The Greg Sankey experience: Sometimes a bully, sometimes a statesman


DESTIN, Fla. — Greg Sankey saw the columns. He saw the social media posts too, because despite being one of the most powerful people in college sports — maybe the most powerful — he readily admits he looks at Twitter and the comments.

And so Sankey knows he has become the villain.

For some, he already was, by virtue of his job as the commissioner of the SEC or for being seen as launching realignment with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas or for lobbying for his teams to make the College Football Playoff or … take your pick. But then Sankey grabbed the biggest lightning rod in March by seeming to mess with the NCAA basketball tournament’s calling card of Cinderellas.

“Who in here wrote the nasty articles about me and the (automatic qualifiers) comment?” Sankey asked a room of reporters on Thursday at the SEC meetings.

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Sankey was smiling. A few pointed their fingers playfully at fellow reporters. Then Sankey went into one of his typically long comments, including a mild defense of considering changes to the NCAA Tournament, but then an acknowledgment about the larger lesson.

“But just the articles written after my comment, and the reaction, show you how unique that experience is to our culture,” Sankey said. “And I meant that then respectfully, and I mean that now respectfully. But we have to recognize the differences that exist within the group that pursues that brass ring of tournament access opportunity.”

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Greg Sankey and the SEC wrapped up the conference’s spring meetings on Thursday. (Seth Emerson / The Athletic)

That last phrase was a big phrase where “NCAA bid” would have sufficed. Sankey uses big language and speaks like an academic. He’s also an institutionalist, someone who came up through the college athletics system, a system that has changed so much and continues to change. It has been fair to wonder if college sports need fresher voices, ones who didn’t come up through the old system, to guide them into the new era.

Well, Sankey’s going to try.

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Five months ago, a frustrated Sankey picked up the phone. It was a Saturday night after a frustrating week of meetings between the College Football Playoff committee, commissioners meetings and NCAA committees. All of those meetings, much like many others Sankey has been a part of the past year, went nowhere. Sankey had come to a realization: “You’re not going to solve the big problems in big rooms filled with people.”

And so there was Sankey picking up the phone to call Tony Petitti, the new Big Ten commissioner and former television executive. The two had been getting along well and working together more than Sankey did with previous Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, and Sankey was ready to take it to another level. The result was an announced partnership between the SEC and Big Ten, the two richest conferences in college sports.

“We have some really big problems. And it didn’t seem to me we were working to solve some of the medium problems,” Sankey said. “We weren’t really talking in some of those rooms about the really big issues. And I had thought for a good period of time that if the two conferences agree we could fill a leadership responsibility. Now we have to do that with people, and that was the genesis of the phone call.”

The tangible actions of that partnership are still unclear. The two conferences did not lead by themselves the settlement in the NCAA vs. House case, which would lead to revenue sharing with athletes. Sankey acknowledged the two conferences are going to “have to make independent decisions on a number of key things. We can’t solve every problem together.” It would seem they are prevented for antitrust reasons from colluding on things like realignment.

“I want to be clear, it’s not an alliance,” Sankey said Thursday, choosing his words intentionally, given that the previous alliance saw the Big Ten turn around and blow up the Pac-12. “It’s the ability for our leadership as presidents, chancellors and athletic directors to work together through some of these important issues. And we hope to draw people in as we work towards resolution of the challenges.”

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Draw in people? Sure. Be a bully or a villain? Sometimes a necessity.

There was one of those meetings last year that Sankey thought was ridiculous. It was the NCAA “transformation” committee, which was supposed to be blue sky thinking, no bad ideas, but it wasn’t producing any good ideas and had an argument about something for 40 minutes that could’ve taken five minutes. Remembering it Thursday, Sankey asked why, as SEC commissioner, he could invite Oklahoma and Texas to join and sign a media deal with Disney but wasn’t allowed to appoint a member to a women’s golf committee. Peak NCAA bureaucracy.

There was another event, where there was a presentation from a name, image and likeness working group. The floor was opened for questions on the biggest subject in college sports — and nobody spoke. Sankey jumped in to make his annoyance clear.

“I was a jerk. OK? I was a jerk,” Sankey said. “I try not to be a jerk all of the time or most of the time. But sometimes you have to be a jerk.”

Other people who might think Sankey is a jerk are people at non-power conferences, who complained about being stuck paying a share of the House settlement, despite most of the ills having been among the power conferences. Sankey’s counter is he was on the other side of that as the Southland Conference commissioner in the 1990s, when everyone had to pay out damages in the restricted earnings case. (The NCAA had limited basketball staffs to two assistant coaches and a third earning $12,500. There was a lawsuit, the NCAA lost, and damages ensued. Did the NCAA learn its lesson? Narrator’s voice, no it did not.)

Nine years ago, Sankey was promoted to commissioner of the SEC, where he had worked the previous decade. At a retirement ceremony for outgoing commissioner Mike Slive, another former commissioner, Roy Kramer, rose to give a long toast and at one point told SEC officials: “Greg’s going to need your support because he’s going to navigate uncharted waters.”

Nobody quite knew just how uncharted.

There are too many people in college sports who didn’t foresee the changes coming and didn’t do enough to get ahead of them. Sankey was one of them but not the most at fault. There is collective blame, including former NCAA president Mark Emmert, but mostly it was the system, as in too many wedded to the notions of amateurism amid the inequity of players as unpaid labor while billions of dollars poured in to schools, conferences and the NCAA.

Sankey, however, could still come out on the other side of all this as part of the solution. Sankey also guided his program through realignment without being poached, in fact emerging as one of the Power 2.

He remains an institutionalist. When asked Thursday if Division I should stay together, or whether all that binds it together is the basketball tournaments, Sankey essentially said that could be enough: “What is it that creates the bind in Division I? I think it does come down to March. Now that is an opinion, it’s not analytics-driven. Can it stay together? Yes.”

He said “can,” not “will” or even “should.” Sankey is an institutionalist, but he’s also a pragmatist. He’s fine being the villain sometimes. There are times as commissioner, he said, he needs to be a bully and times he needs to be a statesman.

“I think we walk out of here with an understanding that we’re heading to a new chapter,” Sankey said. “We’re going to have to manage transition. But fully prepared and committed across the board at the athletic director and president and chancellor level to take a leadership role in that change.”

And with that Sankey exited the room, lingering for a few minutes to talk with reporters, then headed upstairs to pack and go home. Sometimes a jerk, sometimes a bully, sometimes a statesman. And if Sankey has to be a villain to save the state, he’ll be fine with that.

(Top photo: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)



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