Monday, July 28

Mike Slive Interview

In some ways on this past season, I felt like William Miller in Almost Famous. Not only was I touring the nation, I was able to see sports at a level I never expected. This included press box seating near such big names as Stewart Mandel, Roy Kramer, and Barry Alvarez. It even included a head coach inviting me over to his house for breakfast, but you’ll have to wait for the book to hear that tale. Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to interview SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Below is an excerpt of our conversation. Remember that this project of mine was always focused on the fans, so that’s the nature of the majority of these questions. To be sure, I could have pressed him on a few of these issues and wish I had done more of that. Here's what he had to say.

How would you describe the typical SEC football fan?

There’s no such thing. I think more about the fans as a group than I do as individuals, and I think they share common characteristics. When I think of an SEC fan, I think of loyalty, passion, knowledge, concern and abiding interest in their institution and in their athletic programs. And it matters not whether they’re graduates. A fan base is made up of people from all walks of life. People with all different backgrounds.

One of the things I’ve often watched and really marveled at and enjoyed is the fact that in our league, our institutions and athletic programs have a definite family orientation. It’s not unusual to see three generations of a family attend, for example, a football game together You often see Mom and Dad, children and grandma and grandpa. And you realize that it wasn’t long ago that the grandma and grandpa were mom and dad. And before that, they were the children. The family shares an experience – they look forward to it as part of their family rituals, family events, family life cycle events. It’s always very heartwarming when you walk through a stadium and you see that.

Coaches salaries seem to be increasing at a rapid rate. What do you think about that?
I approach it first from the point of view that the conference or the NCAA can’t control salaries by law. The last time the NCAA tried to do that, they settled a case for 53 million dollars. There isn’t anything we can do about it. These are institutional decisions and have been driven by the marketplace for coaches, which is impacted by the NFL and also by the importance of success at all of these institutions. I am concerned about increasing costs, of which salaries are a part, and the ability for revenue to keep pace with the cost. So yes, it’s a concern as an overall part of the health. As I understand, the number for salaries is about 3% of an institution’s overall budget and that hasn’t changed in 15 years. The visibility has made it a significant issue. I think our presidents have been looking at this issue. They are subsidizing athletics.

In the final analysis, what’s the nature of the question – are we asking whether or not it’s a fiscal issue, moral issue. Given the way athletic departments are required to fund themselves by our major institutions and to the extent that football revenue can support 20 other sports. Should a president make more than a football coach? In a perfect world yes, in the way intercollegiate athletics has grown up as an auxiliary enterprise w/o university funding, the generation of that income becomes imperative.

Being commissioner, is it harder to be a fan?
This is my standard answer. When I go to a conference game, I’m neutral – I just hope the officiating goes well. During bowl games, I become a fan. The anxiety that one feels in being a fan is hell. Because it’s exciting and fun, but it’s a very different experience for a commissioner when a team is playing a national championship game versus a conference game. You just become a fan.

Regarding the playoff debate, does the SEC have an official position?
In our annual spring meeting, our presidents met, and last year when Dr. Matching brought up the concept – our presidents and chancellors talked about it. They overwhelmingly said that they were not interested in a playoff, but at that time authorized Dr. Kian at Ole Miss and me to explore other formats in the context of the BCS. Our exploration has been more in the area of a plus one within the context of the BCS.

When I ask fans what they wish was different about the game, the only complaint on which everyone agreed was the way non-conference games keep getting less and less competitive. This came up again and again. What’s your take on the issue?
I have been outspoken from here, not having to coach these teams and not having to produce the revenue – it has always been my hope that we will play more significant inter-conference games on a home and home basis for the fans, and selfishly for the conference because the more high quality home-and-home games that we play gives us much better inventory to negotiate with when it comes to talking with television. With a home-and-home, every other year gives us a better schedule for our television folks. Right from the beginning when we went to twelve games, it has been my goal to improve the non-conference schedules. That’s one issue where I totally agree.

