When Greg Sankey took over as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference on June 8, it was the culmination of a journey to one of the most powerful jobs in sports that began more than a decade ago. A journey even Sankey didn't realize he was embarking on — at least not at the beginning.
Sankey first became acquainted with former SEC commissioner Mike Slive about 15 years ago when the two were members of a committee Sankey chaired. They found themselves at the NCAA's Hall of Champions Museum and Slive asked a simple question.
"He said, 'Why don't you tell me your background?' " Sankey remembers. "My first job out of college was at Utica College (director of intramurals) in Utica, N.Y., and he said, 'Utica!' That's where the common bond developed because he was born in Utica, N.Y."
Fast forward a few years when their paths crossed and Utica was once again the topic.
"He said, 'If you're ever in Utica, stop at Joe's because Joe's is where my family ate every Saturday night,' " Sankey said. "So Cathy (Sankey's wife) and I were driving out to a meeting from Syracuse, and I said, 'Why don't we drive over to Utica, we'll see where we used to live' because when we were first married we lived in Utica. We stopped at Joe's, and he was right. It wasn't a glamorous place, but it was great Italian food, great price. I told him that it was the best career choice I ever made, stopping and eating at Joe's because it magnified the relationship."
It was the beginning of a relationship that would change Sankey's life, but it would take awhile for it all to come full circle.
To understand Sankey's devotion to collegiate athletics, you have to go back to his days as a college athlete. A welder's son, Sankey played baseball and basketball. Although he graduated from the State University of New York College at Cortland with a degree in education (and later a master's from Syracuse), it was as a baseball player at LeTourneau College in Texas that his life path was set.
During testimony as a witness for the NCAA at the Ed O'Bannon antitrust trial last summer, Sankey relayed the story of how he sat on the bench during a game at LeTourneau and decided he would "shut down." His coach visited him in his dorm the following day, and his words had a profound effect on Sankey.
"If we would have lost that game, I would have considered it your fault," the coach told him, adding that being a team player is critical to any team's success.
"That conversation with my baseball coach has been one that's been a guiding point in my life, and part of why I chose, quite frankly, to do what I do for a career," Sankey said in his testimony.
Sankey's first job was as an intern in the athletic department at Northwestern State. He became the Louisiana school's men's golf coach and director of compliance before becoming the Southland Conference commissioner in 1996 — a position he held for nearly seven years — before a phone call started his path to the SEC.
"In August of 2002 I picked up the phone to ask Mike a question and at the end of that phone call Mike asked me a question, 'Would you ever think about coming to work for the Southeastern Conference?' " Sankey said.
He joined the league in November of that year.
Sankey is replacing a man whom many consider to be the most powerful in college athletics, thereby inheriting a great deal of power. He and Slive are so similar most believe the decision to hire Sankey was a no-brainer despite the SEC's international search. His extensive experience in areas of compliance was a major reason he was hired in the days when the SEC was synonymous with NCAA problems, and he continues to be demanding of member-schools in that area.
During his tenure with the SEC, he has been instrumental in the restructuring of the NCAA and its governance system, including working diligently over the past year on the decision to allow schools in the largest conferences to invest more money in student athletes.
"He's a stand-up, first-class individual who always does things the right way," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. "He's a phenomenal communicator, and he's tremendous in terms of relationships, too. I think he's going to be the perfect fit at the SEC to uphold the great tradition of Mike Slive and the member institutions."
It's what current SEC coaches and athletic directors expect of him. And what they are most comforted by.
"He certainly has a chance to be very seamless," Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. "He's obviously been a very important part of what's happened in our league the last 13 years and knows the key issues as well as anybody inside our league or outside. I think on the national level he knows those issues as well as anybody. It's a credit to Greg, and his abilities and his intellect, that he's in this position, and it's a credit to Mike Slive that he gave him the opportunity to have a role where he could step in and be ready to take over. … As a guy who does a lot of searches for coaches and other staff, it's very rare that you'll have someone that's that obvious and that prepared and that talented."
"I have a lot of faith, trust and confidence that Greg will do a great job," Alabama football coach Nick Saban said.
Sankey takes great pride in having worked with Slive for more than a decade, but it's clear he's his own man. In August, in honor of his 50th birthday, he challenged 50 friends to donate $50 each to build a well in India. He had done the same the previous year to celebrate his 25th anniversary with Cathy. He's a fitness fanatic and, at one time, ran one marathon a month for 15 consecutive months. And unlike his predecessor, he's actively involved in social media, saying he plans to use Twitter "for positive means."
Yet, Sankey is proud to say he has learned immensely from his 13 years working beside Slive: "I've benefited from his wisdom, his integrity, his leadership, his work ethic, his vision."
On the week he was set to officially take over — several weeks ahead of the previous timetable — Sankey couldn't help but reflect on what might have been — and what eventually became.
There was a time when then-Conference USA commissioner Slive wanted to hire Sankey. It was about a six months' recruiting effort, but Sankey didn't feel it was the right move. He told his wife, "If the SEC had presented me that opportunity, I would move."
A few years later Sankey was at former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer's retirement party as Slive prepared to succeed Kramer.
"So we come to an elevator lobby in the International Tower, it's Liz (Slive), Mike and me," Sankey said. "They're walking toward me, I'm going back to my room. He smiles and I said, 'Mike, I understand congratulations are in order' and he said, 'Yes.' He said, 'If you'd taken that Conference USA job, you'd be Conference USA commissioner now.' I said, 'Yeah, I thought what I did was right.'
"Fast forward to the next commissioner's retirement party," Sankey added. "I think I'm going to take him to that lobby and say, 'I think I made the right choice. I'm finally following you at the right time.' "