Steve Spurrier was coming back to college football as South Carolina’s new coach when he met Greg Sankey for the first time.
Where, Spurrier demanded of Sankey in 2004, did you go to college? Sankey, then a Southeastern Conference associate commissioner, assured Spurrier that his degrees were from Cortland State and Syracuse, leaving him free of the partisanship that defines Southern college football.
Sankey recalled that Spurrier, irrepressible as ever, replied: “That’s what we need: a bunch of people in that conference office who don’t care who wins or who loses.”
But Sankey cared very much about winning in other ways. Sankey, installed as the SEC commissioner in 2015, has become one of the foremost gatekeepers to the future of college sports, with influence widely seen as surpassing that of the N.C.A.A. president or any other Power 5 conference leader.
He ushered Oklahoma and Texas through SEC membership talks. He is helping lead a committee that will spend the coming months weighing new rules for Division I, the N.C.A.A.’s wealthiest and most prominent tier. He is an architect of a potential College Football Playoff expansion that could make it the most valuable event in intercollegiate athletics. On Friday, his league will have teams in both playoff semifinal games: top-ranked Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl.
Sankey, 57, has prompted comparisons to Mike Slive, who built the SEC into college football’s premier league, and Jim Delany, who dominated the Big Ten Conference for decades.
“Greg Sankey is Jim Delany 2.0,” said Patty Viverito, the longtime commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and, along with Sankey, a member of an influential N.C.A.A. policymaking body. “They’re both brilliant. They can both be formidable to the point of ruthless. They’re fearless. They probably know more than anybody else in any room that they occupy at any level because of their longevity and intelligence. They’re both problem solvers in a practical way.”
But the lingering question, and sometimes the worry, for many college sports executives is how the SEC-centric Sankey will use his swelling influence at a time when their shared industry is under siege. College sports’ wealth gap is widening, players are enjoying the freedom to earn money, which the N.C.A.A. barred for generations, and politicians and the courts are looking askance at a system routinely condemned as exploitative.
Interviews with more than two dozen people show a commissioner who has long relied on an often unflinching style to advance the SEC’s ambitions. But Sankey, who recently agreed to a contract that will keep him at the league’s helm until at least 2026, has spent much of his career in the shadows, a figure central to plenty of big decisions but so measured that few people can remember the finer points of his presentations.
The most detailed interaction that Burke Magnus, a top ESPN executive, could recall was when Sankey, aghast at a television maven’s note-taking habits, transformed into an apostle for Colonel Littleton legal pads.
“I’ve never heard him raise his voice,” said Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director and a fixture of college sports for more than 40 years.
“He’s more prone to nudging,” he added. “He won’t force anything. If he doesn’t have to talk, he won’t talk.”
Sankey’s path to a Southern juggernaut started in upstate New York.
He was a welder’s son and passionate enough about sports that his prize for winning a clean desk contest in sixth grade was a book by John Wooden, the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball coach. When Sankey enrolled at what was then LeTourneau College — drawn to the Christian school more by its presence in Texas, he said, than religion — he majored in electrical engineering while he played on the baseball team. (His coach remembered him as a gangly catcher with a good arm.)
Sankey has often said that a conversation with his coach after he sulked during a game in his freshman year had imparted lasting lessons and stirred his interest in working in college sports. In a November interview, he said that summertime work at a New York nuclear plant and 4 p.m. labs as a freshman had also been formative.
“Loverboy had a song at that point, ‘Working for the Weekend,’” Sankey said. “I didn’t want to spend my life five days of the week longing for the weekend.”
“Ironically,” he added, “I don’t have weekends any longer.”
Around the time he finished his undergraduate degree, he saw a classified advertisement: Utica College was looking for an intramural sports director. The pay was $15,000 a year, plus remitted tuition at Syracuse. He took the gig. At one point, he said, he bought his own copy of the N.C.A.A.’s rules manual.
