This was originally written for StudentUnionSports.com on May 16, 2018.
This past December, I delivered Commissioner Mike Slive and his wife Liz their annual mason jar of cheese potato soup. The delivery is a tradition that we’ve been doing since who knows how long, and I always love being the middle man in this particular task because it gives me a chance to catch up with Commissioner Slive and hug Liz every year. This year, I was greeted with the same classic Mike Slive smile and the usual “oh, my favorite soup!” I shook his hand and entered, careful to take off my shoes as I crossed through the door frame. I went in and hugged Liz and chatted for a moment until Commissioner Slive mentioned that they were redoing their kitchen.
“Come on, Gray,” he said, “I’ll show you what we’re doing.” I followed him past a plastic doorway into the kitchen and we admired the project together. He walked me through the entire room, telling me about the beautiful new shelves, the paint color, and the island area. Finally, he showed me the corner that was “his.” There’d be a TV and some shelves for anything he wanted. “Like your cigars, right?” I asked, knowing that the Commissioner loved to light up a stogie on his back porch as often as he could. Slive winked back at me. “Exactly, Gray.”
That story flooded back to my memory when I heard this afternoon’s heartbreaking news from my mother over the phone. Commissioner Mike Slive passed away today at the age of 77. He’s a man who made every person he encountered feel like a million bucks because he genuinely cared. Over my twenty-one years of life, I was lucky to interact with the commissioner many times. In one lunch about six years ago, he helped me realize why I wanted to go to Woodberry Forest for boarding school in a one-on-one conversation.
Then, to bookend my high school career, he helped me pick my very own, special cigar. “It’s a tradition at Woodberry,” I had told him on his front porch, “for seniors to light up a cigar once graduation is over.” He smiled at me and opened his door wider. “Well come on in and let’s pick a good one, then,” he responded. Commissioner Slive was regularly willing to stop and talk at SEC events I’d be working, and anytime I’d pass him in the back hallways at the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, he’d always smile and wave. “Hey Gray,” he’d say, like clockwork. “Hey Commissioner!” I’d always respond. His smile was infectious, and his love of people made him an excellent leader. Once for a leadership class at Woodberry, we had to write an essay about a “good leader.” When Dr. Hulsey gave us that assignment, the choice for me was easy—Mike Slive. I made an “A” on that essay, because everything I wrote was a true reflection of effective management. Mike Slive was an unbelievably amazing human being who made every person around him better.
Mike Slive’s professional resume is loaded with accomplishments, which shouldn’t be a surprise. I knew Commissioner Slive as the leader of the Southeastern Conference from 2002-2015. During that tenure, the league won 81 national championships in 19 different sports, added two new institutions in Texas A&M and Missouri, and launched a highly successful, multi-million-dollar cable network that is always on in my house. He spear-headed inclusion in coaching across many different sports and made women’s athletics a priority. He also helped start the College Football Playoff, which I outlined more or less in a story a few months ago. He changed the entire landscape of college sports in his tenure, and he made all fourteen institutions of the SEC better through his actions.
Mike Slive the man is almost more impressive in my eyes than Mike Slive the commissioner. He always had time for people, no matter what. I called Commissioner Slive many times in my high school career to ask him questions for papers about college sports, and he always obliged. He always asked about what I was doing to reach my goals, and he always told me that he’d help me with my future however he could. Commissioner Slive also appeared many times on my radio show, “Gray’s Sports Update,” including a special episode right before his retirement honoring his career. If you have some time, I really encourage you to listen to my interview with Commissioner Slive (0:00-15:28) and a tribute that I put together featuring many of his co-workers and friends in college sports (16:50-29:30). You’ll hear him talk about how much his family means to him and how much he means to so many of his colleagues in the college sports world.
When Commissioner Greg Sankey launched the saying “It Just Means More” for the SEC, I knew instantly what he meant. Everybody involved with this conference—even me, a college kid who works at a few events a year—is in the SEC Family. That family lost a leader today in Mike Slive, one of the best men I’ve ever met. The last time I saw Commissioner Slive was when I delivered that soup to him this past December, when he showed me his kitchen and as usual asked me about my life and my work broadcasting Alabama softball. Once it was time to go, I gave a goodbye yell to Liz as I headed for the door. I turned to Commissioner Slive and smiled, shaking his hand as I mentioned how excited I was to see Alabama in the CFP Semifinals. He told me good luck and held open the door. “Happy Holidays, Commissioner,” I said as I left his house. I waved and smiled at him. Mike Slive waved back. “You too. Bye, Gray, thanks for coming.”