It all started at Standard Life Building

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Notes, quotes and an opinion or two, while considering the home office of the Southeastern Conference, surely the mostly wildly successful league in college sports history, was first centrally located in downtown Jackson:

It was, you know – not that many people have known it until now. Martin Sennet “Mike” Conner was named the league's first full-time commissioner in 1940. He was a most remarkable man.

How remarkable? Conner, born in Hattiesburg and raised in Seminary, was a Yale-educated lawyer. In 1916, at age 24, Conner was elected to serve in the Mississippi House of Representatives where he quickly, at age 25, became the Speaker of the House. In 1931, he was elected governor, succeeding Theodore Bilbo.

As Conner's term began in 1932, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Mississippi's state's treasury was exhausted, unemployment was at a record high and the state's colleges and universities had lost their accreditation. The state was $13 million in debt.

Said Conner, “We assume our duties when men are shaken with doubt and with fear, and many are wondering if our very civilization is about to crumble...”

By the time Conner's four-year term was finished all those woes had been solved.

By comparison, Conner's next job – that of SEC Commissioner – might have seemed like child's play.

At the time, the SEC consisted of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tulane, Tennessee, Florida and Sewanee.

Conner operated out of his law office on the 13th floor of the then-new Standard Life Building. He had a two-person staff: himself and his secretary.

From that two-person office, the Southeastern Conference has grown into a college sports giant that last year distributed more than $627 million among its now 14 members. The league has accounted for more than 200 national sports championships.

Until 1940, the league had operated out of campus offices. Conner then served for six years, before health problems hastened his retirement in 1946. Dean N. W. Dougherty of Tennessee then served until 1948 when Bernie Moore became the league's second full-time commissioner and moved the SEC home office to Birmingham where it remains today.

Amazingly, current SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is only the league's eighth full-time commissioner. Sankey was to be in Jackson last Wednesday for dedication of a historic marker, designating the SEC's original office at the Standard Life Building.

Southern Miss, which didn't receive a bowl bid in 2018, will certainly go bowling somewhere in 2019 after the claiming its seventh victory over the season last Saturday at UTSA. The Golden Eagles take a 7-3 record into Saturday's home game with Western Kentucky and still have hopes of playing for the Conference USA Championship.

USM and Louisiana Tech are tied at the top of the CUSA West Division with 5-1 records, but Tech holds the tie-breaker by virtue of its earlier victory over USM. The Golden Eagles still have two tough league games remaining: Western and then at 7-3 Florida Atlantic. Tech plays at UAB and then plays host to UTSA. No matter what happens in the league race, USM will go bowling somewhere.

CUSA has primary tie-ins with the Gasparilla Bowl (in St. Petersburg vs. Atlantic Coast Conference), the Bahamas Bowl (vs. MAC), Gildan New Mexico Bowl (vs. Mountain West), the New Orleans Bowl (vs. Sun Belt) and the First Responders Bowl in Dallas (vs. Big 12). CUSA has secondary tie-ins with the Independence Bowl (if ACC or SEC can't fill a spot), the Frisco (Texas) Bowl (if American Athletic or MAC can't fill a spot) and the Hawaii Bowl. USM, coming off three one-sided victories over Rice, UAB and UTSA, will go somewhere.

People ask me all the time: “What's the best quote you ever got from someone you covered?” My stock answer is that it was actually was a “no comment” I got from Kalpatrick Wells, when I was interviewing him about problems within the Mississippi State basketball program way back in 1980. Said Wells (a great, if sometimes reticent, guy): “I ain't saying nothing to nobody about nothing.”

How do you follow-up after that? I didn't know then, and I don't now.

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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1. He drove a blue ‘77 Chevy Nova in high school. 2. He played on Jackson Prep’s 1985 and 1986 state championship basketball teams.