Utican Mike Slive, former SEC head, dies at 77Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y. — Ben Birnell Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.
May 17--Mike Slive left an immeasurable impact in the Mohawk Valley and beyond.
Slive, a Utica native and former Southeastern Conference commissioner, passed away Wednesday after a long and distinguished career in college athletics. He was 77.
Slive -- a 1958 Utica Free Academy graduate and 2009 Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame inductee -- died in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lived with his wife, Liz, of 49 years, according to the Southeastern Conference. The organization didn't provide a cause of death. A memorial for Slive is set for Friday in Birmingham.
Longtime attorney Les Lewis grew up with Slive in Utica -- the pair first played little league baseball together in 1952 -- and became close friends. Lewis said he had the opportunity to spend time with Slive over the last few years, including events like the SEC's football championship game.
Lewis said he was upset by the loss of Slive, who was the son of a butcher in Utica.
"(Mike) was a terrific guy," the 77-year-old Lewis said Wednesday by phone. "He was an insightful guy. ... He was a kid from Utica, New York who sort of invaded the Southeastern Conference. It was a hell of an accomplishment for him to become the commissioner."
Slive got his start in sports in Utica. Slive played quarterback for some outstanding Utica Free Academy football teams in 1956 and 1957 before going on to play lacrosse at Dartmouth College. Then Slive sculpted a career in law and sports that helped him earn one of the top positions in collegiate athletics.
Utica remained a special place for Slive, who returned to the area a few times over the years. One of the most recent trips to Utica in 2015 included filming at various locations in the area for a documentary on Slive, according to Observer-Dispatch archives.
"In my heart, I have never left," Slive said during his acceptance speech after being inducted into the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame.
Lewis said he'll remember Slive's honesty as one of his best qualities.
"He'll be remembered as a guy that never forgot where he came from," Lewis said. "He was always felt it was very important not forget about his roots. He was always willing to talk to anybody from Utica. ... He remained close to all the people he knew growing up."
Beginning in 2002, Slive served as the Southeastern Conference's seventh commissioner until 2015, when he retired to battle prostate cancer. His leadership helped the conference become one of the most powerful in college football, with the SEC winning seven straight national championships and helped land lucrative television contracts. The SEC was also successful in other sports under Slive's leadership with a total of 81 national championships in 17 sports during his tenure.
Paul Finebaum, one of the most identifable media personalities in sports, told the Observer-Dispatch in 2015 he thought Slive was "the greatest commissioner in the history of sports."
"I think he has the rare combination of, above all, being honest, and also being thoughtful and forceful ... and he gets things done," Finebaum said. "He took an already good league and made it the trademark brand name in college sports."
Slive also played a large role in helping create the College Football Playoff system. Slive proposed the idea of a four-team playoff for college football in 2008. Eventually other college football leaders helped create the sport's postseason system.
"Commissioner Slive was truly one of the great leaders college athletics has ever seen and an even better person," Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. "He was a wonderful friend to me and someone who I respected tremendously. Mike changed the landscape of the Southeastern Conference and helped build our league into what you see today."
Before serving as SEC commissioner, Slive was Conference USA's first commissioner from 1995 to 2002 and the first commissioner of the Great Midwest Conference.
Slive is survived by his wife of 49 years, Liz; his daughter, Anna and son-in-law Judd Harwood and granddaughter Abigail. According to the SEC, donations may be made to the Mike Slive Foundation at mikeslivefoundation.org.
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