In his first six months as SEC commissioner, Greg Sankey has visited each of the league’s 14 campuses, has attended 17 football games (including two in one day twice) and has hired six people for the conference staff.
This week, he is in Atlanta, overseeing his first SEC Championship football game as commissioner.
Before succeeding Mike Slive in one of the more powerful positions in college athletics on June 1, Sankey was the SEC’s No. 2 executive. Now he knows what it’s like to move from assistant coach to head coach.
“It’s a whirlwind,” he said.
Sankey slowed down long enough for a wide-ranging interview, edited here for length, with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Q: Has the new job changed your life in some ways?
A: The first one is it never stops. I was watching Mark Richt’s press conference Monday and saw him comment on being at Florida State as offensive coordinator, saying you’re there in the chair next to the (top) job but don’t know the job until you’re in the job. And that’s really what the reality is.
Q: Are you finding it beneficial that you didn’t grow up in SEC territory and didn’t attend an SEC school?
A: I go back to a conversation I had with Steve Spurrier the day he was hired (at South Carolina). He asked me where I was from. (Auburn, N.Y.) He said, ‘That’s what we needed — someone who doesn’t care who wins and who loses.’ I think you can look at it any number of ways. I don’t have any direct affiliation with our universities, and I think that’s a positive for me, yet I’ve been around the SEC for the past 13 years and have lived in Louisiana, Texas or Alabama since 1989. So I’ve spent most of my life, actually, in the SEC’s geographic footprint. It’s just that Texas didn’t know it during the years I lived there.
Q: Are you reorganizing the conference office?
A: Yeah. We’ve had some people that have departed, and we’ve added some others. I’m finalizing the creation of functional areas and reporting structure. We have, over late October into mid-November, hired six people. Byron Hatch, for example, is now our assistant commissioner in the competition area and director of our football championship game. Byron worked previously at the University of Arkansas and before that was a member of the NCAA staff working on the Final Four. We hired Misty Brown, who was at Georgia State, a former Florida women’s basketball player, for one of the roles most important to me, that of director of student-athlete engagement. It’s a new position that is part of the vision of … how we might re-imagine our interaction with our student-athletes from the conference office … to make sure we engage young people in governance conversations and leadership opportunities and in their own personal development.
Q: You signed a contract to keep the football championship game in Atlanta through 2026 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. What made you comfortable committing for such a long term to a stadium still under construction?
A: Atlanta has been an outstanding home for us. Downtown has been great, (as have) the Georgia World Congress Center and the staff of the Georgia Dome. We have developed over time relationships with the Atlanta Falcons’ staff and have a great deal of confidence in their ability (to operate the new stadium). For our conference championship game to be in what will become one of the best venues in the country, if not the world, is something we very much wanted.
Q: Did the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium or any city try to lure the game away?
A: We really focused on Atlanta from the beginning. If we had not had the opportunity that materialized, there were certainly other places that would have been part of the conversation. I go back to the history and observe that there has been great success, which produces great comfort. That doesn’t mean we are satisfied necessarily. We’ve got to continue to challenge ourselves. But Atlanta has become home for that game.
Q: Nick Saban said Georgia’s firing of Mark Richt made him wonder what the world is coming to in his profession. Did you have similar thoughts, or what were your thoughts, upon hearing Richt was out?
A: I really focused on: Fifteen years as a head football coach at one institution, certainly in the Southeastern Conference, is a pretty remarkable tenure these days. … I didn’t necessarily think about what’s the profession coming to, but really had an appreciation of what Mark has accomplished over 15 years and the expectation, knowing Greg (McGarity, UGA athletic director) like I do and Jere Morehead (UGA president), there’s an opportunity to continue to have success in the future under new leadership.
Q: What was your reaction to the stand taken by Missouri football players (who protested the school’s response to complaints of racism on campus by saying they wouldn’t play or practice until the university system president resigned, which he did)?