When I was at Tennessee, a couple of fans suggested that we create an SEC-Big Ten Challenge, similar to the ACC-Big Ten challenge in basketball. Take one weekend early in the season and match up home-and-homes with the strongest teams playing one another. Then switch the teams every two years. Is there any chance we can get this to happen?

I have heard such a suggestion before, and the positives are very clear. It is an interesting idea, one we would look at, but at first blush some of the obstacles may be insurmountable.

What do you like best about college football?
Oh boy, I like a lot of things about it. There’s just the same experience you have. When you drive up to a stadium and feel the pulse and the excitement and see the tailgating and the recreational vehicles and the colors and the anticipation, and in our league, the stadiums are full, the weather’s usually good. The anticipation is great. And the games have been fabulous in our league. They’re so competitive and so unpredictable. There’s something special about a football weekend, the Friday night leading up to it, the Saturday game. Also the institution is the focus of attention. It’s a rallying point for alumni, friends, and administrators. There are so many offshoots of the game itself that can be very positive for the institution. That’s really a very difficult atmosphere to duplicate in other sports and at other level of competition.

Do you have a favorite memory?
It’s hard to duplicate winning the National Championship two years in a row and being on the field and being on the podium and sharing the excitement. But I will tell you this, that’s exciting, but it’s no more exciting than that same experience at the SEC championship game. Our championship game has all the same trappings of the NC game. Same, if not more intense fan support b/c it’s both our teams. It’s sold out in the wintertime before anybody knows who’s playing. Our people will tell you it’s as good as any bowl game if not better. It’s as good as any NC game. Sharing with them the other ecstasy and sense of accomplishment that they feel at that moment.

Thursday, July 17

Some New Movies

...well, not new, but newly available. Just up and running, is to documentary film projects what Hulu is to television. Among the multitude of films there for your perusal are a handful of college football specials. I'm most partial to the extremely comprehensive Rivalries: The History of Ohio State and Michigan, which features the following remarkable quote from an aging Pat Summerall: "1991 was a rout all the way but it was exciting because of the magic of Magic Desmond 'Magic' Howard." But I recommend taking a peek at the following movies as well:

Live The Dream (Texas' national championship run in 2005)
National Champions: The Story of the 2006 Florida Gators
Out of the Blue (Boise State's 2006 season and Fiesta Bowl victory)
Rivalries: The Tradition of Georgia vs. Florida

(HT: /film)

Wednesday, July 16

Stagg Bowl Recap

Continuing my series of "nostalgia files" that didn't make their way into SI On Campus due to my own lethargy or otherwise busy news weeks, I am turning on the way-back-machine. Today I present the column I originally wrote after the Stagg Bowl, way back in mid-December. Travel with me back to the past to reminisce about my trip to Salem, Virginia for the D-III championship game.

For the last 15 seasons, Salem, Virginia has played host to the two teams who have survived the gauntlet of the Division III playoffs. One could call it the D-III Super Bowl, but everyone uses its given name, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For the third consecutive year, Mount Union faced off against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for the national championship. Predictions of freezing rain had clearly kept some folks from making the trek, but plenty of enthused fans and alumni arrived at the stadium parking lot early to celebrate making it this far.

Mount Union came in as prohibitive favorites, having only lost three games this century, and owning two straight victories over the Warhawks in Salem. To an impartial observer, the landscape of revelers could be a bit confusing. Both teams claim purple and black as their colors. Perhaps that was just as well. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but fans from both sides were friendly to one another, greeting their opposition with smiles and, quite frequently, beers. The celebratory air did much to cut through the freezing cold, and when that failed, purple people jumped in their cars to warm up. Those who made the drive down from Alliance, Ohio did so with supreme confidence that the Purple Raiders would win their tenth crown, flying banners that said, “Merry X-mas” and “Welcome to the Kehres Bowl” in honor of their coach, Larry Kehres. That the team had outscored opponents 605-55 over the course of the season only served to buoy that confidence. In a bold move, some Mount Union fans wore t-shirts listing their national championships, including 2007.
Just some of the confident Purple Raiders

