Rabalais: It may not be ‘Division IV,’ but Mike Slive knows change is coming

The Southeastern Conference is used to being a heavy favorite. Calling the shots. Getting its way.

The SEC, like its fellow big five conferences and Notre Dame — call them the Big 65 — wants autonomy from its less-moneyed NCAA brethren. A change in governance. The right to choose to pay student-athletes stipends or add a 10th football assistant coach without giving a fig about what anyone at Grand Canyon or Old Dominion has to say about it.

This is likely to happen. One is tempted to say almost certain to happen. There will be a meeting of the NCAA Board of Directors in August, at which time said august body is expected to approve autonomy — if it knows what’s good for it.

But just in case, in the interest of erasing doubt and stacking odds, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive rattled some sabers Friday during his closing remarks at the SEC Spring Meeting.

If you assembled a police lineup of college athletics power brokers, Slive is not the suspect you would pick. A slight, unassuming man, he chooses his words carefully and rarely if ever raises his voice.

He doesn’t have to. As the leader of arguably the most powerful conference in America, Slive can afford to speak softly when backed by big sticks like LSU and Alabama and Florida and Tennessee.

But when Slive speaks, like E.F. Hutton in those old stock brokerage commercials, people listen.

Especially when he breaks out the number four.

I’m somewhat optimistic it will pass,” Slive said. “If it doesn’t, I think our league will want to move to Division IV.”

Whoa. What? Did he say Division IV?

There is no such animal as NCAA Division IV. As most of you following along at home know, the SEC schools are among the 300-plus members of Division I.

Slive wants the SEC and the rest of the Big 65 to remain within Division I.

He’s firm on that.

But there is the Division IV option out there. And there is also the nuclear option of taking their gold-plated ball and starting their own NCAA-like organization. If. The. Big. 65. Don’t. Get. Their. Way.

Capiche?

Pressed on the matter, Slive softened on the “somewhat optimistic” comment. But the man who is arguably the strongman of the NCAA’s Five Families is firm on this being the only way to go to keep the union together.

“From day one, we have said we believe the NCAA is the appropriate umbrella organization for college athletics,” Slive said. “Everything we’ve done and thought about is in the context of being in the NCAA.

“We want to be in the NCAA and all be in Division I. It’s certainly my hope that this is how it all works out. I do believe it’s in the best interests of college athletics. The collegiate model is not only incredibly important and valuable to our institutions and our student-athletes, but it’s part of the DNA of American culture. Something that deserves to be protected, that needs to be allowed to grow and evolve for generations to come.”

Slive was in a sense playing the “tradition” card, a familiar thread for the SEC and its “preserve the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry at all costs” sensibilities.

But change, Slive also noted, is inevitable. And to that end, he said the NCAA needs to adapt to 21st century realities.

“We need to face up to change,” he said. “It will create a lot of different issues for us. It will create a need for us to evaluate how we use our resources.”

An impassioned plea, indeed. And one that probably is overkill as far as NCAA autonomy and governance reform is concerned. But Slive was rolling.

“I’m optimistic,” Slive said, reworking his stance. “When there was (an NCAA) forum in San Diego in January, it was about 70 percent in terms of those who were in favor of autonomy and those who were OK with it.

“But it is time. I do believe this is a historic moment. If we don’t seize the moment, we will be making a mistake.”

It’s a mistake the NCAA is unlikely to make, if there is going to be an NCAA going forward. An NCAA that still has big-time members that help pay its bills and fund its many championships over three divisions.

The SEC, as usual, is going to win this one.