DESTIN, FLA. — Greg and Cathy Sankey had been married less than a year when they sat down and talked about their life’s ambitions.
Greg had been an electrical engineering student but knew he didn’t want to make that his profession. He wanted to teach and coach and got a job running the intramural program at tiny Utica (New York) College while he pursued a master’s degree at nearby Syracuse.
Then he sent a letter to then Northwestern State Athletic Director Tynes Hildebrand that led to a chance to interview for an internship with the Demons athletic program.
“At that point that was the grand experiment,” Sankey recalled. “We had a conversation about what she wanted to do and what I wanted to do and where we wanted to live. I said I always wondered if I could work in Division I athletics and see how far I could go.”
The man who today is the commissioner-select for the Southeastern Conference has gone pretty far.
“About as far as I’m going to go,” Sankey says, an amused tone to his deep, baritone voice. “But in a great way.”
Sankey takes over Aug. 1 as SEC commissioner from Mike Slive, a slightly built, grandfatherly fellow New Yorker (Slive is from Utica, Sankey is from Auburn) who may well be the most powerful man in college athletics.
Slive announced in October he would end his 13-year reign as SEC commissioner on July 31, prompted by a recurrence of prostate cancer, which he has to date again successfully beaten back.
The announcement prompted a tidal surge of speculation as to who would be his successor.
Speculation also centered on Sankey, who served as an assistant commissioner since Slive arrived in the SEC in 2002 after serving the previous six years as Southland Conference commissioner.
Once again, as in the days before he took the Northwestern State job, handling duties from compliance to academic services to coaching the golf team, Sankey had to consider if this was something he wanted to do.
“That took about half a second,” Sankey said. “But there was no assurance, no ‘It’s gonna be Greg’s.’ ”
During the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, Sankey was summoned to the home of Vanderbilt Chancellor Nick Zeppos, president of the SEC’s presidents and CEOs.
“When Chancellor Zeppos said the word ‘Congratulations’ to me, my life became a blur,” Sankey said.
LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said Sankey was the right choice.
“I hate to see Mike leave,” Alleva said. “But you couldn’t get a better replacement than Greg Sankey. He’s very, very bright. He’s got good vision. He’s got great integrity. And he’s got a short learning curve.
“If we were in disarray, that’s when you’d want to bring in someone new from the outside.
“But things aren’t bad (at the SEC), things are going well, and we have an unbelievably qualified man to do the job.”
Chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions through September 2016 — a position he said he intends to retain — Sankey’s days begin at 4:30 a.m. before he gets in a 5:15 a.m. workout.
“The challenge is to keep that routine,” he said. “That’s a regular part of my life that gives me a victory as I view it early in the day and kind of sets the tone.”
An avid marathon runner until his Achilles’ tendons told him to retire, the 50-year-old Sankey projects a blend of bookish intelligence and trim athleticism that would seem to befit a man getting ready to lead one of college athletics’ most important leagues.
“As an organization the SEC is clearly in a leadership position,” Sankey said. “There’s a responsibility for the commissioner to lead effectively. There’s a responsibility on our campus leaders to lead effectively.”
After the SEC Spring Meeting wraps up Friday, Sankey will get in an early workout Saturday, find a chair and spend an entire day reading.
Three books on his post-meeting Saturday is his record.
The book on top of his list is a Harvard Business Review book entitled, “The First 90 Days,” which he’s about halfway through.
“I need to finish quickly,” he says with a knowing smile, the smile of a man who knows his life is about to change again in a very significant way.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.