However, the visitors were not limited to Purple Raiders and Warhawks. Alumni and current students from across the D-III landscape showed up to take part in the festivities. Representatives from Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, Wesley College in Delaware, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas and countless others made the trip to meet some of their brethren and talk football all weekend. In an example of the minor clash of cultures on display, a man from Texas kidded another from Wisconsin, “You talk funny! I have a cousin from Ohio. He talks funny, too.” Despite some gentle ribbing, there is a clear kinship among everyone making the pilgrimage to Salem. Division III doesn’t garner the national attention of the big schools. When it does find the spotlight, derision is often not far behind. These fans are quick to complain when talking heads call their sport “High School Football.”
Fans came from all over America

A group from Virginia’s Bridgewater College has been coming down to Salem every year since their team lost to Mount Union in the 2001 Stagg Bowl. Stone Station, so called because they do their home tailgating in front the house of school president, Dr. Phil Stone, employs contributions from all of their constituents. The result is a buffet fit for a king bestowed on any hungry soul in the vicinity. Much to the delight of the entire parking lot, they served up pulled pork, deep fried turkey, crab soup, barbecued chicken, ham sandwiches, fried potatoes, various salads, and made-from-scratch brownies and cookies. Once the first person yelled “Dig in,” the line didn’t stop flowing until ten minutes before kickoff. When the Whitewater band arrived, they headed straight for the spread, with one member exclaiming, “We’ll find the Whitewater tailgate later. I’m getting in line.” More than simply an impressive display of generosity, the folks at Bridgewater look forward to this event all season. It’s just as fun for them to meet far flung D-III fans as it is for those fans to chow down on all the tasty grub. While folks sampled the group’s eats, they did their best to stay warm, huddling near wood-burning fire pits. Stone Station knows how to pamper.

By the time the game kicked off, the dreaded rain finally arrived. Outside of some of the ballcarriers, nobody seemed to mind. Most unaffiliated fans pulled for Whitewater to get the upset, hoping the third try would be the charm. The game featured big hits, shifts in momentum, and some huge plays. Through the strength of Gagliardi Trophy winner Justin Beaver’s legs and an impressive defensive performance, they managed to outplay Mount Union. In the game’s closing minutes, the Warhawk fans briefly dusted off the “Over-rated!” chant, but quickly switched to “U-Dub-Dub!” A much more appropriate cheer given the respect these two teams have for one another.
Being photographed with the lowest rung on the Sports Illustrated ladder was hardly the biggest thrill of the day for the Whitewater Dance Team

After players from both teams shook hands, the Warhawks collected their trophy and posed for a team picture. Once that was finished, they shouted in unison, “Miller Time!” When one of the neutral fans blurted out, “It’s a Wisconsin thing,” a Whitewater fan said, “That’s right! We don’t drink Budweiser.” The Whitewater players then ran over to celebrate with their fans. Within fifteen minutes after the games end, the skies opened up and doused the area with rain. That cut the post-game celebration short, sending people back to their hotels. It was just as well. The pinnacle of Division III football had delivered. The game was excellent, but perhaps more importantly, the game’s followers had gotten to know one another. They all have hopes of their team’s chances to play their way into the Stagg Bowl next season. But even if the team doesn’t bring them to Salem, they plan to come anyway. After comments about the thrilling game, the most frequently heard farewell was, “See you next year,” a promise sure to be fulfilled.

Monday, July 14

Tailgate Report Card: Florida vs Georgia

I know what you're thinking. They tailgate for Softball? Well, perhaps they do, but in going through all my notes, I realized there were a couple SI On Campus stories I wrote that were never published. Consider this my "things I lost in the fire" era. So we are going way back to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for this one. I don't even remember what I wrote, but here it is...