His wedding date during his Utica days, he maintains, is evidence that had no ambitions to run the SEC since he got married during football season.
He soon earned an internship at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., where he quickly became the golf coach, too. With the school mired in a basketball scandal, it was only months before the athletic director hired him in 1990 to oversee rules compliance.
He moved to the Southland Conference in 1992, became the commissioner four years later and drove a Honda around Louisiana and Texas to visit schools so overlooked that they paid television networks to air their football games. In 1997, exhausted and living on lattes at 32, he collapsed in an airport bathroom with an irregular heartbeat.
About five years later, Slive realized he needed a mop-up man at the SEC, which was bedeviled by rules violations. He brought in Sankey to deliver even-toned admonitions to help athletes, coaches and administrators decipher the rules.
“He wants to be helpful, but if you screwed up, you were going to be accountable for that,” said Greg McGarity, who was then a top official at Florida and later spent a decade as Georgia’s athletic director. “He was not a get-out-of-jail-free-type person. If you violated rules, especially intentionally, he had no patience for that.”
A Power 5 chief and an embattled watchdog
The SEC’s leaders had set a meeting in 2015 to pick Slive’s successor. And although Daniel Jones, who was then Mississippi’s chancellor, had been gravely sick for months, he resolved to be there. He wanted Sankey.
“I, a committed anti-charismatic guy, saw an impressive, committed anti-charismatic guy, and I thought he’d be just right,” Jones said.
Other SEC chiefs were making similar calculations. David Gearhart, who was the Arkansas chancellor, said Sankey was “not the flashy type, but that’s what we liked about him.”
Their vote was unanimous.
In his second year as commissioner, Sankey faced the kind of situation that, at the time, counted as a crisis. Hurricane Matthew had forced the cancellation of Louisiana State’s game at Florida and fueled a spat between two of the league’s powerhouses and their players. (An L.S.U. linebacker, for instance, accused the Gators of being “scared” to play in Baton Rouge.)
Neither school was particularly pleased with the outcome that Sankey helped devise: The universities combined to spend $2 million to cancel nonconference games so they could play each other later, and policy changes gave the SEC more power for similar situations in the future.
“A lot of people at that point were really wondering if he was going to be able to overcome it,” said Paul Finebaum, who has covered the SEC for decades, now as an ESPN host. “I thought it was a critical moment where it could have gone two different ways. He played it very cautiously, and he may have lost a headline short-term, but, ultimately, he didn’t make a grievous error.”
Sankey — long compared to a cryptic, strategic player of poker or chess, but interested in neither — had grown accustomed to scrutiny by then. He had a seat on an N.C.A.A. infractions committee and had been sorting through complicated rules violations. In 2011, he was a member of the panel that handed Ohio State football a one-year postseason ban.
“He’s focused on accurate information, and he’s focused on seeking the truth,” said Dennis Thomas, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s commissioner and the chairman of the committee that reviewed the Ohio State matter. “But he’s also understanding of the campus environment.”
Six years later, Sankey chaired the committee tasked with sorting out the repercussions of academic fraud at North Carolina. Some around North Carolina argued that Sankey would try to kneecap the school, an Atlantic Coast Conference member, to help the SEC.
It was one of the few times, colleagues said, he seemed perturbed by the noise around college sports.
“It wounded him,” said Eleanor Myers, a Temple law professor who was on the committee. “He was really hurt by the criticism that somehow he was going to use that position to advance the competitiveness of the SEC over the A.C.C., and that hurt him deeply because he is such a moral person. He was furious.”
The panel eventually concluded that North Carolina had not broken N.C.A.A. rules, unsavory as it believed the scandal had been.
The decision gave the college sports industry’s critics fresh fodder and made new skeptics of the system, too. The rules, plenty of them argued, offered escape hatches for wrongdoers in an industry that often defended itself with soaring language about integrity and a balance between academics and athletics.
