HOOVER, Ala. — When Mike Slive took over as commissioner of the SEC in 2002, it was a conference battered by the reputation of a rogue league with a win-at-all-costs attitude.
At the time, the NCAA had found SEC football programs guilty of nine major infractions during the previous 12 years, more than twice the number of any other major conference.
Every SEC school had been accused of major rules infractions in various sports at least once since 1990.
Slive, a former attorney and district judge who was once part of a law firm that advised schools on problems with the NCAA, vowed to clean up the conference. He set the lofty goal of having no programs under NCAA sanctions in five years.
After achieving that briefly in 2008, the SEC has again found itself with multiple teams ensnared in NCAA controversy.
Yet as he begins his 10th academic year at the helm of the SEC, Slive is not deterred.
"I know what you all thought when I said in five years nobody would be on probation, but in 2008 we were right there," Slive said last week at SEC Media Days. "Then we've had some setbacks. One of the things, and we're not happy about this, but one of the things that has been learned that I know is different from when we came is we are going to have issues. There are going to be problems. But how you handle it is important."
Slive does not shy away from his league's problems, but he said the SEC is not alone, and that reality isn't always as bad as the perception. He added that NCAA investigations and sanctions on schools across America have provided a negative perception of big-time college sports that "casts a shadow over the extraordinary student-athletes throughout the country" and demands change.
A day before his annual state-of-the-league speech on Wednesday, the NCAA placed LSU on one-year probation for major violations in recruiting a junior college football player. Tennessee and Auburn are waiting on verdicts from pending investigations.
Normally this time of year, with more than 1,000 reporters attending media days in Hoover, Ala., Slive would have touted the accomplishments of the SEC over the past year.
The league had either the national champion or runnerup in 10 sports in 2010-11. Fourteen student-athletes earned NCAA post-graduate scholarships, the second-highest total of Division I-A conferences, and three earned the Elite 88 award, for the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade point average in an NCAA championships event. SEC schools have won the past five BCS national championships.
But Slive skipped all of that.
"We don't have the luxury of acting as if it's business as usual," he said. "As NCAA president Mark Emmert has observed, the events giving rise to these headlines indicate that intercollegiate athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt."
For those he governs, Slive has not. His most lasting achievement might be the 15-year, multi-billion dollar television contract he negotiated with CBS and ESPN in 2008 — at the time unprecedented in college athletics.
But league coaches and officials say he's also passionate about academic reform and pushing the "student" part of student-athlete.
"I think he's got some wonderful ideas and some tremendous input in the direction of college football," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has been a head coach in the league for 10 years. "I also think that he listens to the input we have as coaches and carries that to our administrators so that we are represented as a group. We certainly appreciate that. I think his accomplishments in this league have been very, very positive in terms of the progress we've made in the SEC throughout his tenure here. I think any intention he has of anything that he does is for the betterment of our league and college football."
At 71, Slive has a contract that runs through July 2012, and he has said he has no timetable for stepping down. But last week he spoke about new proposals for more reform in college athletics that suggested a sense of urgency.
• Redefine benefits available to student athletes, including extending the six-year window for athletes to finish their degree under scholarship and multi-year scholarships for athletes (currently they are one-year renewable).
• Strengthen academic eligibility requirements for incoming freshmen and two-year transfers.
• An increase of the requirements for initial eligibility from a 2.0 GPA to 2.5 in 16 core classes and the restoration of partial qualifiers. Athletes who meet the old criteria but fall short of new standards could enroll on scholarship and practice but not compete during their first year.
• Changes in or "modernizing" recruiting rules, which would include removing restrictions on coaches using phone calls, text messaging and social media to contact recruits.
SEC coaches had mixed emotions about some of the proposed changes but said they ultimately believe Slive is looking out for athletes' best interests.
"I put a lot of trust in Commissioner Slive," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said.
The presidents at Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida will represent the SEC at an NCAA-sponsored retreat in August where many of those issues are expected to be addressed. Slive said he hopes his proposals and other ideas will "establish what might be called a national agenda for change."
And once again, Slive plans to be at the forefront.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]