Setting A neutral-site game has a lot to offer in terms of heated pregame passion shown by both sides. But the area surrounding Alltel stadium in Jacksonville is hardly anyone’s version of paradise. The tailgating areas mostly consist of cement parking lots packed with cars and little room for major grilling or tenting. That said, one has to be impressed with the immense scale of the scene. You could walk for ten blocks in any direction and still not leave the tailgating areas. Grade: C+

Knowledge of Fans As the day wore on, it seemed the level of football knowledge decreased. I’m sure it was just buried beneath all the bourbon, beer, and other consumables. A lot of people were local Jacksonville and not as into the college game as one would expect in an on-campus setting. Every Georgia fan I spoke with was convinced they had no chance to win the game. Then again, had any of us heard of Knowshon Moreno before Saturday? Grade: C

Most tailgates served pre-prepared grub or made sandwiches. Grills were rather scarce for an SEC football matchup. Part of that could have been due to the fact that this is neither team’s normal home turf. However, some more committed groups managed to put together beef tenderloin, low country boil, BBQ ribs, hot nachos, and of course heaping piles of barbecue. But how seriously does one have to take grub at a cocktail party? Grade: B-Drinks They don’t call it the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party for nothing. While there was plenty of beer to be had, bourbon was the most popular ingredient of the day. Mixed with ginger ale or coke, big bottles found themselves emptied by the end of the day. One group busted out the champagne as soon as they arrived, but many Georgia folks popped corks after the game ended. You’d be hard-pressed to find a thirsty soul in Jacksonville Saturday. Grade: AYard Games Tight quarters meant little room for throwing and tossing. Still, people managed to get in a little cornhole, beer pong, and washers. Grade: B-

Cheers and Songs It seems these neutral site affairs bring out the best in pregame enthusiasm. Florida fans started with “Orange! Blue!” The Georgia backers then countered with “What’s that coming down the track? A huge machine that’s big and black!” Gators shouted “It’s great, to be, a Florida Gator! It’s great, to be, a Florida Gator!” Dawgs woofed with a tenacity that would make Arsenio Hall blush. As kickoff approached, chats grew louder and more frequent. Walking into the game, many young men and women had already blown out their vocal cords. Grade: A

Eye Candy One could easily argue that this game is the reason the category was invented. Beautiful Georgia girls dressed in red and back sundresses and traveled in groups all day. If that wasn’t your thing, Florida cuties donned jerseys and short shorts. The day’s competition wasn’t limited to the on-field action. Ladies from both fan bases brought their A game. Even the unattractive girls looked good. I didn’t want to leave. Grade: ASuperfans Hardly anyone was painted or wearing outlandish getups. One guy’s outfit featured a plush coat in Gator blue and was topped with a homemade pimp hat. But beyond that, everyone sported team colors. Red slacks were frequent, as were Percy Harvin jerseys. Grade: C

X-factor Many games feature large huddles of RVs assigned to special sections near the stadium. But there’s nothing quite like RV City in Jacksonville. Because neighbors for the week are from opposing camps, they make special effort to wave their team’s flags and decorate their home. The result is a bizarre sort of anytown USA feel, with pride on display. Everyone managed to get along. Grade: B

Best Tailgate The standout effort belongs to Gator Hawg’s Lawg Annual BBQ. Fans of both teams flocked to their spot in RV city throughout the day, and with good reason. Over the course of the weekend, they went through four bushels of oysters, 600 pounds of barbecued pork, and enough ribs and baked beans to choke a tyrannosaurus. But perhaps the best feature of their setup is that they had two porto-lets all to themselves. The only complaint would be that their TVs were a bit dated. Plasmas would have been nice, but the classic screens fit with the vintage RV motif. Grade: B-

Perhaps because of the recent one-sidedness of the rivalry, everyone was pretty cheerful and there to have a good time. Digs on the opposition were frequent, but altercations were few and far between. I was surprised at how many Florida and Georgia fans arrived as part of the same crew. The stadium itself is awfully sterile, as is the environment nearby. I know it’s tradition to have the game in Jacksonville, but I don’t see any major reason not to go to a more typically home-and-home matchup. But it was a great experience and I’ll be recommending to friends and acquaintances to take their own visit to the WLOCP at least once.

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