All the right moves: Greg Sankey is the reason the SEC (and others) are playing college football
He’s not an “I told you so” type of guy, OK?
There’s no sense in peacocking around when the only thing that matters is navigating a global pandemic smartly and strategically.
But earlier this month, Greg Sankey went off script when I asked him when the SEC would officially announce it is playing as scheduled.
The always measured and meticulous commissioner of the most successful conference in college sports spread his feathers ever so briefly.
“We established our start date as Sept. 26, so that’s reality,” he said. “We are moving forward and I don’t think there has been a lot of doubt – although there has been a lot of conversation.”
How’s that for I told you so?
This is what happens when the idea of patiently allowing science to catch COVID-19 and pave the way for a safe return to play is overrun by a shotgun spray of hysteria from every possible angle.
He has been called tone-deaf and criticized for exploiting young people for monetary gain. He’s a monster, a manipulator. Apparently, he has no soul, too.
Meanwhile, he and the SEC presidents – for whom Sankey, 56, works, and whom he has guided through the process of returning to play with the idea that patience and science are undefeated vs. panic and ignorance – have made every right move amid a sea of wrong decisions.
“We have an outstanding commissioner,” one SEC athletic director told me. “He’s not going to be pushed around or moved into a corner. Emotional overreaction just isn’t part of his world like it clearly is with others.”
In case you’re wondering, that absolutely was aimed at Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren — who botched the return to play so completely, it will have a lasting impact on the once-revered Big Ten brand.
It began in early July when the Power 5 conferences were working together to come up with a viable scheduling plan for nonconference games. The idea was to play games among the P5 because they had the financial ability to follow the strict protocols of testing, tracing and quarantining.
But Warren, according to three separate sources, declared during a conference call of the P5 commissioners that the “Big Ten is a leader; we are expected to lead.” Days later, the Big Ten went rogue and announced it would not play nonconference games, throwing the remaining P5 conferences into fend for yourself mode.
A month after that, the Big Ten canceled the 2020 fall football season and declared it would try to play in the spring. Warren, according to multiple sources, believed the rest of the Power 5 conferences would follow suit – going so far as to leak information to media outlets that the college football season would be postponed within days, trying to turn public opinion toward that reality.
The idea seemed simple enough: the Ivy League postponed its fall season for spring ball. Who could argue with that? What’s good for the kings of academia should be good for the rest of college football. Only it wasn’t.
While Warren tried to get the rest of the P5 to coalesce around the Big Ten decision (the Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC eventually followed), Sankey was selling patience and science and reminding his remaining P5 colleagues of the true pitfalls of playing spring football.
“It’s not feasible and has never been feasible,” another SEC AD told me. “Are you serious? We’re going to ask young people to play two football seasons in one calendar year? It’s absurd to even think about it. We haven’t even figured out the name, image and likeness problem, and we’re going to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys plays two seasons in 10 months for us?’ It was made very clear, very early, that it was fall 2020 or fall 2021.”
Said Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin: “Greg is like a great chess player. He sees things three or four moves ahead of where everyone else is. You or I don’t know what it looks like, but there’s no doubt in my mind Greg does.”
While Sankey was making every right move, Warren and the Big Ten were publicly imploding. League administrators were questioning a vote to not play that may or may not have happened, or if a vote was really a vote or just a “deliberative process.”
Parents complained in the parking lot of the Big Ten offices, and Nebraska players sued to the league for the right to play. The biggest names in the conference – coaches and players – openly criticized the process and the decision to not play.
Meanwhile, Sankey kept watching the science, kept moving the SEC toward each step of return to play with the blessing of the conference medical advisors. Even in the darkest of days, when COVID numbers were so bad within the league’s geographical footprint, Sankey convinced SEC presidents to pause the beginning of the season and stay the course toward playing.
They had time, medical advisors stressed, and Sankey knew the SEC didn’t have to begin the season until late September. The numbers improved, and more important, the science of testing dramatically improved. So did tracing.
By the time the Big Ten decided it would return to play in the fall – 5 weeks after Warren said the decision to not play would not be revisited – the SEC’s plan to begin play on Sept. 26 was in full swing.
There’s no manual for a pandemic, no playbook to follow or history to embrace. It’s months of anxiety and long nights of deliberately working a problem that changes by the hour.
“Days sort of blend together,” said Sankey, a former college baseball player at the State University of New York and an avid runner who once ran a marathon a month for 12 consecutive months.
He knows competing, he values it and understands the far-reaching implications – physical, mental, social – of competition being pulled from student-athletes. This was personal to him.
From the day in March when the SEC walked off the court in Nashville after canceling the SEC men’s basketball tournament because of the pandemic, he set in motion a plan to preserve the wildly undervalued ideal of competition as a learning tool for young people.
“I felt that pain for them,” Sankey said. “To get that pulled out from underneath you after you’ve trained — for many of our student-athletes, much of their lives — for these moments, and then to be told you can’t play, you can’t compete, because of something you have no control over. It’s a gut punch. I realize everyone sees money in these situations, and that’s certainly part of the equation in trying to help our member universities. But it’s so much more than that for our student-athletes in all sports.
“This has been part of the fabric of who they are since they were kids. You train, you work, you compete. Then you’re told it can’t happen. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through.”
Years ago as the executive director of the SEC, Sankey worked with his mentor, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, through the development of the SEC Network. They called it Project X, this plan that would financially set up the conference for decades to come.
Six years later, Sankey was knee-deep in the chaos of a pandemic that could unravel all of that work in one short summer. Now he’s hours from the start of the season.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 returned. The Mountain West will play games this fall, and even the MAC – with its limited financial resources – could vote Friday to play this fall. All 10 FBS conferences back in the fall fold.
And more diligent, deliberate work to keep it running as safely as possible.
“Was it hard and did my blood pressure and pulse increase as people were making decisions? Absolutely,” Sankey said. “But I try to ignore predictions and focus on information to guide us.”
How’s that for I told you so.