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.
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