College Football’s Elder Statesmen Give Us a Final Gift

Three years ago I asked SEC commissioner Mike Slive whether he foresaw a college football playoff anytime soon. He grinned and shook his head, “I think,” Slive said, “you’ll have to wait for us to die off.” The “us” in question was his generation of college football power brokers. Yesterday a four-team playoff became a reality and those same men who Slive once said needed to die off led the charge for change.

Slive will receive much of the credit for college football’s playoff, and deservedly so, but that misses the point. This was a win for all the old guys out there, a generation who wouldn’t change, suddenly did the right thing and evolved with the times, strengthening their sport in the process.

Since the process began Slive has wanted neutral site games, he’s wanted the top four teams over conference champions, and he’s favored a seeded four-team playoff.

All of those goals have been attained.

Make no mistake, in a life full of victories this is the biggest victory of a Slive’s professional life. The most lasting and permanent change, this is college football’s version of Nixon going to China, the Berlin Wall coming down, an existing world order that many said would never be altered collapsing. Yes, this is Slive’s final valedictory to the sport he loves but it’s also something more, a triumph of aging men who put aside their own personal interests and finally buckled down and did what was right for college football. The Big 12’s Chuck Neinas is over 80, Mike Slive will turn 72 in a little over a month, ACC commissioner John Swofford is 64, the Big Ten’s Jim Delany is 64 as well. Toss in Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds who is 72 and you’ve got a collection of powerful men nearing retirement age.

Turns out we didn’t actually have to wait for them to die.

We just needed them to lead and embrace change, allow their own better angels to lead.

And they changed.

There’s an awful lot of aging men in Congress who could look to college football’s leadership for instruction.

Because, ultimately, finally, college football’s leaders were at least the equal of college football’s fans.

I’m not sure younger men could have gotten this playoff done.

In fact, the youngest man in this process, the Pac 12’s Larry Scott, has been by far the most unreliable. His public pronouncements from one moment to the next appeared ill thought out and speculative. He’s vacillated and dickered, shrunken in the spotlight. No, it wasn’t younger, supposedly brilliant men like Scott who led the playoff charge, it took older, more seasoned men to make this playoff proposal work. Men who, more so than most, are comfortable with their own positions in life. This wasn’t about succeeding and attaining a new position of power, this was about legacy, becoming a steward of the sport, leaving behind something that could make their grandchildren smile.

At long last, college football’s fractious political process worked.

And leading the playoff charge was Slive, a man who carries power lightly. Most powerful men are arrogant, cocky, consumed with their own internal thoughts and completely unaware of external factors. Consensus building bores them, the political process is beneath them. Most truly powerful men want to lead by charging up the hill in a hailstorm of bullets and forcing others to follow them. Slive is different, more circumspect, a powerful man with the gentleness of an elementary schoolteacher.

Slive’s only daughter, who recently made him a grandfather, says that after each long SEC media day — when thousands of assembled media hang on his every word all day long — he’d greet his daughter that evening with the same question, “How was your day, tell me about it?”

Giving a personal anecodote that I don’t believe I’ve written about before, at 7:30 AM the day after my second son was born, my phone rang.

My son had been alive for just 14 hours.

When I answered who was on the other line congratulating me?

Mike Slive.

Most of my relatives hadn’t even called yet.

If Slive is calling me to offer congratulations, someone far, far down the power scale, it’s likely he’s also calling others to congratulate them on their life’s successes. It’s an instructive lesson that we can all learn from, powerful men and women don’t stop being regular people too. That’s why you can’t find a single person in a position of power who dislikes Mike Slive.

Not one.

After a decade in charge of the SEC that’s almost impossible to imagine.

Most powerful men attract enemies. Slive attracts adherents. From Nick Saban to John Calipari, Steve Spurrier to Gary Pinkel, when cranky coaches speak of Slive they turn into young boys impressed by their daddy’s accomplishments. In a hater generation, Slive has no haters. 

Given that all of these aging commissioners have known each other for decades that personal affability serves Slive well. In a room full of giant egos, Slive has never really punctured any of those egos. At a time when the SEC could be considered a bully, Slive has remained publicly statesmanlike. Leaving disciples like Nick Saban to throw out the red meat to the faithful.   

Yes, Slive achieved his goals in the playoff, and already those are being trumpeted as SEC victories. I think that’s shortsighted. The SEC has won six titles in a row and was coming off a year when it put both teams in the title game. The easiest thing for Slive to do would have been to argue for the status quo. After all, how many people want to change the rules once they’ve come to dominate the game? What’s more, this wasn’t about simply marshalling votes, this was about building a consensus.

When you step back and examine what Slive wanted, he’s actually been in favor of what’s best for the sport as a whole. The SEC didn’t win, college football did. And ultimately that’s what Slive was able to make his fellow commissioners see, this wasn’t a time for partisan wrangling over who might benefit the most in 2014, it was a time to think about the sport’s future. The SEC is ascendant right now, but could that change? Certainly. Wise men don’t create short-term solutions for current problems, they craft an enduring system that embraces the present and the future.  

And, at long last, college football’s oldest generation, the one that Slive once said needed to die off before a playoff would come, was wise. 

These old men are still alive and kicking and, amazingly, they’ve given birth to a playoff.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but, evidently, you can teach an old commissioner one.

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