Let’s start with the obvious: SEC commissioner Mike Slive is one of the most powerful men in college sports. Along with Big Ten commish Jim Delany, Slive seems to always be a few steps ahead of pack.
An ex-ESPN employee who’s sat in on meetings with a number of conference commissioners recently told MrSEC.com that Slive and Delany are such strategic thinkers that they’re often operating on a completely different level from their counterparts in other leagues.
Slive hasn’t gained his power through bluster. He works a room, calms conversations, keeps bringing all parties back to the topic at hand, and then manages to build a consensus without anyone realizing how exactly he’s done it.
Put it this way: If you’re traveling with two wanted droids on Tatooine, you want Slive in the brown robe talking to the Stormtroopers.
According to Eric Hyman – who has worked with Slive as AD at South Carolina and now at Texas A&M – it is Slive who makes the Southeastern Conference strong:
“I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a visionary. He’s brilliant intellectually. He’s got tremendous political acumen. He’s adroit in what he does and how he maneuvers things.
He knows where he wants to take the league and he gets a consensus in that direction. There’s no division. We all say the things we feel (as individual institutions), but the conference has a bond and is as strong as it is because of Mike Slive.”
While Slive has mastered the role of calm, cool leader, he’s also benefited from the fact that the Southeastern Conference has long been an all-for-one, one-for-all kinda neighborhood, even before his arrival. If there’s another conference whose member institutions have always marched arm in arm it’s the Big Ten. So it coincidental that Slive and Delany are the best at what they do? Obviously not. Slive and Delany are excellent leaders, but their talents are enhanced by the esprit de corps that exists among those they are leading.
Slive recently had this to say to The San Antonio Express-News:
“One of the hallmarks of this league is the fact that we talk about being a family. It may sound sort of naïve, but that’s the sense I got out of the (spring meetings). It’s “This is tough, but we’re going to find a way through it. We’re going to make a decision – as long as it’s thoughtful, reasonable and with an open dialogue – and, once we make it, we’ll move on. That’s just the way we’ve always done it.’”
Ah, but here comes the rub.
The bigger conferences become, the more difficult it will be to keep everyone on the same page. There are more voices in the room, more opinions on every topic.
The math is pretty simple, really. If you and three friends are going to dinner, reaching a consensus on where to eat is one thing. If you and 13 friends are going to dinner, good luck getting everyone to agree on a restaurant.
Slive is now 72-years-old. Delany is about 65. It won’t be too many years before new leaders have taken over the SEC and Big Ten. Those leagues will no doubt try to find men – or women – who have just as much foresight and polical savvy as their current commissioners.
But whether those new leaders will have as much success as Slive and Delany will in part be decided by how well 14-school leagues – not 12- or 10-team leagues – can be managed. The bigger the conferences, the bigger the challenge.