Unbelievable bowl experience with Mike Slive

Published: Friday, January 3, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 8:21 p.m.

The field was soaked with sweat and rain, the Iowa fans were screaming for blood, and Mike Slive was pacing the sideline at Raymond James Stadium.

“I thought this thing was over,” he said nervously.

Iowa had just returned a kickoff to the LSU 4-yard line in the waning minutes of the Outback Bowl and a sure win for the SEC was now in doubt. Slive had watched most of the fourth quarter, arriving with his entourage on the third leg of a three-bowl day.

It was a big day for the conference because three of its teams were playing and a win in Tampa would give the league its fifth win in six games in this bowl season. South Carolina was closing out a win in Orlando, and Slive was there for the last part of the second quarter and the start of the third. Georgia had lost in Jacksonville, and Slive was there for the first quarter.

When LSU recovered an onside kick to clinch the win, Slive was on the move again into the waiting car that would take him to the airport for a flight back to New Orleans and a Sugar Bowl gala New Year's night.

Tired? “Nothing a shower won't cure,” he said.

It was in Tampa where we parted ways. My bucket list day had been completed.

It was during one of Florida's bowl games in the state that I talked to the SEC commissioner and found out that it has been his ritual ever since he took the job 12 years ago. On New Year's Day, he sees three bowl games. It used to be the Capital One and Outback and then the Sugar, but since the Gator Bowl came on board for the league, he's made it an all-Florida journey.

“It's really to support the institutions and the bowl games,” he said as we stood on the sideline watching Iowa and LSU duke it out.

When Florida did not qualify for a bowl game this season, I asked the league if I could tag along with college football's most powerful commissioner. A few weeks later, I got my answer.

You may have a bucket list that includes the Great Wall of China or swimming with dolphins or playing golf at St. Andrews. But for someone who is a huge fan of college football, this was on mine — three bowl games in one day.

To say it lived up to expectations would be an understatement.

And for a guy who is all about access, to have three all-access passes on Wednesday was a dream come true. I felt like Wayne Campbell backstage at the Aerosmith concert in “Wayne's World 2.” I definitely was not worthy.

The trip started in Gainesville where my wife was sweet enough to agree to get up early and drive me to Jacksonville, then turn around and drive home. Really, did I outkick my coverage or what?

But she got it. She understood that this was a rare opportunity that would mean I would have a day to remember and she would also have to pick me up in Tampa when it was over.

It was surreal to say the least to walk into EverBank Field knowing I wouldn't be there for long. After a brunch in the south end zone with my brother, Tim, I headed to the press box where all the Georgia sports writers were wondering what the heck I was doing.

“You know Florida isn't here, right?” Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked.

The commish arrived a little before 11 a.m. for the noon kickoff after flying in from New Orleans where he had watched Texas A&M pull off the Chick-fil-A Bowl win in his hotel room with his family Tuesday night.

Our party included Mark Womack, the executive associate commissioner of the league, his son and a friend, and associate commissioner Herb Vincent, a longtime friend who was recently hired by the league.

Womack had made this journey many times before. For Vincent, it was his first time.

All three of the guys, who were still beaming over the Aggies' win, could not have been more accommodating.

Slive began to make his rounds, meeting with Georgia coach Mark Richt in the locker room, then back upstairs to meet with Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity in his box. Then it was back down to the field, escorted by Gator Bowl CEO Rick Catlett. Slive had a long chat with injured Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and then it was back upstairs to meet with Georgia president Jere Morehead.

One thing I learned about the commissioner — I was happy I wore sneakers because there isn't a lot of sitting around. The 73-year-old can move. And thanks to my bad knee, there really was some bowl-hopping.

Finally, we sat in the press box to watch some football. I was told we wouldn't be there long, but we did stay for almost the entire first quarter. Then, it was into a car and off to the airport with no score in the game.

In the plane, the iPhones were all tuned to the Gator Bowl. When we landed, they were back on their WatchESPN apps to see what was happening in the three games.

The pride of the league was oozing out of the three men as they checked the scores. You think of a commissioner as being more concerned with TV deals and scheduling, but these game results really mattered to Slive.

We talked about a number of things, including the new SEC Network, which recently hired Gator icon Tim Tebow.

“It was a great hire,” he said. “He'll do great.”

He explained the structuring of the new college football playoff (he joked that the Rose Bowl will be a nice “lead-in” on New Year's Day for the Sugar Bowl with the new system) and Womack and I chatted about the 2015 SEC schedule (the league will plan for 12 years of rotating opponents from the other divisions even though the SEC could go to nine games at some point).

And just like that, we were being whisked away in a car from the Orlando airport to see South Carolina and Wisconsin play.

It wasn't exactly a Chamber of Commerce day for the state of Florida with rain pelting all three games. But the Capital One Bowl had a huge crowd, the biggest of the three games we saw and it was electric. We walked into a suite just in time to see Steve Spurrier run that old double-reverse-throwback-to-the-quarterback play he used to run at Florida with Terry Dean and Doug Johnson. The touchdown brought a smile to the commissioner's face.

He posed with Capital One officials and hugged longtime committee members who treated him like a long-lost friend. The guy has an amazing amount of charisma, which is one reason he is the most effective commissioner in the game.

Then it was down to the field and across to the other side to see South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner in his box. I snuck into the press box for a minute, but then we were off again for a quick plane ride to Tampa.

During the trip, I asked Slive if he has a secret retirement age.

He thought for a long while and smiled.

“I do,” he said. “But I'm working. I love the people I work with and I love the people I work for and I love what I do.”

When we arrived in at Raymond James Stadium, Slive met with Outback Bowl executive director Jim McVay on the field. And he wandered in between photographers and mini-cams there and watched an exciting finish to the game.

Me? I just stood there soaking it all in. Three games in one day. It is a memory that will last forever.

We parted ways as they returned to New Orleans and I headed for a Tampa hotel. New Orleans is serving as Slive's headquarters during bowl season because of the league's tie-in with the Sugar Bowl and all of the functions that take place during bowl week there.

“And I couldn't get a good flight out of Birmingham for the championship game,” Slive said.

Ah, yes. He still has Pasadena and a shot at an eighth straight national title for the SEC. It's good to be the king.

My day ended up in the Outback Bowl hospitality room mainly because I wanted to see John James, who has run the hospy for 28 years and has become a buddy during Florida's trips there. It was the perfect way to end a perfect day.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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