SEC commissioner Slive working to repair conference's image
Posted: Friday July 30, 2004 1:15PM; Updated: Friday July 30, 2004 1:15PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Say this for Mike Slive: The lawyer-turned-SEC commissioner is a gracious host and able defender of his oft-sullied conference. What other outfit could huddle a small army of media and 11 of its million-dollar football coaches for some golf and chit chat, only to spice things up by slapping a $10,000 fine on no-show Phillip Fulmer, the Tennessee coach dubbed "The Snitch'' after he ratted on rival Alabama to the NCAA?
Welcome to SEC Media Days, where rivalries are so hot that Fulmer worried about his safety (not your typical free or strong variety, either) if he were to set foot in Birmingham for the annual festivities. Of course, Fulmer also knew better than to cross the state line, for fear of getting served with a subpoena in a lawsuit accusing him of providing dirt on Alabama in exchange for the NCAA overlooking violations at Tennessee.
So Fulmer offered his thoughts on the upcoming season via teleconference Thursday, while two of his players -- linebacker Kevin Burnett and offensive tackle Michael Munoz -- set foot in the halls where their head man dared not tread.
Fulmer cast the legal proceedings in Alabama as "frivolous business'' fueled by "rogue attorneys.'' Of course, he failed to mention that a few prominent boosters and attorneys tied to his Tennessee program helped make a federal case against Alabama in Memphis, which kicked off the latest border war. And while allegations that long-time Alabama booster Logan Young funneled cash to recruit Albert Means is bad stuff, it seems a tad excessive that Young now faces federal racketeering charges in Memphis.
This latest SEC circus didn't need to hit town. First off, Fulmer would have been wise to show up, and simply stick the subpoena in his back pocket and tell his attorneys to deal with it. Then again, I'm sure he thought better of being deposed by rival attorneys and opening himself and his program to a potentially embarrassing legal fishing expedition.
Yet when Fulmer didn't show, the idea of fining him $10,000 was equally lame, though Slive says the money is headed to the conference's scholarship fund.
All of the parties involved -- both Alabama and Tennessee faithful -- need to get over it. A coach squealing on a dirty program isn't news, and the NCAA did find enough to slap a two-year bowl ban on Alabama. The NCAA's 2002 infractions report on 'Bama reveals that other coaches from the SEC and Big Ten also provided information on the Tide.
Slive obviously knows how the game is played, having earned a living a couple of decades ago defending athletic departments against NCAA allegations. In the aftermath, he's also proven shrewd enough to draft a new rule, whereby coaches like Fulmer are directed to run with allegations to their athletic director or president, not to NCAA gumshoes. The idea obviously fits Slive's ambitious plan to get his arms around the SEC's bad-boy image.
As for Fulmer, Slive wanted him in town for the media give-and-take, regardless of the potential for a crude reception from the locals.
"I'm the commissioner and I wanted everybody here on my media day,'' Slive said convincingly. "I'm disappointed he is not here.''
Slive, bless him, is an honorable guy, but the off-the-field messes he inherited a few years ago when he stepped into the job won't ever completely go away. Big-money sports are accompanied with a lot of baggage, and SEC football is as big as it gets.
So when head coaches weren't bragging to the media about their backup left tackles or promising to take it one game at a time this fall, they found themselves besieged in Birmingham by questions about discipline. First-year Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom wooed the gathering with his succinct, no-nonsense approach to tidying up the loose ship he inherited from Jackie Sherrill. On the opposite end, Florida coach Ron Zook seemed at times clueless to explain a rash of criminal acts involving his charges this summer -- or the resultant punishments.
Slive, never too far from the spotlight, sat in the back of the large conference room and took it all in. The biggest part of his job is to keep the money flowing -- the conference distributed a record $108 million in revenue to its members this past year -- and to make sure the SEC doesn't evolve into a modern-day version of the old, scandal-ridden Southwest Conference.
With that in mind, Slive is pushing to have every SEC team off of NCAA probation by 2008. That's nice in theory, but four schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn -- are currently serving probation, while penalties are likely to be soon handed out against Georgia and Mississippi State.
Even if the Georgia and Mississippi State penalties don't extend through 2008, that means no other SEC school can screw up in the meantime. That's why Slive is working all precincts to clean up the messes and to quiet the whistle-blowers.
"We've had enough serious cases that the people associated with our programs, both inside and outside, are now aware of the damage that these issues can do,'' Slive said. "I continue to remind people that when we started to become a great league, we didn't have the Big 12 in its current form and ACC in its current form. We have all the competition we can stand outside the conference. What we don't need is the line that 'We met the enemy and it is us.'''
That's the case, right now. And it has been for a while.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.