DESTIN, Fla. — Greg Sankey is no longer a rookie.
The SEC commissioner officially entered his second year as Mike Slive‘s successor at the spring meetings this week. His anniversary was June 1, and like many people in leadership roles, he has learned a lot about himself and the job during the first year.
Sankey spoke at length about lessons he’s learned, the difficult decisions he has made and just how much he still leans on Slive for guidance at a small coffee shop in Mountainbrook, Alabama.
Now that you’ve been commissioner for a full year, what have been some things that have surprised you, difficult for you and things you’ve learned over this last year?
Man, what time does this press conference end?
Probably over the last three months, just thinking about time management and it’s been a really busy two years. We went through a search and then being named and then there was a bit of a period in there. June 1 last year all of a sudden you’re the commissioner. June 1 last year I took that day to send a lot of letters to people in my life at various points who put me to that point. There are people who helped me along the way that were — I had a while to think about who I’d write to. I wrote to my college baseball coach when I was a freshman, and he came to our basketball tournament because he lives near Nashville. His name is Robert Keefer. I was a backup catcher. And I told him — and I hadn’t seen him in 30-something years, like since ’83 — I hope you understand that year playing college baseball had a disproportionally positive effect on my life. If you wonder why I do what I do, I would point back to that year in some lessons that I learned directly from him and say that’s why I’m standing here today.
Then I wrote to my second-grade teacher, who I met once. That’s not interesting.
Why did you write to your second-grade teacher?
Because I could find her without being a stalker and she lives in my hometown still. You think about everything that brings you to that point, and I think the substance of the meaning is based on the people who have contributed in great ways.
I tell you that because I’m filling time, but it’s actually more emotional and meaningful now maybe now than ever. The second Monday was June 8 and over the weekend Mike (Slive) had moved out of the office and I had moved in, which was a fascinating day for the two of us. We had 45 minutes where it was just he and I in that office and neither of us sat behind the desk. He was in front in these really uncomfortable chairs that I sat in for 13 years and I also said as soon as I’m commissioner, if it ever happens, I’m getting rid of these chairs. What I’ve learned is we’ve kept them because now everybody else is uncomfortable and they get out of my office as quickly as possible.
I have an elevated desk that is like an Austin Powers kinda thing that goes up and down.
That I didn’t get much done, either, because I had been in that office in 1998 with Roy Kramer in awe. So much had happened with Mike in that office that it was just disconcerting, so those are those two anecdotes aside, which bored all of you because you’re looking down at your phones.
Over the last three months has been time management has been one of those lessons up front. I have to trust and rely on our staff in new and different ways, and I probably have done that much better than maybe some, but not as well as I had hoped. That’s a warning shot to everybody in the back of the room (SEC staff). It never stops. It never stops. So, in my mind, I think, wow, we made it through this, I get a little bit of a break. I’m going to read a book tomorrow all day. All day I’m going to read a book, but I know at any moment you can get a text like I had this morning at 5:30 a.m. (Vanderbilt pitcher Donny Everett’s death) or a question about something, and that’s really a reward that people have enough trust and confidence to communicate continuously.
The best moments have been with student-athletes and I don’t just say that because it’s fun. They do incredible things and they’re incredible people. I recited at dinner 14 stories, one from each campus, generally of individuals I’ve met and how they’ve affected me and how this conference has affected them. And what’s interesting they received little press for those accomplishments.
I sat by a young man who is going to medical school. Majored in physics, has a 3.97 GPA and played Division I golf, and I said, how do you balance time between school and golf and everybody. He said, you know, it’s tough. I lost some sleep. I said, well, what are you looking forward to medical school. He said, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough, I’m going to lose sleep but I”m prepared for it actually because I played college golf. Bingo. I’m not making that up, by the way.
You can relate a lot to that to your year playing college baseball?
My hand still hurts if I catch a baseball in a glove right there (points to left palm) from just one year playing college baseball. I will jump. I think it’s calcified is the technical term, but I wouldn’t give that up for anything. For what I told my coach was that year of playing baseball at an NAIA school as a walk-on, backup catcher had a disproportionally positive effect on my life. I can remember my first college hit, which was a double down the right-field line off a left-handed pitcher and I fought off the curve ball. I can remember my only error in a game. I threw down to third and I hit the guy in the back of the heel and it bounced off to left field, and my coach said, ‘Sank, what was that?’ I could go on and on. None of you are typing about that.
It was perfectly executed. It was right at the glove and it hit him in the heel, so every time I see somebody hit a guy at third base in the heel, I know just how he feels. He’s going to go back and the coach is going to say: ‘What was that?’
Have you been consulting with Mike Slive over the last year?
Absolutely. He and I had a deal.
Do you talk more?
Probably less just because that guy is busy. I thought that (joke) would be funnier than it was.
What was the deal you had with him?
He’s a consultant to us, so he’s obligated to talk to me. We usually meet in a coffee shop in Mountainbrook, Alabama I frequent and he frequents. We’ll talk through a list of issues. Sometimes we’ll talk about him. Sometimes we’ll talk about how he’s doing, where he’s spending his time, how is his back porch, how are the cigars, how is his granddaughter?
Any specific instances you can remember that he really helped you make a decision?
He helps me thinking. I do remember specific decisions. In fact, Mark Wommack was in the office when the flooding in South Carolina. I said, ‘Mark, what did Boyd McWhorter, Harvey Schiller, Roy Kramer and Mike Slive do when it was flooding and you had to move a football game?’ And he said, ‘they never had to do that.’
So, there’s a spot on my wall I look at when I realize, well, we’ve never had to deal with this before: when you have a TV Network, the discussions we’re having about misconduct. Twenty years ago that wasn’t there. There weren’t cell phones taking video. It just wasn’t written about.
So, he helps me with thinking. One of the adjustments — back to one of your earlier questions — and I went through this before at the Southland conference, which is a great benefit to me. I think Mark was probably there the first time when I was an advisor for 12 or 13 years, one of many, and he’d go make a decision. And Mike was one of the best decision makers I’ve been around. Still is, actually. But he just doesn’t do it in the same context. You know, Mark said, ‘Well, here is kinda A, B, C and D, what do you want to do?’ I’m looking around for all the other advisors and I’m like, who is going to make that decision? And it’s you. That’s like my first week. Then we had the confederate flag issue arise shortly thereafter. We had fantasy sports advertising. There wasn’t anybody else around. One of those lessons is you have to decide and some people like it and some people won’t. Some will get on my Twitter feed because of either one.