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He just walked in one day. Everyone at Salem’s Diner immediately knew who he was – in Alabama, the SEC commissioner is a very, very big deal – but no one was quite sure why he was there. Turned out, Mike Slive simply wanted a diner like he remembered from back home. He was looking for a place to call his own.

And he immediately owned the place.

“He came in and grabbed the coffee pot off the coffeemaker,” said Wayne Salem, the owner and proprietor, recalling that first day, several years ago, “and he just started walking around and filling coffee mugs.”

It is a testament to a “remarkable life” – those were the words of Greg Sankey, Slive’s successor as SEC commissioner – that upon news of Slive’s death Wednesday afternoon, at 77, it was hard to know where to begin with the tributes.

He was one of the most influential figures in the history of college athletics. He presided over the SEC as the conference rose to unprecedented heights – and he helped set it up to stay there with TV deals and expansion and a conference network. He was a catalyst in creating the College Football Playoff, working toward that goal for years after an unbeaten Auburn team was left out of the 2004 BCS championship game. He was a driving force in achieving autonomy for the Power Five conferences.

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The list could go on and on and on. And that’s without getting into Slive’s previous tenures as commissioner of two other conferences or his accomplishments in previous careers as an attorney and a district judge. Or, as he loved to tell, when he was a meat cutter in college, a member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of America, Local District 1.

All of which makes it more remarkable to think that, on so many mornings, a significant slice of that remarkable life took place in a deliciously greasy spoon in a strip mall in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, Ala.

Salem’s is known for its Philly cheesesteak and its breakfasts. Monday through Friday, it’s open from 6 a.m. to about 1:45 p.m.; on Saturday, until 3. Walk in, like Slive did that first day, and sensory overload is a real possibility. The grill sizzles. Various aromas – coffee, bacon, eggs and more – compete and intertwine. Photos hang next to sports memorabilia (some of Wayne’s father Ed, who played at Alabama and played in the NFL). On a TV hung high, the SEC Network plays.

And in a booth in the back, the SEC commissioner often hung out.

“I just lost somebody as dear to me as I can think of,” Wayne Salem said Wednesday evening, adding: “It’s very depressing. I lost a big buddy.”

To anyone who’d accompanied Slive to breakfast and watched him interact with Salem and his regular customers, it was clear the feelings were mutual. He came in two and sometimes three times a week. And if he was something of a celebrity, he was treated as one of the guys, and loved every minute of it.

“He just got friendly with everybody,” Salem said. “You know when Mike comes in a room, he just sort of takes over and everybody just sort of goes to him – you know? He just felt comfortable in the place.”

Sometimes Slive came alone. Sometimes he brought Liz, his wife of 49 years, or his daughter Anna Slive Harwood. On Saturday mornings, he brought Abigail, his granddaughter, for a pancake or maybe French toast.

Often, he met business colleagues and occasionally even journalists; several college football writers had semi-annual dates there with Slive, before he retired and especially after. Over biscuits and honey – or for Slive, an egg white omelet with onion and tomato, but hold the cheese – there were no notebooks or recorders, just good breakfast and better conversation.

“Now we’re just talking here as friends,” Slive would say.

But he wasn’t revealing any secrets, anyway. He was more likely asking for updates on your children or telling you about Abigail’s latest adventure.

Whatever the group’s makeup, they’d wedge into his booth in the back of the restaurant. Literally, Slive’s name was on a plaque affixed to the wall; the back booth was reserved; when he arrived, never mind that the restaurant has very few seats, it was his space. And Salem’s was his place.

“He wanted to eat and he needed to eat, but I think he came there for the camaraderie,” Salem said. “That and the coffee.”

After one cup of half-regular, half-decaffeinated, Slive would switch to decaf-only – and “he’d drink two pots.” And sometimes he’d go around the restaurant refilling everybody’s cup.

“You would have thought his best friend could’ve been a streetcar conductor,” Salem added. “There was no flaunting anything. You wouldn’t know Mike Slive – what you’ve read about him in the newspapers, what all he’s done – how he was as a person was just totally different. They broke the mold when they made him.”

A few days ago, Slive and I traded text messages and tentatively made plans to get together when I traveled to Birmingham. We never set a date; I know now he was ailing, and in and out of the hospital over the last couple of weeks as his health suddenly declined. But we were meeting for breakfast, and there was only one destination.

Salem’s will feel empty without him.

“I just can’t believe I’m not gonna see him come sit in his booth,” Wayne Salem said – but know this: “That booth will be Mike Slive’s as long as I’m here.”

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