A: One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind is for all of the people and the critics who have observed that student-athletes are not engaged as students and as participants on campus, that circumstance certainly suggests otherwise. It’s not the first time teams have taken stands on certain issues, but certainly was very prominent on a dynamic issue on campus. I would hope, going forward, that we can work collectively on our campuses and in our athletics departments to engage in the kind of dialogue and building of relationships and addressing issues that don’t result in those circumstances. … There are ways to resolve issues that don’t result in that kind of we’re-not-going-to-participate stance.
Q: If a four-team college-football playoff is a good thing, why wouldn’t an eight-team playoff be better?
A: We have seen over the last few weeks how the four-team playoff increases attention on the regular season. If we were to talk about expanding the playoff numbers, I think we have to be very careful about not interrupting the focus on the regular season. I would also expect that there would be a lot of conversation if we added just four more teams to create that eight-team playoff: Do we alter the number of games in the regular season? Do we alter conference-championship games? When do we play those (additional playoff) games? Also, from my experience when I was Southland Conference commissioner in the then I-AA playoff days, you understand the toll continuing rounds of playoffs take on the student-athletes, coaches, staff. I think that I would not necessarily foreclose the opportunity, but I do think we’d want to be very, very careful before we even had any discussion of expanding the playoff.
Q: Does it make you cringe for teams with 5-7 records to play in bowl games (as several will this season)?
A: I’m not a fan or an advocate for that. Affording 6-6 teams the opportunity for bowl games, I want to see that continue. But I’m not convinced that 5-7 teams participating in bowl games is the wisest direction for college football.
Q: It has been quiet on the conference-expansion front for a while. How long will that last?
A: You’ve now hit the two questions I’m most frequently asked — when will the College Football Playoff expand and when will the conference expand again? Conference expansion has not been a front-burner issue in this conference for a number of years. What you can learn from history is that (former SEC commissioners) Roy (Kramer) and Mike (Slive) focused on running this conference exceedingly well, making sure things were done with excellence. I have that same view. And excellence in a conference is attractive. That doesn’t beget the notion that something is about to happen, but the Southeastern Conference has proven to be a great home for our 14 member institutions currently.
Q: Do you expect the SEC to still be at 14 members five years from now?
A: I have no expectations otherwise.
Q: Looking to 2016, what are the top few items on your agenda?
A: We obviously have issues related to litigation that are front and center in college athletics, and that requires a great amount of focus and time. The second is we’re in the second year of the SEC Network; we’ve had great success and want to ensure that continues. As we look nationally, I think we need to reengage as the five (power) conferences on how we deploy this autonomy we have been provided and how we make sure it meets the expectations and needs of our student-athletes. I’m going to keep going. How do we make sure that the game-day experiences around our contests in all sports continue to attract the kind of fan participation and support that we have enjoyed? And we had a reality a few weeks ago on the international scene (in Paris) that has changed security demands and security expectations around our championship game. I don’t think that is something we just isolate around our football championship game but is a continuing conversation for us as a conference, both for games on our campuses and our championships. And I think I’m now on six (agenda items): being mindful of the changing media landscape.
Q: Finally, what is the most important question I haven’t asked you here?
A: Well, we haven’t talked about men’s basketball. We’ve got four new coaches and have some outstanding freshmen. And I think one of the compliments to what has happened in this league over time is that you haven’t asked me any questions about enforcement issues. Right now we have none of our institutions on probation with the NCAA. There are always going to be challenges at this competitive a level, but if you rewound the tape about 15 years, we’re not seeing the kind of problems on a daily basis that we saw back in that time. We have to continue to operate our athletics programs within the boundaries of NCAA and conference rules.
GREG SANKEY AT A GLANCE
Position: SEC commissioner
Grew up in: Auburn, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in education from the State University of New York College at Cortland; master’s in education from Syracuse.
Previous positions: Joined the SEC staff as associate commissioner in 2002 and was promoted to executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer in 2012; commissioner of the Southland Conference, 1996-2002; assistant and associate commissioner of Southland Conference, 1992-1996; director of compliance and men’s golf coach at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.; director of intramural sports at Utica (N.Y.) College.
Family: He and his wife Cathy have two daughters, ages 22 and 19.