Michael L. Slive, the former Southeastern Conference commissioner who was instrumental in turning it into arguably the most prominent college sports conference in the country, died Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. He was 77.
His death was announced by the SEC. The conference did not specify a cause.
Slive, who became the conference commissioner in 2002, was an influential champion for the College Football Playoff, which was implemented in 2014. And he considered it an important part of his legacy that, in 2003, Mississippi State made Sylvester Croom the first black head football coach in the conference’s history.
“It was clear it was not only an athletic decision,” Slive told The Times in 2015. “It impacted the state, the region, and it really helped vault the SEC from a regional to a national conference.”
When Slive joined the league after leaving his job as the Conference USA commissioner, the SEC, a conference as proud as its region, had several members mired in N.C.A.A. sanctions, and in the previous decade had won just three titles in its signature sport, football. With a background in compliance — he was a lawyer (and former judge) who had represented schools in N.C.A.A. issues — he instituted a compliance initiative that helped clean up the league.
Slive, who stepped down as SEC commissioner in 2015 to deal with a recurrence of prostate cancer, is survived by his wife of 49 years, Liz, as well as a daughter, Anna, and a granddaughter, the conference said.
During his tenure, SEC teams won eight football titles, including a run of seven in a row. Led by the dominance of Alabama, SEC football became a national sensation and a regional obsession, with a four-days-long conference media session outside Birmingham that attracts hundreds of fans every year. The league has also enjoyed major success in baseball, gymnastics and women’s basketball, and its success in football set the foundation for a renewed focus on men’s basketball.
Under Slive, the SEC was a winner during the latest bout of conference realignment, adding Missouri and Texas A&M to its ranks in 2012. Two years later, it launched the SEC Network in partnership with ESPN. The SEC has become, along with the Big Ten, one of the richest leagues in the country, distributing more than $40 million to each of its full members last year, according to the conference.
A native of Utica, N.Y., who attended Dartmouth and the University of Virginia Law School, Slive was known for peppering his annual kick-off addresses at media days with allusions: to Mark Twain and “Star Wars,” James Baldwin and Nelson Mandela.
Listing the conference’s achievements in 2014, he added, “As Muhammad Ali said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up.’”