SEC commissioner Greg Sankey can take a victory lap no matter who wins title
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
INDIANAPOLIS — Greg Sankey lives in Birmingham, Alabama. On any given day, he can be found in any one of the 14 cities and towns that are home to an SEC university. He also has a summer place in upstate New York, not far from where he grew up. He attended college in Longview, Texas; Cortland, New York; and Syracuse. He has lived and worked in Utica, Natchitoches and Frisco. He has access to whatever passes he could possibly want to attend any sporting event he chooses.
But the most powerful man in collegiate athletics, commissioner of the Death Star that is the SEC, the hand on the rudder steering the NCAA into whatever future it may or may not have, the oft-proclaimed Man Who Saved College Football … hey, pick your superlative, it is hard to imagine that Greg Sankey has ever looked as happy as he has over the past few days, walking the streets of Indianapolis between ridiculously important high-level meetings and giddily tweeting away like a tourist.
With Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) between SEC powers Alabama and Georgia, Circle City is acting as the 2022 capital of the college football world. But Indy’s full-time status, as stated in tall black lettering for the thousands of Crimson Tide and Bulldogs fans who visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the weekend, is the Racing Capital of the World. This is where streets are named for Indy 500 winners, restaurants are decorated with black and white photos of motorsports legends and residents decorate their yards with vintage motor oil sponsorship banners and used racing tires.
Greg Sankey loves it all. Because Greg Sankey really loves auto racing, and not just because race cars are cool. He grew up in the grandstands of the legendary bullrings of New York. Then, and now, when he watches his beloved dirt late models, he also sees a business model. An approach to leadership that earned him the SEC commissioner’s seat, guided that conference to unprecedented success and wealth, and has his signature increasingly on every aspect of college sports, from expansion of the football playoffs to the future of the NCAA. In the days leading up to Monday night’s game, he was holding meetings about the CFP in the literal shadow of NCAA HQ one block away.
“I suppose that’s not a long psychological study, my love of auto racing. It certainly takes me back to my younger days, back home, which I suppose we all want to do,” Sankey explained, laughing, after a recent visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the dirt track world finals. He waved the green flag from a stand above the start-finish line. He toured the garage area. He even rode shotgun in an 850-horsepower beast as it ran “slideways” around the slick, four-tenths-mile red clay oval.
Through it all, Sankey never once showed his signature stoic at-the-podium commissioner face. He was too busy smiling.
“But auto racing is more than a homecoming for me,” he said. “Anyone who knows me also knows that I am a detail-oriented person. I also try to be patient. Racers are obsessed with the details, and they also have to be patient enough to make the adjustments needed, to get faster even as the race goes on. You can’t win the race on lap one. But on lap one, you’d better be evaluating everything and everyone around you, so that you have all the information you need to be where you want to be at the end.”
Whatever the end will be for Sankey and the SEC is likely still a long way away. He is 57, a relative kid in commissioner years. In August it was announced that he had signed a contract extension through 2026, an agreement reached only five days after the sneakiest deal of his seven years in charge of the SEC, with Big 12 cornerstones Texas and Oklahoma signing on to join the conference, currently slated for 2025. Not to mention the richest media agreement in college sports history, a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN that doesn’t begin until 2024.
After a career of serving on countless NCAA committees, he is also leading perhaps the most crucial group in the governing body’s 115-year history, because it could very well determine if the NCAA itself becomes history. Seemingly in full retreat in the face of name, image and likeness rights for athletes, transfer madness and a minefield of PR messes, the Division I Transformation Committee was formed to develop a framework of rules and policies that will help the NCAA move into the future. Or, as some have suggested, go away completely.
“Do I believe there’s value in a national entity?” Sankey said recently to the New York Times. “Absolutely, but I believe it has to be reconsidered across the board.”
Depending on what room you are in and which one of those subjects is raised, Sankey is either the most despised or the most respected figure in his industry, though even those who claim to despise him inevitably confess to respecting him as well. The Texas and Oklahoma moves, news broken by the Houston Chronicle right smack in the middle of what had been feel-good, post-pandemic, kumbaya-filled SEC media days, spawned the perfect microcosm of the typical discussion of Sankey. It ranged from “Damn, that SEC guy is ruining the sport!” to “Damn, that SEC guy should be the new leader of whatever replaces the NCAA!”
What is next for that SEC guy, his conference or the solar system of collegiate athletics of which his conference is currently the sun, no one knows for sure. No more than they knew about any of the moves that he has made during his first seven years in Birmingham.
Well, the long term is unknown. We all know Sankey’s short-term plans. Monday night, he’ll be watching two of his teams play for a national title. As he watches from Lucas Oil Stadium, he will no doubt compare each coach’s game plan to the 500-mile strategies of the drivers and mechanics who race each May at the Speedway a few miles away. And he will have a big grin on his face the whole time.
“This is a 365-day-a-year job. The meetings never end, and this phone never stops,” Sankey said on the morning of the SEC championship game last month. “So when you can find something to do that takes your mind off that for a second, like going to the race track, that’s a blessing. But so is this job. I am passionate about collegiate athletics and so are the people that I work with. We do what we hope is the best for it. I know I certainly try to.”
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