HOOVER, Ala. — When last we saw Greg Sankey, he was working on his dance moves.
It was at the Southeastern Conference spring meeting in Destin, Florida, in late May. Sankey, the SEC Commissioner designate, and outgoing commish Mike Slive, the slightly built retiring legend of college athletics, alternated speaking behind a podium as they discussed each day’s events.
They worked a respectful choreography, constantly deferring to the other over this issue or that, a political two step intended not to step on each other’s toes.
Monday at SEC media days, in his first major speaking engagement since succeeding Slive on June 1, it was Sankey’s podium alone, “a bit of a moment for me,” he admitted. It was just him, tall and fit and executive-like, and a small yellow notepad — his idea book, he called it — filled with the plans and notions he has been jotting down for the SEC dating to last fall. The ideas started flowing months before he was announced as the SEC’s new major-domo at the men’s basketball tournament in March.
In a way, Sankey was still dancing Monday.
He is indebted and grateful to Slive for hiring him as an assistant commissioner when Slive took the SEC job in 2002. Sankey inherits a strong, proud, successful, financially flush conference. There is little if any need to fix much with the SEC machine. The conference is like a sports car racing down the freeway. It’ll need gas and new tires eventually, but a transmission overhaul? No.
Sankey’s biggest job Monday was to introduce himself to the masses (the SEC Network’s TV cameras targeted him) who in the main were seeing and hearing him for the first time, and to prove he’s worthy of the job.
To that end, Sankey was a hit. Successful speaking is partly what you say but also to a large degree how you say it. Sankey, a thoughtful, bookish man, on Monday came off as intelligent and confident, a touch idealistic — when better to trumpet some ideals than during your inaugural address? — with just enough wry wit to be endearing. He invited the packed main media room here at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey to attend the SEC symposium in September, when the focus will be not on winning but on “innovation and entrepreneurship.”
“I probably just blew up Twitter with that announcement,” Sankey said mockingly, “but you’re all invited.”
Though it was obvious, Sankey was asked why he quoted Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” whereas Slive used to quote Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
“I’m better at Google,” Sankey said with a sly grin. “Yeah, we’re different, but I learned a lot from Mike. Obviously, it’s a different day.”
It’s Sankey’s new frontier, but he took a moment to recall how he got his big start in college athletics, driving 26 Julys ago from Utica, New York, with his wife Cathy on their way to Natchitoches, where his first job in major-college athletics awaited him at Northwestern State.
“We spent the evening at one of the not-so-finer establishments here in Birmingham, never thinking it would bring me and us to this moment,” Sankey said.
The moment the 51-year-old Sankey finds himself in is one in which his conference must maintain its insatiable desire to win — he noted that in the first few days after he became commissioner LSU won the NCAA men’s golf title and Florida won in softball — while finding the difficult path to winning with honor.
Honor means to win without celebrating with waving Confederate flags. He credited South Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State for “the leadership demonstrated on our campuses in the states at the center of this debate.” Sankey, however, stopped short of saying he would use his office to apply pressure on Mississippi to change its state flag, which includes the Confederate cross symbol.
Honor means re-emphasizing academics. Sankey said the SEC will add a new position, director of student-athlete engagement, to deal with “the unique demands faced by our student-athletes.
“We want to graduate every student-athlete,” he said. “We want to win every championship. We seek literally to influence the world.
“Many of you may react by saying this is simply not possible. But there is no great achievement that was ever produced by an attempt to be average. We will seek to be excellent.”
Winning, the SEC doesn’t have to learn how to do. Winning with fewer arrests, more graduates, fewer NCAA probations (Sankey plans to continue the daunting task of also chairing the NCAA Committee on Infractions).
It’s a tough job, maybe impossible. So Sankey should keep those dancing shoes on.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.