11, that reached $19.5 million. How much do you think additional money factors into the SEC’s success?
Slive: There was at least one other conference (the Big Ten) during the same timeframe that was in the same place financially. It’s not a controlled experiment. Certainly the ability to have significant recruiting budgets, the ability to have outstanding facilities, the ability to hire outstanding football coaches, that all helps. We have weather. We have tradition. We have passion.
There was some SEC fatigue around the country with the Alabama-LSU matchup. How cognizant are you of that, particularly when talking about the SEC’s success?
Slive: A lot of your colleagues ask me about that. What’s the question aimed at? If it’s aimed at the BCS, I think you saw the two best teams (Alabama and LSU). The voters said they’re the two best teams. It (SEC fatigue) may be a concept out there, but I don’t feel it. And the BCS didn’t feel it.
Can you understand how people around the country would say they’ve already seen Alabama and LSU play, so let’s see another conference take a shot at the SEC?
Slive: I can understand that. But when I listened to the radio or read stories, that isn’t what came across.
You proposed the plus-one model, a four-team playoff, in 2008. Do you still support it?
Slive: I certainly will have the plus-one foremost in my mind. I want to see compared to what. For the last six years in looking at it from our own prism, we were better off without it. It worked great for us. If I knew that for six more years it was going to work this way, then I wouldn’t be for the plus-one. But I think the law of averages catches up over time. Knowing that any team in our league with one or two losses is one of the top two teams in the country, then I’d have to think very hard about the plus-one in absence of other kinds of changes.
You’ve always called it a plus-one. Can you finally just call it a playoff?
Slive: I’ve never considered it a playoff — or the so-called ‘p’ word — because it fit within the structure of the BCS at the time that I raised it. It didn’t require any fundamental change. I thought about it as a modification of the postseason.
So as the BCS commissioners discuss a playoff, are we closer than ever to a modification of the postseason?
Slive: I said before (the BCS commissioners) met there was going to be change and there was going to be substantial change. I still believe that. This process is a marathon, not a sprint.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has floated the idea of seeding only conference champions in a playoff. How would you feel about that considering Alabama won the national title last season without winning the SEC?
Slive: I’m willing to have a conversation about it, but if you were going to ask me today, that would not be the way I want to go. It really is early in the discussions, notwithstanding what some commissioners say publicly. There’s still a lot of information that needs to be generated.
The Big Ten has proposed campus sites for semifinal games instead of neutral sites. Could the SEC support that concept?
Slive: There are plusses and minuses to that concept. One is that you’re playing a couple games to determine the national champion and to make it a home game for somebody has always been perceived as a competitive advantage. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is not played at the homes of the higher seeds. So you have to look at that. The other side is there would be the question of fan travel and the ability to travel to one or more games. You guarantee good attendance (at a campus stadium) — for one team. It needs to be looked at carefully. It’s on the table and it should be on the table.
You’re welcoming Texas A&M and Missouri into the SEC this season. There is a lot of shifting lately in conference alignments. Do you think this is good for college sports?
Slive: Whether it’s good or not good I think will be something we’ll be able to judge in the future. Is it good for the SEC? I think it will be very good for the SEC. Is it good for college sports? I think it might. The question of rivalries is always underlying these questions. We would love Kansas to play Missouri and Missouri would like to play Kansas. It’s not the SEC or Missouri that’s not making that happen. We would like A&M to play Texas. It’s not the SEC or A&M. It’s Texas that says they don’t want to play A&M.
Do you think expansion is done nationally, and is the SEC finished at 14 members?
Slive: I still view 14 as an extension of 12. Going beyond 14 is no longer an extension of 12. Maybe the Pac-12 and Big Ten scheduling alliance may be their way of answering that question. I can only speak for us. I think it’s going to take us some time to absorb these two institutions. At this point, I don’t see us adding more. We’ve never been trying to get 14 so I don’t see us necessarily trying to get to 16.
You’ve been in favor of giving athletes an extra stipend to cover the true cost of attending college. Politically, it got delayed by the NCAA membership. Do you still support the idea?
Slive: I do. What concerned me is the process the NCAA used to get to this point and not providing sufficient time for us to analyze all of the issues related to it. Hopefully it will be reconsidered again by the board and we’ll be able to address how it relates to Olympic sports, Title IX, the actual amount — all of that should have been vetted out in a much more significant way than it was.
The option to provide multi-year scholarships, which you also support, passed but the majority of Division I schools opposed it. What do you like about the idea?
Slive: The point is the prospective student-athlete gets the opportunity to have a significant conversation with an institution and vice versa, and some of the bargaining power is on both sides of the table, which is appropriate. Part of the opposition was a protest against how it was done, being put on the table right before Signing Day. Hopefully, (NCAA President) Mark Emmert and the NCAA folks have gotten the message you can decide to do something and mandate it, but you have to give membership the chance to fully vet it.
One of your basketball coaches, John Calipari of Kentucky, says he doesn’t believe the NCAA will continue to control major college athletics by the time he retires. Do you envision such drastic changes in the governance of college sports?
Slive: I don’t anticipate those. I do see at the moment — and hopefully a passing moment — that some of the discussion you and I just had has raised questions about the NCAA and how it operates and maybe has shaken the confidence of some of its membership. But I think that can be, and should be, a temporary problem. Mark Emmert is a very talented, skillful person. That will be fixed.
What’s your biggest challenge moving forward?
Slive: One thing about being a commissioner is there’s no today. Today doesn’t really exist for me. When I wake up in the morning, everything that’s going to happen today has been done. So it’s the ability of trying to think ahead and what I can do with the conference that will make tomorrow successful.
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