Jackson once home to SEC

OK, you lived in Mississippi all your life and you think you know most everything there is to know about this state and its remarkable sports history. But did you know this?

The wildly successful Southeastern Conference – the kingpin of college sports leagues – housed its first offices on the 13th floor of the old Standard Life Building in downtown Jackson.

That’s right: Martin Sennett (Mike) Conner, former Mississippi governor and surely one of our best, was the league’s first commissioner. The SEC operated out of Jackson from 1940-1948 when it moved its offices to Birmingham.

It’s true. Long before billion dollar TV contracts and the SEC Network, before Bear Bryant or Babe McCarthy coached and before Archie Manning was born, the SEC’s home was just around the corner from the much-beloved Mayflower Cafe. (Long live The Mayflower!) In recent years, much of the Standard Life Building has been converted into apartments, which means somebody now lives and sleeps where the Southeastern Conference once operated.

Conner, for whom Lake Mike Conner near Collins is 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 – imagine this! – 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 our greatest governors.”

Sansing wrote the definitive book – Mississippi Governors: Soldiers Statesmen Scholars Scoundrels – on Mississippi governors. Conner would fit under the categories of statesmen and scholars. He certainly was no scoundrel.

Conner, no athlete himself, was 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. Indeed, Alma Conner was part of a committee that decided USM’s school colors would be black and gold.

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.

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 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.”

William Winter, another renowned Mississippi governor, remains to this day 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 has said. “He was an absolutely brilliant man… He saved the state financially during the Depression with the passage of the retail sales tax.”

Conner succeeded Theodore G. Bilbo as governor and 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. The sales tax was the first of its kind in the U.S. and helped bring Mississippi out of the depths of the Great Depression.

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.

Conner’s later job as first commissioner of the SEC must have seemed, in contrast, 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.

Conner shepherded the league during its early years. An educated guess: Conner had no more idea then of what the SEC would become than most Mississippians today have that the league was once located here.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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