I’d known for years the first office of the Southeastern Conference was in downtown Jackson. I’m not sure how I first heard about that. Maybe I read it somewhere once, or perhaps Governor Martin Sennet Conner’s grandsons told me. I was in school with them at Ole Miss.
“Mike” Conner, an alumnus of the University of Mississippi, was governor of Mississippi from 1932-36. In 1932 the Southeastern Conference was organized. Four years after his term as governor ended, Conner became the first commissioner of the SEC. He operated the league’s business, along with assistance from one secretary, out of his office on the 13th floor of the Standard Life building in downtown Jackson.
Let that sink in for a moment. A commissioner and one assistant running the entire Southeastern Conference, which was originally 13 schools.
As governor, he led Mississippi through some of the deepest and darkest years of the depression. The state’s colleges and university (there was only one university then – the University of Mississippi) had lost their accreditation, and Conner resolved that situation by the end of his term with the schools back in good standing. The state of Mississippi was $14 million in debt in 1932, a massive amount in that era. He cleared that up in four years as well.
No wonder the SEC put him in charge of its young, fledgling sports league. Until poor health ended his tenure in the years after World War II, Conner also led the conference during the trying war years. In 1948 after Conner had stepped aside, the SEC office was relocated to Birmingham, Ala., where it remains today.
We all know the league it’s become. Legendary sportswriter and emcee Rick Cleveland, during a historical marker ceremony on the sidewalk outside the Standard Life building on Wednesday, mentioned that it’s the nation’s unquestioned college sports leader.
On Wednesday with Conner’s grandchildren and extended family in attendance, a Mississippi Department of Archives and History marker was unveiled to forever mark the spot where the SEC’s first office was located and where it came of age, certainly lasting through some difficult years to flourish like no other of its kind.
Ole Miss was represented by Chancellor Glenn Boyce, interim athletics director Keith Carter, and former sports information director Langston Rogers, while Mississippi State’s entourage included President Mark Keenum, athletics director John Cohen, and former sports information director and later athletics director Larry Templeton.
The SEC’s current commissioner, Greg Sankey, was in attendance and talked about the league’s growth through the years, from 13 original teams, the departure of Sewanee, Georgia Tech and Tulane, and the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina late in the last century and in this decade Texas A&M and Missouri. He saluted the early leadership of Governor Conner.
I highly doubt anyone in 1948 could have envisioned anything close to what the Southeastern Conference has become or how important it would have been to Mississippi for its headquarters to have stayed here. Now Mississippians can only lament its departure and look east to its spacious home in downtown Birmingham and more than 40 fulltime staffers.
Wednesday’s ceremony, under the bright blue sky and an unusually warm November sun wasn’t meant to necessarily recognize the SEC of today but to make sure there’s a visible reminder of where the league put down roots on its way to becoming college athletics’ most powerful and lucrative group of universities.
And also to recognize the man who first served as its appointed leader, the former governor turned commissioner in a difficult but simpler time for college sports.
It’s always good to have reminders of those who came before, who they were, what they did, and why their significance is often still felt, in this case, the visionary Governor Mike Conner of Mississippi, the first commissioner of the SEC.
Jeff Roberson is a contributor to HottyToddy.com. He has written sports for three decades with most of that time spent at the Oxford Eagle daily newspaper and the Ole Miss Spirit magazine and website. He is the author of Midnight Train, the life story of former Ole Miss quarterback and Hall of Fame songwriter Jim Weatherly.HERE!