HOOVER, Ala. — Five years ago, Mike Slive stood before this annual throng of sports reporters and declared that within that period of time no athletic program in the Southeastern Conference would be on NCAA probation.

Naturally, there were snickers.

Even a couple of hoots.

When it comes to cheating, SEC football has always been considered a kissing cousin to NASCAR, where the old saying is that if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.

When the commissioner made that outrageous declaration, about half the schools in the league were serving time for recruiting felonies of some sort. The other half just hadn't been caught.

But to everybody's surprise, Slive reported Wednesday that, indeed, the league is almost completely probation-free.

The only conference sport on probation is Arkansas track.

Hard to believe.

Holy wars

When asked how long it had been since someone in this league wasn't wearing leg irons, Slive thought about the question for a moment before answering, "I really don't know. But it's been a long time."

Such is the history of this highly competitive conference, where recruiting is a religion, complete with holy wars and jihads against rival schools.

That, in fact, is exactly what Slive set out to change. And his challenge of five years ago for programs to clean up their acts has apparently worked.

But is it really wise to assume there's no more cheating in the SEC?

"I can only tell you that when issues arise, our schools have handled these matters in a very, very, very honest way and a very effective way," he said. "The proof is in the pudding.

"As we stand here today, the most satisfying accomplishment for me is the combination of the fact that we are essentially probation-free and as competitively good as we've ever been.

"We've put to rest the old chestnut, so to speak, that if you didn't do it a certain way you couldn't win."

Rearview mirror

If things have indeed changed for the better in this dog-eat-dog league, perhaps there is hope for college football overall.

"This signifies a cultural shift," Slive insisted. "Those days are gone. We have good enough coaches and good enough student-athletes and we've got great institutions. Those days are in our rearview mirror."

Skeptics, of course, say the lack of schools behind bars is a result of a new wave of self-reporting tactics among member institutions that help mitigate the harsher penalties of the past. And this isn't to say there won't be problems in the future.

"If we believe that history teaches, we can anticipate one or more of our institutions making a mistake," Slive said. "And that will happen."

But, regardless of the reasons for this sea change, the fact is the league looks pretty clean these days.

"I believed it was a realistic goal when I said it five years ago," Slive said. "I could tell when I was looking at all of you when I said it that you probably wanted to commit me somewhere.

"What I sensed was not cynicism, it was skepticism, which is not as hard to deal with when you believe in something. Now, I think some of the skepticism is starting to evaporate."

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598.