A pandemic cements influence
The North Carolina decision was only part of a multiyear reckoning for the N.C.A.A.
Misgivings about the industry’s economic model, which had relied for generations on unpaid athletes to help earn billions of dollars, resonated more broadly, with terms like “wage theft” uttered on Capitol Hill and Twitter alike. The N.C.A.A. faced criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its mismanagement of women’s sports and its slow pace on just about everything.
Fed up with everything from the secrecy surrounding the N.C.A.A.’s governing board to the debacle over substandard facilities at the 2021 women’s basketball tournament, Sankey started taking longtime private frustrations public more often, his warnings loaded with the imprimatur of some of college sports’ biggest powers.
“Do I believe there’s value in a national entity?” Sankey said. “Absolutely, but I believe it has to be reconsidered across the board.”
To some executives, Sankey’s carefully worded critiques have signified a restiveness among Power 5 schools that could someday splinter the N.C.A.A.
So in what many industry officials interpreted as an effort to keep Sankey somewhat on board, association leaders asked him to help preside over a committee to brainstorm new ideas for Division I, the latest step in the N.C.A.A.’s quest to remain relevant. Sankey insists he does not know what the panel’s work will yield, adding that he had “thoughts” but also “a responsibility in leading to engage and collaborate.”
“We have some real big issues to deal with,” said Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president. “Greg’s just talked about them directly and said what’s on a lot of people’s minds.”
Or, as Viverito put it, “I think Emmert and Co. were smart enough to know they weren’t going to get anything done unless they had him at the table.”
Emmert and other executives attributed part of Sankey’s rising outspokenness to an increasing comfort with his stature as the SEC commissioner.
The role has long been important. But the league’s ascendance has accelerated recently.
The conference will soon shed one of the worst television deals in sports, a Slive-era agreement with CBS that undervalued SEC football at about $55 million a year. In its place, Sankey helped broker a contract with ESPN that, when it was signed last year, was poised to be worth about $3 billion over a decade.
The SEC, Magnus said, had negotiated a clause unique among ESPN’s college sports contracts: a formula for the deal’s value to rise automatically if the league added members.
The SEC and ESPN had largely hammered out their arrangement, which will become far cozier in the years ahead, before the virus stunned the world. The public health crisis gave Sankey a platform few commissioners had ever had. His paragraph-length sentences during interviews on Finebaum’s program shaped the national outlook for college sports.
“With each conversation, he got stronger and more confident and his message began to be heard, and his message was very simple: Let’s be patient,” Finebaum said.
August 2020, Finebaum believes, was a turning point for Sankey, who kept the SEC pressing ahead with its plans for a football season even after the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced that they would not play that autumn, decisions they ultimately reversed.
“That’s when he went from being a methodical, plodding leader of a well-respected conference to being the man who saved college football,” Finebaum said.
College football stumbled through the 2020 season. Acrimony then erupted in July, when Oklahoma and Texas made plans to leave the Big 12. (The Big 12 commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, declined to comment for this article.)
After word of the potential additions emerged, Sankey opened a series of conversations with Ross Bjork, the Texas A&M athletic director who did not like the prospect of another school from his state joining the SEC.
“He talked us through it, not that he had to persuade anything from our standpoint because we understood the bigger picture,” said Bjork, whose school still spent some time on a public relations rampage.
But Sankey, long known for keeping in close touch with his allies and employers, and others worked quietly to mollify the Aggies. There were no public threats.
A&M voted days later to admit Texas, assuring that the league’s clause with ESPN would yield a mightier sum for the SEC. All around college sports, one college after another looked for new leagues and better deals as criticism rained down on Sankey for keeping quiet his dalliances with the Big 12’s most famous schools, even in his regular conversations with Bowlsby.
Sankey appeared unbothered.
Before almost anyone had known what was afoot, he had gotten what he and the SEC wanted.
Kevin Draper contributed reporting.