Standard Life Building was SEC’s first home

Rick Cleveland 2007.jpg
Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

Author’s note: Had a wonderful lunch today at Adobo, on the first floor of the renovated Standard Life Building. (I highly recommend the Vietnamese sandwich.) Everyone I talked to at the Standard Life Building was surprised to learn the first centralized office of the Southeastern Conference was housed in the 13th floor of that building. It was, as was detailed in this column of Sept. 11, 2009.

You write sports in this state for more than four decades, you think you know a little something about the history and heritage of the games Mississippians play.

Then comes the occasional reminder there’s so much you don’t know, such as this, learned only last week: The wildly successful Southeastern Conference housed its first offices on the 13th floor of the old Standard Life Building in downtown Jackson. Martin Sennett (Mike) Conner, former Mississippi governor, was the league’s first commissioner. The SEC operated out of Jackson from 1940 until 1948 when it moved its offices to Birmingham.

That’s right: Before billion dollar TV contracts, before Bear Bryant or Babe McCarthy coached and before Archie Manning was born, the SEC’s home was just around the corner from The Mayflower Cafe. (Long live The Maylower!)

Conner, for whom Lake Mike Conner near Collins is now named, was a most remarkable man. Born in Seminary, he graduated first from Ole Miss and then from law school at Yale. He was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1915 at age 24, and then, believe it or not, became Speaker of the House in his first term.

“Mike Conner was a brilliant man, way ahead of his time,” says Mississippi historian David Sansing. “He has to go down as one of greatest governors.”

We will get to that. …

Football part of legacy

Conner, no athlete himself, was nonetheless an Ole Miss fan from his undergraduate days. He married Alma Graham Conner, part of the first cheerleading group of what is now Southern Miss.

Jackson lawyer Robert “Bob” Biggs, Conner’s grandson, was born only a year before Conner died at age 59 in 1950. He knows his grandfather only through the stories told to him by his father and by his grandmother, the former cheerleader, who lived to be 103.

Biggs now lives in the house on North State near Millsaps where his grandparents moved after leaving the Governor’s mansion in 1936.

“When we were remodeling the house I found several items of SEC correspondence from my grandfather’s days as commissioner,” Biggs says. “One in particular declares a Kentucky football player ineligible. You can tell from the way it is written that a lawyer, my grandfather, wrote it.”

Biggs says his grandmother loved to tell the story about when LSU came to play Ole Miss at the old state fairgrounds while Conner was still the governor.

“Huey P. Long (then a U.S. Senator from Louisiana) led the LSU band right down Capitol Street in his white suit with white shoes,” Biggs says, laughing at the story. “He stopped in front of the mansion, led a big LSU cheer, and then walked up to the front door and banged the door with his cane. The story goes that my grandfather knew he was out there, but wouldn’t go answer the door.”

Mississippi’s savior

William Winter, another renowned Mississippi historian, remains a great admirer of Mike Conner. Winter’s father introduced him to Conner when Winter was but 9 years old. Conner allowed young Winter to sit behind his desk, the same desk Winter would sit behind 48 years later in 1980 as Mississippi governor.

“In so many ways, Mike Conner was one of our greatest governors,” Winter says. “He was an absolutely brilliant man, but not a natural politician. He saved the state financially during the depression with the passage of the retail sales tax.”

Conner succeeded Theodore G. Bilbo as governor and, put kindly, inherited a mess. The treasury was exhausted (and the state was millions in debt), unemployment was at a record high, and the state’s institutions of higher learning were no longer accredited. By the time Conner’s term expired all those problems had been solved and the state had a surplus.

To say that Conner’s sales tax proposal was unpopular is a monstrous understatement. Hundreds marched on his office. One protester had a loaded pistol knocked from his hands.Conner stood firm. And he won a bitter fight.

“He saved the state,” Winter says.

2 firsts in Jackson

By contrast, his later job as first commissioner of the SEC must have seemed child’s play. Conner took the job in 1940 when the league was eight years old. Until then, the league had no commissioner or no central office. Dr. Frank L. McVey, president of the University of Kentucky, also served as president of the league until Conner’s hiring.

Current SEC commissioner Mike Slive is only the league’s seventh. Slive says he never knew the league’s offices were in Jackson, nor that the first SEC commissioner was, as he is, a lawyer.

Conner still practiced law while he was the commissioner. Not Slive.

“I’ve been clean since 1991,” Slive says, chuckling. “But it’s good to know I’m not the only commissioner who was a lawyer.”

Mike Conner was not only a lawyer; he was, as some of us have learned only recently, quite a man.

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